Illustrating Cultural Revitalization: Joshua Pawis-Steckley Designs A Future of Language Learning
“If you want to be an artist or creator there definitely is always work out there. There's lots of people who say you can't make it as an artist, but I don't believe that is true at all. It really is all about finding your niche market and just finding, really, what you're good at, what you're passionate about. There's definitely plenty of opportunity out there for you,” says Joshua Pawis-Steckley. It’s not the advice you typically hear at a time where people talk about “starving artists”, but as a successful artist himself, Pawis-Steckley knows what he’s talking about.
Currently living in Vancouver but born in Barrie, Ontario, Pawis-Steckley is a member of Wasauksing First Nation. He does illustration work and has been a painter. He has been illustrating children's books recently and is learning how to code as well. He works within the Woodland art style, taking some traditional elements that and modernizing it, blending it with his own unique style.
Pawis-Steckley has always been an artist and it comes naturally to him, always sketching or drawing in class. He didn't think he could do it as a career for the longest time; it's something that came to him later in life. He graduated high school in 2007 and went directly into a recording arts program in Toronto at an expensive private school. He wishes he had gone to a community college as he dropped out after six months as he was not ready for it.
After taking a couple years off school and moving to Nova Scotia, he took a graphic design course, worked in a screen print shop and did freelance designwork until he was able to illustrate full time. He deciding to come home to Ontario and relocate to Toronto, but instead took a winter vacation in Vancouver and stayed in town because he enjoyed the more temperate winters.
These days, Pawis-Steckley teaches illustration through Connected North and while it was hard at first because of his anxiety, he now really enjoys it and so do the kids. During the pandemic when kids went remote, he found not being able to see them on camera reacting hard, because as an artist he thrives on visual cues.
He’s working on challenging himself to feel more comfortable in his own skin and develop the skills and abilities to be more outgoing and grow as a person.Another area of growth for Pawis-Steckley is language revitalization and trying to learn his language. He’s finding it a challenge living on the west coast and not being around anybody who speaks his language with him while he learns.
Language learning is something he’s trying to base his arts work around through the app he’s building. Pawis Steckley did illustrations based on Anishnaabe words and plans to use them in the app as a quiz app where you have to match the illustration with the right word. He plans to post the illustrations on Instagram with the words underneath them.
“I just want to create artwork that comes from my heart and something that's meaningful to me and social media sort of takes that away.”
Pawis-Steckley has a bittersweet relationship with Instagram as he doesn't like being on it, but knows he needs it for his career. He finds it hard to be consistent with posting content when he goes through periods where he doesn't feel like posting on social media too much. He'll lose followers due to lack of content and that will motivate him to post more, but he doesn’t want to create art just for social media views.
When asked his advice for someone who wants to move away, he says that moving is easier if you have a connection to someone in your new city. When he moved to Vancouver, he had his sister to show him around and spend time with while he made his own friends.
“lf you're moving somewhere new, it's important to find that community before or as soon as you can so that you don't get too lonely.”
Pawis-Steckley lived at Skwachàys Lodge where he met other artists and felt at home.
Looking to the future, Pawis-Steckley wants to build on his children’s book illustration and build a career based on that. He has a baby on the way and wawnts to keep contributing to cultural revitalization. He’s illustrated books that integrate Anishnaabe language for a variety of publishers and would like to keep doing so.
Building on his advice to aspiring artists, Pawis-Steckly has suggestions around area of focus and skills to learn to build a thriving art career. “I would also just recommend getting into digital arts as well because everything's moving in that direction. There's lots of 3d artwork you could get into as well and so many avenues you could go. Iif you can get an education within that field it's definitely very helpful. It is very difficult just being a painter or illustrator on its own," he advises.
Beyond professional skills, Pawis-Steckley thinks artists should work on their growth mindset.
“Just keep pushing yourself. Eventually you'll run into a few roadblocks along the way. You'll likely fail quite a bit. You have get used to failing and take that failure with grace and learning to just pick yourself up again and just keep going. Eventually you'll get to that point where you want to be within your career.”
With a career that’s taken him from coast to coast, building resources for cultural revitalization in alignment with his values and putting his talents to work to help other’s learn, Joshua Pawis-Steckley is designing a future for himself and his community to learn and grow together. Teaching virtually through Connected North, he’s inspiring the next generation of artists and having fun at the same time. When we consider the stereotype of the “starving artist”, Pawis-Steckley is nourished by his work and actively feeding others by encouraging their dreams and illustrating what life could be like for them moving forward.
Special thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this blog post.
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.