How paintings by a James Smith Cree Nation artist bring beauty to tragedy

Michelle Berg/Saskatoon StarPhoenix. James Smith Cree Nation art is on display at Kerry Vickar Centre during the mass stabbing inquest in Melfort, Sask.

Jerry Whitehead wanted to help James Smith Cree Nation heal from the devastating mass stabbing attacks. At the coroner’s inquest, his paintings have brought comfort to a grieving community.

Julia Peterson, Saskatoon StarPhoenix

MELFORT — Jerry Whitehead spent his childhood surrounded by the bright colours of his mother’s crafts.

“She did beadwork, she did sewing, she did colourful braided rugs,” he said. “As a kid, I used to crawl around in all this colour of cloth.”

Growing up on James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, he was in awe of the powwow dancers he saw every summer; using ‘canvases’ salvaged from discarded paper bags and catalogs, he learned to draw them.

Decades later, Whitehead — now an acclaimed painter, with works widely exhibited across western Canada — lives in Vancouver.

His art is a particularly familiar presence on James Smith Cree Nation; he’s done murals for the school, the youth centre and the band office.

For the past few years, he has also been coming back to the community every summer to paint, drawing new inspiration from the site of his artistic beginnings.

In September 2022, when he heard about the mass stabbing attacks at JSCN and the nearby village of Weldon that left 11 people dead, it hit him hard.

“It was really shocking at the time,” he said in an interview. “I couldn’t believe it, how many people had passed away that day. It affects everybody on the reserve. Even if you’re not directly related, we’re all related in one way or another.”

Whitehead wanted to help his home community heal from the tragedy. This month, at the coroner’s inquest into the deaths, he found an unexpected way to do that.

‘It’s there to help them out’

In normal use, Melfort’s Kerry Vickar Centre is full of laughter and creativity, dance classes and concerts, basketball games and wood carving groups that gather in the evening. It’s a community centre, not a courtroom.

But with so many people attending the coroner’s inquest — lawyers, witnesses and the jury; survivors, community members and families of the victims needing answers and searching for closure — the community centre was temporarily repurposed to host the solemn proceedings.

Opposite the theatre where the inquest is being held, a glass-walled gallery dominates the space — and the three enormous, colourful Jerry Whitehead paintings on display are impossible to miss.

“Everybody knows my art out on the rez, so it’s there to help them out, in a way,” Whitehead said.

“When a person goes to a certain place, and they recognize something that they know, it does make a person feel better. When you go somewhere, and all of a sudden you see something that looks familiar to you — a picture, a painting — that brings up memories from back home, it gives you a better feeling for that place.

“I’m just trying to do my part of easing the pain, and I think art is a good way to do it. So hopefully, this will help in the right direction of healing. That’s the feeling I like people to get.”

This exhibit of Whitehead’s paintings first went up at the Kerry Vickar Centre in September 2023, for the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.

Knowing the coroner’s inquest was set for January, the City of Melfort asked Whitehead if his work could be kept on display.

“Hopefully, the art will give a comfort,” he said. “My paintings are really colourful and upbeat — I try to stay away from the negative stuff. Hopefully, that helps the people go through this whole process.”

His art uplifts our people

Delores Marion is one of many community members from JSCN attending the coroner’s inquest to learn about what happened that day.

Though it’s sad to remember and hard to hear, she wanted to bear witness.

When she walked in, Whitehead’s paintings caught her eye — something striking, bright and comfortingly familiar.

“I love his art — especially because he’s from our reserve,” Marion said. “His art uplifts our people.”

As her own way of bringing a little brightness and beauty to the site of this heart-wrenching, necessary work, Marion wore a skirt featuring another of Jerry Whitehead’s designs: geometric powwow dancers all in a row.

Since the inquest began, Whitehead said he’s been getting phone calls from people who have seen his distinctive work in the background of a TV shot or in a newspaper.

“People are always surprised, when they see my art in these ways,” he said. “People are telling me, ‘Hey, I saw your paintings again.’”

While he thinks it’s “neat” that so many people are seeing his art for the first time, he never loses sight of who this specific exhibit is for, he said.

“As long as it helps the people that are hurting right now, that’s the main thing.”

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts, please contact Crisis Services Canada (1-833-456-4566), Saskatoon Mobile Crisis (306-933-6200), Prince Albert Mobile Crisis Unit (306-764-1011), Regina Mobile Crisis Services (306-525-5333) or the Hope for Wellness Help Line, which provides culturally competent crisis intervention counselling support for Indigenous peoples (1-855-242-3310).