When curator Joanne Schmidt, found the inspiration for Glenbow’s newest Indigenous exhibit she couldn’t have imagined its’ initial rocky start or the impact it would have on the youth who were involved in the creation of the display or those that viewed the exhibit.
Schmidt had recently gone to Calgary’s Wordfest and met the author Patti Laboucane-Benson and illustrator Kelly Mellings of the graphic novel, The Outside Circle. Schmidt was immediately drawn to the novel, as it covered a complex range of Indigenous history and spoke honestly about how that history created the foundation for the current environment in many Indigenous communities.
Sean Carleton, assistant professor in the department of general education at Mount Royal University and founding member of the Graphic History Collective, says that the reason why the graphic novel worked so well in connection to the Indigenous cultures is because “many Indigenous cultures use storytelling as a form of conveying information [and] values ... [they] require interpretation by the people who are receiving that knowledge. Comics work very similarly.”
Schmidt’s goal was to display the novel’s main themes alongside work from Indigenous youth. Art workshops were set up with USAY — the Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth — who brought several teens to work with the illustrator of the novel.
The workshop didn’t start off perfectly, however.
Levi First Charger, the community outreach supporter working for USAY explains, “The main difficulty was that some of the kids that attended the workshop weren’t really artistic.”
Kelly Mellings, the illustrator of The Outside Circle, adds, “The kids seemed to be thinking, ‘I don’t know, is this going to be something that is for me. That I can express myself with?’”
One of the main reasons the kids had trouble was because most of them had never created comic books before, Mellings continued.
“They had read them and were aware of them,” she said. But they had to know “how to break down a simple story into multiple images.”
The other hurdle, First Charger says, was “Sometimes they didn’t like [what they thought out] on paper but [Mellings] was there and he really helped the kids accomplish that.”
As a result, according to Schmidt, “On the last day, everyone created art they were proud of.”
Along with original pieces of art illustrating their experiences as Indigenous youth, the exhibit includes masks made by the USAY members that reflect their personality and lives.
Carleton adds that he feels the masks “are the coolest part of the exhibit because again they are showing how this graphic novel is challenging people in the real world to think about their life and how they can make their lives better.”
“What’s really cool,” he continued, “is that it actually gets Indigenous youth who are often dealing with some of these issues to make those masks. To think about the kinds of masks that they use to get through life and whether those masks are effective at getting them to where they want to be.”
For his part, First Charger says those youth were personally affected by creating the exhibit because “it really developed their art skills and really helped their self-esteem and gave them a sense of pride... So they told their friends and family and they felt really proud of their work and accomplishments.”
In addition to the growth the teens achieved from being a part of the project, First Charger says he thinks “it impacted the kids because it showed them some negative lifestyles and circumstances that came up that they were pretty familiar with and it had a positive outcome which really showed them that they can lead happy lives.”
What the graphic novel and exhibit accomplish together, according to Carleton, is that they address heavy issues while encouraging kids to take an active role in transforming themselves.
One of the most impactful stories that Mellings experienced at the exhibit was a youth who, as Mellings put it, “created one of the most powerful stories.”
“When I met him, he had this tough cool guy front and he was very jokey,” he says.
But the piece he created – a sketch of himself, either side of his face showing the visual difference between past and present aboriginal youth –held a lot of meaning to him, according to Mellings.
“Just like in the book where they take off that mask, I felt like I got to see who he really was.”
- By Georgia Longphee, Emily Dixon