From Student to Teacher: John Ferris’ Artist Journey
“My art kept me alive,” says John Ferris, artist, instructor and a member of Constance Lake First Nation. He grew up attending a one-room schoolhouse in Northern Ontario where he had great memories. At the age of four, he started drawing after seeing the illustrations in his father’s Bible. They eventually moved away, following his father’s work on the railway line.
He learned trapping from his grandfather on a holiday visit back to the community. His grandparents, as trappers, knew how to survive, respect the animals, avoid wasting anything and how to make their own tools. His grandmother would sew and do beadwork, making moccasins and mitts, an artist in her own right.
Ferris moved on from drawing religious images to making more imaginative things. His principal asked him to make murals on the walls of his school during the holidays. After grade nine, he went to work on the railway like his father.
While he was busy with work, he studied art in the library until he had a portfolio together to apply to the Ontario College of Art. He was accepted but found the cultural shock of the new environment challenging. Ferris studied artists and was inspired particularly by Robert Bateman. Later, a friend would introduce him to an artist named Michael John Angel. The sculptures, paintings and drawings in his home amazed him. Ferris studied with him for over three years while working part-time for the railway. To grow as an artist, he also studied graphic design in college.
After a while, he and his girlfriend moved away, had a child together and he opened an art studio in their small town to teach kids. It was something he greatly enjoyed. He moved to Thunder Bay and received a government grant from the government to start up an art program. He opened up a studio where he taught First Nations students from around the Bay Area. The studio remained open for fourteen years.
In the late nineties, Ferris started going into the schools to teach art with the support of Arts Council grants. He wanted to start doing cultural and traditional art programs. He made drums, tipis, and canoes and taught students about survival as First Nations people. They created projects that could be done safely in an hour or less.
Teaching jobs came to him more and more as his talent was recognized. Ferris was offered a job teaching art at Confederation College in Thunder Bay. He taught there for 12 years until he was approached by a correctional centre for youth, a place he loved working even more than the college. Ferris saw the potential and talent in the youth and could see how they just needed direction in their lives. Many of those youth would come and learn with him in his studio after release. He sees the talent in aspiring artists who come to his studio also, and he helps them get grants to go to university.
Meanwhile, his business making craft and art projects kits is busy and he’s considering a storefront. He hires part-time employees to help him and his daughter wants to join him. Through these activities, he teaches things he learned from his grandparents and within his culture.
Looking back on when he decided to pivot to art more substantively, he had a good job with the railway that was a supervisory role. While the job was comfortable, whenever he made art, he just knew that was what he was meant to do. “Every time I did something like that, I had a different feeling through me. I love working with my hands, I love building things, and it's never boring,” he explains. What’s even more extraordinary is that he was the first artist in his family, with no other artists growing up to encourage him.
One of the challenges of life as an artist is financial and that means sometimes working part-time to make things work from a budgetary perspective. He learned his work ethic from his dad, and the Cree language from his parents. They would eat traditional food while learning traditional teachings.
“I wanted to be an artist. I knew it was in me.”
Another thing he learned in life was the language of art. He studied art books, the dictionary and thesaurus to learn how to talk about art. Through his reading, he built his understanding of artists he admired and the artists who inspired them. He loved learning about the science of art and how artists made paint from natural elements like minerals, rocks, trees or plants. He gathered hundreds of recipes for paint made by old masters. In the same way, he delved into history and research in developing his products, learning from the wisdom of his ancestors.
“Keep strong. Get up, dust yourself off and just keep on going and believe in yourself”
His advice for Indigenous youth considering leaving their home community is to set goals and objectives, be determined and committed and have a real desire to achieve their goals. He encourages youth to stay focused and not be distracted by things that bother them. To get a head start on their studies and avoid confusion, he suggests researching the things they are interested in independently. He also wants them to know whenever they decide to go back to school, it’s never too late.
Throughout his life, Ferris has faced some challenges, with his drinking breaking up friendships and causing challenges in his family life. His art kept him going, along with his strong work ethic. Sometimes he finds it hard to see the kids he teaches struggle with difficult family situations, but he’s inspired by watching the youth correctional residents turn their lives around.
The other person who inspires him is his grandfather and all he learned from him in the past. A the same time, he’s driven by the things he still wants to do in the future. Art inspires him, as does believing in a higher power.
His art kept him alive, and now John Ferris is helping aspiring artists bring their own artistic practice to life. From a one-room schoolhouse to teaching in a college, a correctional facility, his own studio and in classrooms, he’s sharing his talent and encouraging others to find theirs. After studying the masters, he’s found he’s developed a teaching practice that’s its own masterpiece.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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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.