The Outside Circle artist Kelly Mellings lives up to a steep illustrating challenge

The Outside Circle artist Kelly Mellings lives up to a steep illustrating challenge

Illustrating The Outside Circle was an exacting challenge for Edmonton artist Kelly Mellings.

Illustrating The Outside Circle was an exacting challenge for Edmonton artist Kelly Mellings, who will speak about his creative process this week in Red Deer.

Mellings used a highly realistic drawing style because “I wanted it to feel real,” as there’s nothing fantasy-related about the gritty graphic novel written by Patti LaBoucane-Benson.

The book by the Métis woman who’s a director at Native Counselling Services of Alberta, is the 2016 selection for the Red Deer Reads community book club.

Her story about a young aboriginal man named Pete who’s wrapped up in gang violence and dragged down by intergenerational trauma is based on the real lives of many First Nations clients LaBoucane-Benson has known.

For this reason, Mellings, who’d been asked to help tell the story in pictures, felt “pressure to tell it right, in a respectful, truthful way.”

Since the artist not of aboriginal heritage, he felt an additional obligation to be authentic in his images.

Before drawing aboriginal smudging ceremonies or sweat lodges, Mellings decided he’d better experienced them. The 39-year-old also toured a former Indian Residential School site and the Stan Daniels Healing Centre in Edmonton.

While attending a graduation ceremony of the Warriors violence prevention program, Mellings examined some of the masks the men had made — and masks ended up playing a mystical role in the story. They symbolically cover Pete’s face when the character experiences moments of extreme emotion.

The Outside Circle has gained wide-spread acclaim from readers and critics, and Mellings is thrilled the book was selected for Red Deer Reads.

But his favourite moment was when an aboriginal elder told him that he saw bits of his own story reflected in the book. “That was the highest compliment.”

The Edmonton-born artist grew up in Pigeon Lake in an army family. He was friends with many aboriginal children there, but didn’t realize at the time that their stories were different, in many ways, than his own.

Mellings recently spoke to a girl he knew from Pigeon Lake who told him she later went a residential school (the last federally operated residential school closed in 1996). “This history is so recent,” said the artist, of the attempt at cultural assimilation that caused deep trauma to children and rifts in families.

It’s no wonder that many First Nations communities are still dealing with the aftershocks, he added. “If it happened to you, or your family or culture, it would also take a while to get over.”

Mellings is happy to have contributed to a book that gives insight to readers who might not otherwise understand the causes of social problems in native communities. “Here is a book we can hand to people and say, ‘Read it. It might change your views so that you understand things a bit more.’”

The artist, who runs the design and animation firm Pulp Studios, has taught art and worked on independent comic books, museum exhibits, public art installments, apps and online games. He first began working with Native Counselling Services on educational comics and pamphlets for some programs aimed at children.

Illustrating The Outside Circle took him two years, along with other projects. He’s happy to share his experiences with storyboarding and art design with a Red Deer audience at a free session at 6 p.m. on Wednesday at the Red Deer Public Library in downtown Red Deer.

Mellings will be back in Red Deer with LaBoucane-Benson for a 7 p.m. discussion of the book, followed by a question and answer session on Friday, Oct. 28, at Red Deer College’s Welikoklad Event Centre.

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com