Star Nahwegahbo

The Art of Living and Learning: Star Nahwegahbo Blends Social Work and Art Work

“Art has taught me a lot, just like the land teaches us,” Star Nahwegahbo declares. From Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation on Manitoulin Island on her grandfather's side and from Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve on her grandmother’s side. She’s a mother, sister, auntie, artist and frontline social worker who graduated with a diploma at Canadore College in North Bay. More recently, she’s taken a break from social work to focus on her art career, particularly since becoming a mother. 

She took the Indigenous Visual Culture Program at OCAD University where she was able to nurture her artistic gifts. She’s now looking to combine her social work experience with her art practice as a community-based art space and business. Nahwegahbo has always wanted to work with community, to be of service and helpful but finds helping others in a frontline capacity and providing energetically for her son was too much. 

“I decided, ‘how can I make something that's sustainable for me and for him, so that everybody is well at the end of the day?’ because I found I was burning out a lot,” she explains. “I think I've always just wanted to work for myself, even though it's a really hard and challenging process. But now that that seed’s been planted and I really want to, there's no turning back at this point,” she elaborates. 

As she built the educational foundation of her career, Nahwegahbo found school challenging. She coped with art. “I really struggled through Western education, as a child and straight up through high school and in university in college. I'm a very hands on experiential type of learner,” she remembers. 

Nahwegahbo thinks about education broadly. “I think a lot of my education is both formal and informal. The relationships that I've developed over time that I've learned from and culture, ceremony, even non-Indigenous spiritual practices that I've picked up by learning from other people. Those have been my great teachers as well,” she shares, noting even her son has been someone she’s learned from. 

“Find people who you're in line with, and connect with them, because those are your supports and will keep you strong and grounded.”

Her advice for youth considering leaving home for work or school is to find community. Nahwegahbo experienced isolation moving from Manitoulin to Toronto, but found a friend from her home community and friends through Indigenous organization programming. “I've grown so much from being in Toronto and I've learned a lot about my culture and myself while being here, too,” she reflects.

Illustration by Shaikara David

Becoming a single parent and dealing with her mental health have been challenging, between depression, suicidal ideation and anxiety she’s wrestled with since childhood and learning to ask for help. Nahwegahbo excels at helping others, but has a hard time finding and accepting help herself. Amidst these challenges, she’s had her art.

“I was starting to realize I needed an outlet for my emotions, positive or negative. I used art to guide me through that process,” she remembers. She didn’t want to reach out through social service agencies for fear of losing her son. “I went through things on my own, just out of fear. But then I learned who I can reach out to and where it was safe to do so and then eventually, seeing where my strength was and my supports were,” she continues. 

Reflecting on what she wished she could have told her younger self she says, “I would try to instill tools for self worth and try to foster more self confidence, and to really take some time to nurture that person that I was. I was very hard on myself. When I was younger, I was very scared, timid, insecure and afraid and that comes from trauma and not being able to really trust people.” She would love to offer herself some compassion for the things she was going through.  

“Considering everything you've been through, this is just part of your process. This is part of like unlearning things and relearning things.”

To help manage her mental health these days, Nahwegahbo has learned meditation and is working on self-compassion. She found meditation difficult at first but persevered. Without it, she finds she has more anxiety. She’s also learned to find some acceptance that struggle is part of growth and remember she’s been through hard things and come out stronger. 

Writing and art help Nahwegahbo work through things. Remembering how as a child she catered to others and found she was losing herself and her identity in the process, watching the authenticity of others helps her put herself out there more and allows her to care less about other people’s opinions. 

“We're stronger as a collective when everybody is true to themselves. I think there's power in that.”

As a parent, she’s felt a lot of pressure to create the best possible life for her son and to protect him from things. Nahwegahbo has been learning the value of normalizing challenging experiences and being a safe place to land and talk things through for her son. She has learned to appreciate the importance of “giving children and youth the space and the tools to be themselves, even if they're going through a hard time and allow them to have a bad day and and then to learn from that.” 

“Art has been a huge factor in my healing and how I overcome many different obstacles,” Star Nahwegahbo shares. She’s making art and a life for herself and her son, creating new patterns in her creative pursuits and unlearning old ones to take better care of herself. With lessons learned from the earth, her art, her parenting experiences and her community, she’s making her own masterpiece in the form of a life that sustains her and her family. Blending her passion for art and helping people, she’s crafting something unique to share with the world, finding the joy in colouring outside the lines and resting in the beauty of contrast.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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