Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Giving the north a face

Artist draws portraits of elders who hold wealth of history

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FLIN FLON -- Even if he was not ready to speak, Charles Learjaw's face told a remarkable story.

Tousled white hair contrasted a dark, furrowed forehead. High, ruddy cheeks gave way to a thin jawline. And those eyes, white slits amid a weathered face, had clearly seen it all.

"I sat at his feet for 10 minutes before he would talk to me," recalls Gerald Kuehl, who on this day was tasked with drawing a portrait of the aboriginal elder in the northern Manitoba reserve of Tadoule Lake. "He wanted me to leave his community. My society was responsible for the suffering of his people."

Fortunately, Learjaw had a change of heart. He shared not only his likeness, but also his life story with the curious white man who had travelled all the way from Pinawa.

Learjaw has since passed on, but his legacy and that of other northern Manitoba elders lives on thanks to Kuehl's intricate pencil portraits.

Launched in 1997, his Portraits of the North project has seen him criss-cross the region in search of the aboriginal faces that reveal a rich, though sometimes disturbing history.

"This was not an easy transition because I am not aboriginal," admits Kuehl, 56, a teacher-turned-artist who has previously drawn pieces for the original Winnipeg Jets. "But it did eventually occur by me being persistent in my dream of drawing the people of the north."

Indeed, Kuehl had long been fascinated by First Nations culture, though he initially encountered difficulty in locating willing subjects.

That changed after he met Reg Simard, a Métis man from Manigotogan whose father became the first portrait of the north.

From there, Kuehl became acquainted with elders at the Hollow Water First Nation, an Ojibwa region on the east shore of Lake Winnipeg.

Kuehl would in time make his way further north into Cree territory, waiting outside shopping malls in Thompson and The Pas and asking elders to pose for photographs. He later took a winter road to Lac Brochet, near the northwestern corner of the province.

Eventually, Kuehl landed in Tadoule Lake, an isolated reserve as northerly as Churchill. Its inhabitants, the Sayisi Dene, would have a lasting impact on both Kuehl and his work.

"The Sayisi Dene band were forcibly relocated from Duck Lake to the shores of Churchill in the '50s," he says. "Of the original 300 relocated, only 200 survived in the 20 years they were there. They died of drownings, murder, abuse, house fires, while others suffered from rape and neglect. They eventually found their way to Tadoule Lake in the early 1970s."

By 2005, Kuehl's work was so esteemed the Manitoba Museum turned 30 of his pieces into an exhibit called (what else?) Portraits of the North. It has travelled within Canada and even to Iceland.

"It has always been well-received because people enjoy viewing detailed drawings of interesting people," says Kuehl, whose arched eyebrows and salt-and-pepper goatee highlight a narrow face.

Over the past 15 years, Kuehl has painstakingly produced 85 pencil drawings of northern Manitobans, and about another 90 of Métis, First Nations and Inuit elders outside the region.

Since many of his subjects speak little or no English, he often requires an interpreter. Such was the case with Learjaw, who influenced Kuehl like no other elder.

"Once he understood my sincerity, he told me his story and that of his people, a conversation that went on for over two hours," recalls Kuehl. "Afterwards he gave me a message to pass on: Essentially that we are all people; the colour of our skin is the only difference."

Learjaw then asked Kuehl to "tell the world what happened to my people."

Kuehl agreed and, with extraordinary artistic vision, continues to keep that promise.

Jonathon Naylor is editor of the Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2012 A11

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