The thread that binds man, the Creator and the natural world is illustrated through the works of countless celebrated First Nations’ artists, and for St. Thomas Community Christian School art educator Peggy DeVries, this is an important connection to highlight for the children she teaches.
In February, pupils in Grades 5 and 6 at the school embarked on a two-month artistic journey with DeVries to learn, through the language of art, the importance of honouring the customs and beliefs of the people of Canada’s First Nations.
Pupils studied the work of the late Norval Morrisseau, and that of Christian Cree artist Ovide Bighetty.
They visited pupils from the Antler River Elementary School on the reserve of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nations, and listened to stories of the Creator told by respected elder, Shane Henry.
They talked about the clash of Christian institutions and First Nations peoples, and the relationship DeVries says is “painfully broken and tragically lacking in respect.”
Art was the powerful vehicle for understanding, reflection and growth.
The perspective of First Nations in history has been neglected in the education system, DeVries says, “so to give the students an opportunity to listen and learn directly from people of First Nations heritage is extremely important.”
“We are representative of a Christian institution and for students who are learning within the Christian school setting I think it’s very important for them to respect the religious traditions of others.”
She says art is useful in translating these concepts in ways a conventional classroom or lecture setting can not because “art is a different language … that is perceived through the senses so we’re able to engage not just the mind, but the heart.”
Because that language is universal it’s able to transcend barriers between cultures and beliefs to enlighten students in a meaningful way.
She’s seen this time and again in her 17 years as an educator who carries a personal commitment to engaging her students in every aspect of the world around them.
Numerous former students have spoken to DeVries as adults and thanked her for the opportunity she gave them to see art as not just a picture on a wall, but as a universal link to the world around them.