Artist, teacher, social worker Maaniihs Mary Pheasant shares a laugh with Crystal Osawamick. – Photo by Kelly Anne Smith

By Kelly Anne Smith

NORTH BAY – After giving an opening smudge for the Healing Through the Arts workshop, Maaniihs Mary Pheasant exclaimed, “My name is Spirit Hawk woman. I am of the Bear Clan. I’ve been on my journey all my life.”

The famous artist from Wikwemikong Unceded Territory was on Nipissing First Nation territory helping others heal through art. The original venue was the Anishinabek Nation’s Elder’s Hall but the heating just didn’t kick in fast enough. Within minutes Maaniihs Mary Pheasant was set up in the main gathering hub of the Anishinabek Nation head office. “No problems here, we just go with the flow. Everything is happening the way it is supposed to happen.”

When the paints and brushes get distributed, faces light up. Participants soak up Mary’s words on art and life. “I was born into this journey. My parents were very traditional people and also strong Catholics. I have no problem walking down the two roads.”

Through her parents she experienced museums and art galleries. “They encouraged us to read as much as possible.” As a child, she felt she was the center of the world. “We were very close.”

Mary is accomplished. She was the first Aboriginal nutritionist in Canada. She is a Registered social worker. And as an artist has been a prolific painter. She has sold more than 12,000 pieces and art cards.” One of the workshop participants spoke up with a grin. “Oh, I know. I have about 100 myself.”

After attending elementary school in Wikwemikong, Mary went to high school in North Bay. “We were English because our parents didn’t want us to get in trouble at school. But we were nosey so we learned. I was determined to speak our language. While working in Elder Care we had to learn.”

Mary shares how she learned early from her family about the good way. “I always knew there were two roads. We were poor but didn’t realize we were poor. We had a lot of fun playing. I was the only girl with seven brothers until I was 15, living in a two-room house. The radio was always on, so the family knew what was going on. We all read as much as possible and we loved to draw.”

She had been an artist but her talent and skill were forgotten over the years. “As a child it was my job to keep the younger ones quiet and occupied.”

Mary is telling the group of budding artists her story as she moves about making sure everyone has brushes, paints and a canvas. Scissors, glue and Vogue magazines are placed beside each artist.

“We didn’t have paper. We became precise by using blank spaces in magazines and used books.”

Mary explains she had an artistic rebirth at the age of 49. And it healed her. A brother helped show her the way forward through her own creativity.

Mary had been in a car accident. “When I started with the art again, I had no idea what was wrong with me. I was in tremendous physical pain. The doctor had prescribed medication that I would be on for the rest of my life to deal with it. I only took it two nights and said I can’t do this or I’ll be a zombie sitting in front of the TV. It was potent nerve medicine. I said there has to be another way. The doctor said there wasn’t.”

So, I went to go see my younger brother that had been bugging me for years to paint. I did everything else but paint. I didn’t have the confidence. He said, ‘I’m going to show you how to mix the paints. That’s all you need to know.’ He showed me and left me to the brush and canvas for hours.”

It was June. I’m thought to myself I’m going to paint berries. Strawberries were coming. When I was 19, my 16-year-old brother committed suicide. That’s what I was thinking about when I was painting. I’d been sitting there the whole day. There was a big pile of Kleenex beside me when the rest of the family came back from picking strawberries.” Mary said that after she had painted she felt relief.

“There was so much meaning in that painting. I didn’t know I was carrying all that grief.”

Now Mary teaches others how to use art to feel better. “For me, it’s healing art. Because it healed me. I share my experience with it and my techniques. I tell them the circumstances that led me up to it, what I found, and how I found it helped me. And if it helped me, it will help others.”

The artist explained that expressive art is working with the inner child, your inner self. Feelings flow out with the paint. “Sometimes you can’t articulate what you’re feeling because you don’t know what you are feeling. It comes through this positive action.” Mary says it is relaxing because the painting has your total focus.

Crystal Osawamick really enjoyed the Healing through Art event. “Any form of art comes with a sense of healing. You’re intellectually involved. You’re spiritually involved. You become connected to what you are making. That is your energy going into what you are making. And then there is a physical aspect. You are actually physically doing it.”

Mary directed the Healing art workshop, “Let’s make a collage. Don’t worry about it if you think you are not good enough. You are. Keep going.”