The Fine Art & Science of Focus: Patrick Cheecho’s Journey As An Artist with ADHD
“I've always considered myself an artist, first and foremost,” says Patrick Cheechoo, a Constance Lake First Nation member from northeastern Ontario who now lives in Gatineau. From grade two through to post-secondary, his notebooks were full of drawings he didn’t realize he was creating to stay focused in class as he struggled with ADHD.
He started painting at 17 when the Indigenous student counsellor was looking for someone who could paint owls. Cheechoo told him he would do so if he bought the canvas, paint and brushes and that’s how he got his start. The counsellor bought his first two pieces thirty years ago and he never stopped painting.
Outside of painting and drawing, he’s made antler jewelry, done ceramics and printmaking. He returns to drawing to reboot his creativity and often works in CorelDRAW and Adobe Photoshop, helping clients create logos from scratch. He’s also enjoyed photography as a way to celebrate and express his love for birds.
As a mostly self-taught artist, he’s inspired by the art he’s seen from established painters when he was young, like Carl Ray, one of the First Nations Group of Seven. Cheechoo is always trying to challenge himself to try new things, incorporating wildlife realism influenced by Robert Bateman and by Woodland Cree line art.
He learned important lessons in diligence and professionalism from his aunt and uncle who owned a gallery. “You have to respect the fact that people love your work and don't take any shortcuts,” he was told. Those words taught him to take pride in and value his art, ensuring he charged fairly for it to protect his mental health and the commercial value of his work. That being said, he also found that when he was focused on art to make money, he didn’t enjoy it.
Once he returned to creating art without worrying if it would sell, his love of painting was reignited. After he concentrated on making smaller paintings, he ended up building a market for small framed paintings. The smaller size meant that more people were able to access his work who would not otherwise be able to afford a large painting.
When asked for his advice for young people considering leaving their home communities in search of opportunity, he shared his own experience. He moved away from his home community at the age of 16 because grade 12 wasn’t offered in English where he lived. His move to Thunder Bay was difficult. He stayed in touch with his family and his home student counsellor which he found helpful and he encourages youth moving away to connect with Indigenous services staff at their university for support.
At the age of 35, Cheechoo graduated with a business administration degree from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and his parents remained an important source of connection to home. He ended up living in Thunder Bay, Sudbury, North Bay and the Ottawa region for work since his small community on a reserve of just 900 people lacked job opportunities.
One of the resources he had to get him through tough times was pride in where he comes from and in who he is. “There's going to be racism, even lateral violence and more so when you're away from your community. Just know that you have every right to be proud of where you came from, and who you are and your culture and you have every right to learn more about your own culture,” he advises. He demonstrates pride by holding firm to his art prices when people try to undercut him. “This is my art. I created this and it tells stories about my culture, about my family and it's valued at what I say it is,” he would insist.
Apart from racism and lateral violence, ADHD and the stigma attached to it are barriers Cheechoo has faced. He first started learning about ADHD at 35 and takes medication for it. He realized how many of his school challenges were related to his neurodiversity.
In high school, he had high marks but in the post-secondary environment which was more self-directed, he struggled with procrastination. He hopes others will disregard the stigmatizing judgements people make about the condition. “It has nothing to do with how you were brought up. It's a physical, physiological thing with your brain that is slightly different than anyone else,” he clarifies.
He knows now that ADHD is a spectrum and while some people are minimally impacted, he is significantly impacted. He learned coping techniques to use in addition to medication, like lists and keeping his hands busy drawing. “If you learn more about ADHD, learn more about tools and behaviours that will help you, it will really improve your life in your own self-esteem,” he counsels.
If he could tell his younger self anything it would be to give himself permission to come out of his shell and put himself out there, despite how overwhelming it can be to move from a small community to a larger school environment. “Allow yourself to speak in class, ask your questions out loud to the teacher, allow yourself to make mistakes. That's how you learn,” he advises.
To manage his mental health, Cheechoo spends time in his art studio and also exercising. Getting active helps Cheechoo stay positive and more energetic and when he isn’t active, he feels stagnant. He likes to go for walks, strength train with dumbbells, and ride his bike. When he’s moving his body, he finds that his depression begins to lift and he’s able to focus on what he wants to achieve. He only wishes he had built the habit of staying active when he was younger.
His youth and his family inspire him to create artwork, with some of his paintings representing stories his parents or grandparents told him. Memories of trapping, fishing and hunting are featured on his canvases, coming to life in dynamic and surreal paintings. Sometimes photographs he’s taken become paintings too.
Patrick Cheechoo always considered himself an artist, first and foremost, from when he was in the second grade to this very day. Art has been an outlet for his mental health, a way to share his love of birds and to keep his hands busy to manage his ADHD symptoms. His commitment to excellence and pride in who he is and where he’s from shine through in his work, and like the birds he loves to paint, his talent continues to soar.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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