An Aboriginal artist from Red Deer has been instilling Calgary elementary students with the teachings and art of the Blackfoot culture.
Ryan Jason Allen Willert has been educating in classrooms, as well as painting murals of the Medicine Wheel, the Law of the Four Elements and other Blackfoot traditions, at two schools in Alberta’s largest city.
So far, he’s been working with kindergarten to Grade 6 kids at Tuscany School and Catherine Nichols Gunn School, through a contract with the Calgary Board of Education.
Willert feels gratified to pass on generations of cultural teachings he learned from elders in his Blackfoot culture. “It’s important work,” he said, that “helps build a healthy human being.”
Many of the students he works are also of Blackfoot ancestry. But Willert also educates non-aboriginal students and some teachers about the Blackfoot traditions, which are part of the fabric of Alberta. “Being with the kids, I’m learning. I’m being trained to become a better teacher,” he said.
At Tuscany School, Willert has painted eight panels for a fence that surrounds outdoor teaching classrooms. He still has eight more panels to paint with native elements — a labour that could take him to the end of the year.
At Catherine Nichols Gunn School, he’s painting a three-panel indoor mural upon which the students will also add their own images, based on his teachings.
At age 34 the artist thinks he’s still pretty relatable to young people, who like learning about Aboriginal traditions. “I’m like a celebrity there. All the kids know who I am and love me to death!”
Willert grew up in Innisfail and Red Deer and still lives in this city, but his talents have been widely recognized in Calgary, where he painted a 2016 mural for Mount Royal University. He was the only aboriginal artist featured in a recent Calgary Reads book launched by Mayor Naheed Nenshi.
Locally, Central Albertans can see the Blackfoot Teachings and Healings mural Willert co-created with Cydnee Sparrow on the outside of the Central Alberta Realtors Association building on 45th Street in Red Deer. Staples stores also carry the Colouring it Forward Blackfoot art colouring book and 2018 calendar his work is pictured in.
Whenever he has free time, Willert said he tries to fulfill requests to do volunteer work with Red Deer schools.