Red Deer artist Ryan Willert just completed this mural with a Blackfoot symbol alongside a French Catholic Cross and a Métis girl at a Catholic school in the city. Contributed photo

Healing through art: Indigenous artist completes third mural at Red Deer Catholic school

Three Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools hired him to paint murals on school walls

A well-known Red Deer artist Ryan Willert has painted murals across the city as well as some Calgary buildings, but never did he receive calls from Catholic organizations.

Willert, an Indigenous man, illustrates aspects of his culture through art.

In the past, Willert has been hired by Calgary Board of Education, Mount Royal University and the surrounding reserves.

His work is also showcased in downtown Red Deer.

But while his career was progressing, he wasn’t receiving requests from Caltholic schools – and that at the time – didn’t surprise the artist.

“Because I promote Blackfoot spirituality, and I believe 100 per cent in my Blackfoot beliefs and I practice that and it’s what I teach when I’m in schools,” the 36-year-old said.

“So I didn’t expect Catholic schools to hire me.”

But now that has changed and it has led to healing on both sides – Indigenous and the Catholic community, the artist said.

He has now completed murals in three Red Deer Catholic schools: St. Thomas Aquinas Middle School, St. Francis of Assisi Middle School (in 2019) and the latest at École Camille J. Lerouge School.

The two Camille school murals, which the artist finished about two weeks ago, are located in the French immersion school’s entryway – one on the left and another on the right.

The mural on the left has a Métis symbol and a French Catholic Cross and it has an image of a Métis girl represeting all the students in the school.

“But I wanted to give it a female energy to give empowerment to our young Indigenous women in our community,” the central Alberta artist explained.

Speaking of the cross, he explained the first Métis people where French Catholic people.

The mural on the right depicts an eagle for strength in the Blackfoot culture and a fleur-de-lis.

“By putting that eagle on the wall I wanted to give the faculty the positive strength they need to educate our young ones and help them be leaders in the community.”

Before painting the mural at St. Francis, Willert took a trip to Guatemala to research more about Catholicism.

“There, the Mayan people have adopted the Catholic beliefs and fully engulfed it in their culture,” the Red Deer man explained.

The end result was a mural of Virgin Mary representing Mother Earth – alongside sun, moon and the morning star.

“In the Blackfoot culture we start our prayers with ‘I beg of you Grandfather Sun, Grandmother Moon, Morning Star, Mistaken Morning Star and Grandmother Earth, Grandmothers, Grandfathers.’

“So it’s a chain of prayers for the Blackfoot people and I painted the Virgin Mary holding the Earth so she is the representation of Grandmother Earth.”

The mural at St. Thomas depicts a traditional Blackfoot headdress, the buffalo, and the laws of four elements.

“I was in the school and I went around classes and I gave ceremonial teachings to the children and then I put the teachings I gave them on the wall: laws of four elements and buffalo teachings,” he said.

The murals are a win for the community – the entire City of Red Deer.

“Yes the kids are directly exposed to the art work and are directly learning, but with that, it’s creating a healthy impact overall because from the kids it goes back home to the parents who hear about it,” he explained.

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