Artist Dennis Shorty is displaying art in a show called My Childhood Memories at the Hilltop Bistro at Yukon College beginning on Jan. 22.

Painting the past: Kaska artist explores his childhood in new show

‘I used to say I painted and I carved. But now I say it’s through my ancestors.’

Dennis Shorty can see the art in his raw materials.

The multi-talented Kaska artist will keep an antler around for a year before he carves it, or look at a piece of paper more than once before he decides what to do with it.

“If it doesn’t speak to me, I just burn it in a fire, but if it does, I put a picture on it,” he says.

“I feel it. Spiritually, mentally and physically, I feel it.”

Yukoners may know Shorty for his carvings, his jewellery or his music. In 2017 though, with the help of an advanced artist grant, Shorty started working with watercolours.

He has painted in the past, but only with acrylics. Shorty says he was encouraged to try watercolour by Tlingit artist Mark Preston. It took Shorty some experimenting to get used to the way ink and watcolour behaves on a page, but in the end, Shorty says it’s one more medium for him to tell his story.

The resulting show, My Childhood Memories, is on display at The Hilltop Bistro at Yukon College, beginning Monday Jan. 22.

As with previous works, the nine watercolours and three carvings tell stories of Shorty’s childhood growing up on the land near Ross River.

However, Shorty says they differ from his acrylic paintings in one significant way.

“Previous painting I’d done was really dark,” says Shorty, a residential school survivor. “The beginning of my healing journey (10 years ago) my paintings were really dark. Spooky. These are more alive, bright. Telling a story, but a different kind of story.”

The paintings depict outdoor and family scenes. Shorty’s grandfather with an archer’s bow. Family members with their dog teams and toboggans. His dad in a caribou-skin coat.

Working on the pieces this past year has helped him process his experience of residential school and sexual abuse, by allowing him to focus on the good in his childhood.

“The connection really helped me, is still helping me. It’s keeping me occupied and in a good frame of mind and my soul and my spirit’s in the right place,” he says.

He says the connection is one others feel too. Those who have viewed the work say they’re grateful, thankful, and connected to Shorty’s family through the images.

That makes sense, Shorty says. A lot of the stories that provided the basis for his paintings came from his grandfather. Shorty took those stories and incorporated his own perspective and ideas into them. It’s a kind of collaboration.

“I used to say I painted and I carved,” Shorty says, emphasizing the I. “But now I say it’s through my ancestors.”

My Childhood Memories opens Monday Jan. 22.

Contact Amy Kenny at amy.kenny@yukon-news.com

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