Photo by Jeff Stokoe/Advocate staff Artist Ryan Willert works on a new painting in his apartment in Red Deer on Thursday.

Reconnecting with Blackfoot roots inspired Red Deer artist

Red Deer artist Ryan Willert is sharing his Blackfoot culture through line drawings in Colouring It Forward, a colouring book for adults.

That its title stems from ‘paying it forward’ is particularly apt, for “art saved my life,” said Willert.

“It helped get me off the streets,” he added, “and gave me a purpose and direction. It helped me express my culture … if it wasn’t for art, I don’t know where I’d be right now …”

The 32-year-old, whose work is featured in the book along with drawings by Blackfoot artist Kalum Teke Dan of Calgary, has made a living as a professional artist for the past half-dozen years.

He just painted a mural for Mount Royal University, had his art showcased at the Glenbow Museum in 2009, and for the City of Calgary’s 2007 Smoke-Free Campaign.

Willert, who leads art classes at the Red Deer Native Friendship Centre, initially didn’t think he had time to take on the colouring book project. It was suggested by Calgarian Diana Frost, who found his graphic art online.

The Métis woman sees meditative colouring as a way of “building community” and fostering better understanding between natives and non-natives. Frost intends to make more colouring books on various other First Nations cultures.

Willert is glad he contributed, since Colouring It Forward: Discovering Blackfoot Nation Art and Wisdom has exploded in popularity.

He noted Red Deer’s Mayor Tara Veer was so taken with the book, she brought 20 copies. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi also has some, and “it’s gone Canada-wide. It’s even selling in Europe,” added Willert, who will appear at a signing Tuesday at Red Deer’s Kids in Harmony store, along with Frost.

Things weren’t always so sunny for Willert. He was raised in Innisfail and Red Deer by his non-aboriginal mother, but experienced a lot of racism as a teenager.

At age 16, he was living on the streets of Calgary, where he reconnected with his Blackfoot father and other relatives. They told him he would do better selling art than panhandling, so Willert applied himself, and his drawings put him on a more productive path.

Although he was becoming established in Calgary, he moved back to Red Deer to be closer to his mother in 2015. He’s now immersed in aboriginal spirituality and culture, made two documentary films, and is cultural advisor for the Spirit Seeker after-school program in Red Deer.

The book is also available from the Kerry Wood Nature Centre or Amazon. For more information about Willert’s art, please visit stonegrowth.yolasite.com.

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com

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