Art Work and Heart Work: Quill Christie-Peters Paints a Brighter Future with Youth
“I've always been an artist, since I was a little kid, and I've always painted,” recounts Quill Christie-Peters, who is Anishinaabeg from Treaty Three territory, with Scottish and Irish ancestry on her mother's side. She grew up in downtown Toronto as an urban Indigenous person and followed in the footsteps of her father, Ron Momogeeshik Peters.
Professionally, she works as an artist, writer and arts-based youth programmer. She paints, does beadwork and traditional tattoo work. The youth program Christie-Peters runs is a land-based arts program that teaches youth about colonialism, and how to create art from their relationships with their bodies, ancestors and homelands.
Her path to the program was far from linear. In university, she received an undergraduate degree in biology. “Science was a way to prove that I was smart. I chose that just wanting to choose something that would validate me as a person, especially growing up in Toronto… I was one of the only people of colour in my high school, and one of two native people. I felt like I had a lot to prove,” Christie-Peters recalls.
While it wasn’t the right field for her, she made important connections along the way. The First Nations Studies courses she took inspired her to do a Master's in Indigenous Governance. That’s when she returned to art, designing the youth program as part of the Community Governance project in her studies. The thinking that went into it shaped everything she does. She was pondering “What do I want to bring to my community? How do I want to use my lived experience to fill in the gaps?”
Her whole life she’s always done art and her father is an artist but Christie-Peters saw a gap in terms of “a lack of spaces for Indigenous youth to access art in ways that are honouring how we relate to art as indigenous people,” as she describes it. The spaces she found were instructional as far as techniques, but not around self-discovery, connection to ancestors and to your artistic practice.
“That's the real impetus for me to keep doing the youth work and keep providing what I needed as a younger person,” Christie-Peters explains. For the past six or seven years she’s been running it alongside her own arts practice.
Her advice for Indigenous students thinking about leaving where they grew up to go to university would be, “Don't be afraid of leaving home.” In moving away to Vancouver, she connected with a circle of native women friends who helped her grow and pushed her to return home to her territory. “If you're scared about leaving, it can actually strengthen your relationship to home. On the flip side, if you don't want to leave, I think that's great, too. I really, really value the people in my community who have just stayed put, and made the sacrifices to just work for community and not leave. I respect both,” Christie-Peters confides.
One of the obstacles she faced was in not listening to herself, pursuing science for the wrong reasons and having to learn to trust herself and be her authentic self. Christie-Peters also struggled in learning that sometimes educational spaces are harmful, a lesson from her graduate studies. “Ultimately, it feeds the way that I want to educate and creates that motivation to create alternate spaces of learning that aren't so harmful,” she shares.
Single parenting, balancing the things she did before becoming a parent and keeping all the moving parts of her life together has been another challenge she’s faced while maintaining her professional life. Realizing that she’s only done two paintings in three years, Christie-Peters felt down on herself but she tries to remember how much work she’s doing and that it’s valid.
If she could talk to her younger self, she would encourage self-worth and self-love, but she also reflects on another area of learning. “Growing up with my white mom, I had a lot of shame. Once I learned about colonialism, I was able to piece all the parts of the stories around me and take the blame off of myself towards these systems that are designed to hurt us,” Christie-Peters recalls. That’s why she would tell her younger self to learn about colonialism to understand herself better.
To help herself feel better and manage her mental health and well-being, Christie-Peters turns to art. “Art, for me, is the one place where I can be fully present with myself and slow down. It really does feel like a conversation with my ancestors, like I feel their love and can actively love them back when I'm making art, which is why it's been so hard, becoming a parent and not losing that part of me, but there's just not enough time for that part of me as much as before. Art, for me, is how I stay healthy,” she relays.
In the absence of regular artistic time while she’s busy being a mom, daily exercise has helped her be present in her body and improve her mental health. Christie-Peters finds movement medicinal and she approaches it in a way that doesn’t feel like suffering. Therapy has been helpful, too.
When she needs inspiration, she looks to her friends who she loves and admires so much. “Having that web of support is inspiring in and of itself,” she smiles. Her family, specifically her father who is also an artist, inspires her too. “I just feel honoured to come from those people and that strength,” Christie-Peters beams.
The youth she works with inspire her too. “Every time I run the program, I'm just floored…There's so much brilliance, knowledge and love that comes from young people, especially when we're talking about colonialism, and presenting art from Indigenous relationships to art. It just really brings out the best of everyone, I think. Even after becoming a parent, I really think that's some of the most important work I'll do in my life. I just feel really honoured to be able to witness their brilliance,” she elaborates.
She’s always been an artist since she was a little kid, and she’s always painted. Now in her youth work, Quill Christie-Peters is inspiring a new generation of artists and helping them come back to themselves and their ancestors through creativity and practice. Through artwork and heart work, she’s giving back to her community, one young person at a time.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed 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.