Standing Tall: How Woodland Art Helps Jim Oskineegish Connect With His Roots
“Art is energy, it's hope and it's fluid. It's power so it's meant to be shared,” Jim Oskineegish says. He is a professional artist who also teaches the art of good relationships. A member of Eabametoong First Nation and of the Frog Clan, he works at the Nishnawbe Gamik Friendship Centre with a mandate to stop violence against women and children. He engages men to find other forms of relating to themselves in a good way.
“I don't compete with anybody to be the best of the best of the best.”
Once a shy, quiet child and teenage loner, he played rugby, football, took drama in high school and made art. He was working through childhood traumas from the sixties scoop. His father was a European man from Poland whos survived Nazi internment camps and his mother when to residential schools. He was traumatized in the foster care system and has been trying to reconnect with his family. He found one of his sisters serendipitously and registered to be connected as an adoptee.
The trauma he endured left him years behind in development, according to a psychologist and he struggled with learning and to graduate as dyslexic child who stuttered. He didn’t have support for the abuse he was dealing with and found solace in art, television and music. He sees his dyslexia as a gift of perspective in his work. He makes porcupine brooches for powwow dancers and has for 30 years.
A second generation Woodland artist, he describes his work as medicine art that comes from the spirit and he does it to try and put beauty in the world. At a time of rapidly advancing technology, he chooses to go back to the earth and natural beauty. “We could go out to the land to the water by ourselves, talk to God, talk to the spirits that are on there. Everything is there for our life and that's why we protect it as much as we can and look after it,” he shares wistfully.
He reflects on the culture of his people and their relationship with nature. “We're woodland people. we're forest people. We live on lakes and river systems and hunt and trap. We had what we call pictographs on birch bark scrolls that would tell stories,” he explains. The pictographs that are on cliffs and rocks defy the logic of science for how long they have been there, and he says they are part of creation. Oskineegish describes his culture as land-based and considers himself to be gifted in traditional medicine and healing from his parent’s lineage.
With a university education in art, he’s just one credit short of a degree. He would like to finish his degree and his hope and dream is to keep painting until he can't. These days two companies distribute his work and he wishes he could paint 12 hours a day seven days a week. For now, he works in social services helping people and paints during his free time. He’s learning to play the guitar and write songs.
Sober for 35 years, Oskineegish is working through his own trauma while helping others. He attributes his gentleness to his ancestors who hunted, gathered, lived in small family units that were always on the move and taking care of each other. “We've been here since the wooly mammoth, that's how long the bloodline is. I have that in my DNA. We're earth and water and every mineral that's on earth, spirit within everything that's here,” he muses.
He has considered opening up a woodland art studio for people who want to learn. “Because it is a sacred art, we have got to be good to ourselves. We can't be out there trying to paint a beautiful thing and then hurting people or hurting ourselves or whatever. There is a code,” Oskineegish explains. He wishes aspiring artists understood how they would need to learn the business aspects of being an artist, but also he wants to tell them, “in this woodland style, there are no rules.”
Oskineegish doesn’t paint violence, other than hunting or fishing. Even then, he talks about honouring the life that is taken, saying a prayer, offering tobacco and giving thanks. He painted a Hero series as an homage to memories that influenced the way he thinks and feels. He plans to call the show “Keep Yourself Alive” after a Queen song because one of his paintings is of Freddie Mercury.
Reflecting on the memories of the trauma of his family, his dad’s internment experiences, his mom’s residential school experiences, the experiences of other sixties scoop survivors, he’s struck by what he describes as “the macro aggression. It's still there and we still feel it. Even microaggressions that we feel every day in the community or wherever we are in the city.”
If he could go back and say anything to his younger self, Oskineegish would say, “I'm proud of you. I love you. You're awesome and you are authentic. You're beautiful. You shine.” He wishes that the shining part could be free, thinking about how hurt people hurt people and how the people who hurt him were suffering too. “To get over those things, I had to forgive them and hope they find peace wherever they are,” he remembers.
Making art and teaching the art of good relationships, Jim Oskineegish is creating a safer future filled with even more beauty. His Woodland art practice helps him connect to his roots and knowing his work has an impact helps him stay grounded. Rising above trauma, Okskineegish blends traditional and contemporary practices to share his perspective. When art is energy, hope and fluid, power that’s meant to be shared, he embodies that in teaching youth to paint through Connected North and sharing his creations with the world.
Thanks to Alison Tedford for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.