Bringing dignity to people living In the Margins

Peter lozinski/Daily Herald Kathie Bird poses beside two of her works: left, a painting of Prince Albert resident Murray, and to the right, a man one of her students met at a poetry reading. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

A Prince Albert artist and social worker is hoping her latest exhibition encourages people to take a second look at those they would otherwise look past.

In the Margins, which has previously been displayed in other Saskatchewan cities, including at the University of Regina, is a series of portraits and stories depicting people who self-identify as living on the outskirts of society. It goes on display at the John V. Hicks Gallery inside the Prince Albert Arts Centre on Central Avenue tomorrow and runs at the gallery until Dec. 23. An opening reception is scheduled for 1-3 p.m. tomorrow.

Many of the subjects are from Prince Albert. In fact, long before the project was a whole show, it was a single painting, inspired by an encounter outside the Arts Centre.

Bird was teaching an art class. She looked out the window and saw a man. She had wanted to do a painting of somebody like this.

“I spotted him out there and I went and met him, sat and talked with him and took some pictures and did some sketches of him.”

The man was Augie Merasty. He told Bird he was a writer. She was skeptical.

“It’s really interesting to know about Augie’s life,” she said.

“There is so much hidden information in people. There really is. That’s why I didn’t only do the portraits. The portraits really are intended to give dignity to them and to honour them. With the stories, I wanted people to who these people are.”

The painting of Augie Merasty is one of many portraits included in the show. But Bird’s ability and desire to connect with people living on the margins didn’t start with her painting of Augie Merasty.

One of her first jobs was at the Friendship Centre.

‘That’s where I really started to learn more about people who were struggling with a sense of belonging and ability to navigate through aspects of society,” she said.

“Meeting them and getting to know them — we have a richness in Prince Albert.”

Some of the faces might be familiar to Prince Albert residents. One such portrait is of Murray, who can be found riding his adult tricycle through the city during the summer months.

“Murray used to be a truck driver,” Bird said. She gestured to the hat he’s wearing in the portrait, a hat with an image of a truck.

“He had a fairly successful life as a truck driver. MS got him. MS and a brain tumour. He said he so misses travelling. He never gets to travel. That (portrait) is called ‘Life’s a Struggle.’”

Life’s a Struggle, like many of the paintings, are titled based off of something the subject says, or an element of their story.

Some of the painting subjects, though, were a little more hesitant to share too much about themselves.

Bird, who worked on the project with social work students as an artist in residence at the U of R School of Social Work, spoke about one of her favourite paintings in the show, a portrait of a man one of her students found in Saskatoon.

“The student was volunteering at the White Buffalo Youth Facility. He had gone to a poetry reading, and spotted this fellow at the poetry reading,” Bird recalled.

“He didn’t want to give much of a story, so instead, he submitted a story he wrote.”

Other subjects include people Bird has encountered in Saskatoon or Regina. There are also some portraits painted of Prince Albert residents who work with SHARE. One day, she went to SHARE, interviewed a few people and painted their portraits. Bird said she will reach out to SHARE to let them know the portraits have arrived.

While Bird is happy to have been able to bring these faces and these stories with her across the province, she’s particularly happy to be able to bring them home.

“It’s significant to me because a lot of the portraits are from Prince Albert. For me, this is my hometown,” she said.

“The idea of bringing the stories and the portraits is creating, hopefully, more compassion, more understanding to a lot f the people who may not take the time to get to know people who are marginalized.”