Nationally-known Indigenous artist hoping to fulfill goal of mural in Melfort

Artist Jerry Whitehead works in his home studio in Vancouver. -- Jerry Whitehead/Website

A nationally recognized Indigenous artist is eyeing a mural in Melfort as one of his next big projects.

Jerry Whitehead, originally from James Smith Cree Nation, currently has his work on display at Melfort’s Sherven-Smith Art Gallery in the Kerry Vickar Centre.

Many of his paintings depict colourful pow wow scenes, something he was exposed to growing up watching his family members dance in cultural celebrations.

“A lot of it relates to family, it also relates to nature and stuff, my influences growing up as a child,” said Whitehead.

“My mom, she used to do a lot of crafts, like colourful braided rugs that really influenced me a lot, too.”

Whitehead is hoping the exhibit sparks more of an artistic footprint in Melfort, leading to a mural somewhere along the highway that runs through town.

“I want it to be real visible,” he said.

“Murals are interesting. They’ve been really popular in the last few years all over the world, it’s just like everybody’s getting on the bandwagon with them. It’s a good way of beautifying a city or a town.”

One of Jerry Whitehead’s 60 x 94 in. paintings, titled ‘Being Around Grandma. — Jerry Whitehead/Website.

Whitehead left James Smith Cree Nation when he attended residential school in Prince Albert. Following high school graduation, he moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia for art school, eventually making his way to his current home in Vancouver.

There, he estimates he’s done between 20 and 30 murals – one on a seven-story building and another on a retaining wall that’s three blocks long.

On top of adding colour to public spaces, Whitehead said murals can spread a celebratory message about Indigenous ways of life.

That’s what he hopes the current exhibit provides to people in the Melfort area.

Although it wasn’t intentional, according to Whitehead, the start of the exhibit coincided with the first anniversary of the mass stabbings at James Smith at the beginning of September. The killing left 11 people dead and another 17 injured.

“I hope it encourages a lot of the younger people there, especially from my home community to think of art as another way. I’ve done it all my life so it’s probably the biggest encouragement I could give them,” said Whitehead.

“Coming from that area, you don’t expect to have your art there. It’s like coming full circle for me.”

Whitehead said he grew up drawing “like any other kid.” However, he often used alternative materials to sketching pencils, such as ashes from a fire or lead from his father’s bullets.

He said he would likely come up with a new piece for a mural in Melfort, and is hoping to fulfill the project next summer.

The exhibit at the Kerry Vickar Centre runs until Sept. 30.