Q&A: Ojibway artist on what it’s like to visualize addiction and trauma
Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley, the illustrator for Discourse's #KidsofAddiction series, talks his art and inspiration.
There’s something powerful about bringing a story to life visually. When I decided to write about my father’s overdose death and the lessons it taught me, I knew I needed someone who was capable of illustrating my family’s experience. I’m lucky we found that person in Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley.
Josh, whose family is from the Wasauksing First Nation in Ontario, is a woodland artist who’s dedicated to restoring the arts and stories of the Ojibway. Upon discovering his work on Instagram, my editor and I thought his unique style — a blend of traditional and modern — perfectly complemented my story. Josh’s art addresses similar themes, including multigenerational trauma, and healing through reconnection to culture, family and community.
I asked Josh about his work, his inspirations and how he found the experience of illustrating my five-chapter investigation.
Q& A with Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley
Trevor Jang: When did you first begin practicing art? What was happening in your life at the time?
Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley: I’ve always been drawing. In school, I’d always sketch in my notebook or sketch on tests. Just different doodles. I’d always be drawing with my family. My family is all very creative people. They've always encouraged me to make art. I never considered doing it professionally until my early twenties. I started creating a few paintings and people seemed to really enjoy them. It really helped me gain more of a connection with my Native background. It helped me learn stories and the history of my people.
You’ve got a unique style. Your art is heavily influenced by your Indigenous background, but there’s also a different spin. Can you describe where this blend comes from?
It’s really just me trying to create my own style. I’m always following different artists on Instagram and all over social media. I like finding inspiration from all over the world nowadays. You can always find an artist that you like from anywhere in the world, and find a certain element of their style that you may want to try out in yours: Creating something that’s still tied to the traditional Ojibway woodlands style, but also making it more modern, and attaching your own awesome ideas and inspirations to it.
That’s really cool. I asked you to illustrate the story of my father and his battles with addiction, as well as my story and my challenges. What went through your head, as you started working on this project?
I really wanted to tell a story and get people to visualize it. I picked out little things in the story that I could visualize in my head and I thought would be interesting for people to look at, but also not too vague. Show the story happening. I wanted to show who your family was, what you went through. I wanted to show the drugs and how deadly they can be, and how they tear apart family.
Because it’s a tough subject, were there any challenges you came across, either personally or artistically?
Just knowing what people may be interested in seeing, or if it would be too much for people. It’s a pretty sensitive subject. And with it being so personal for you, seeing images of it could be sensitive for you, and hard for you to take in.
This was your first time working with a writer and developing illustrations specifically for a story that was already written. Can you describe what that experience was like from an artistic perspective, trying to create an illustration for a piece of writing?
Having to read through it all and picking out parts that seemed most interesting was definitely a difficult process, and then sketching out different ideas and putting it all together — like having it all connect together, in a way. Having the illustrations connect to the chapters. Finding the right elements that will tell a story correctly. It was definitely something new to me. I’ve written my own stories and added illustrations to them, but when it’s somebody else’s writing, it’s definitely a little bit harder to understand what the story is they’re trying to tell. Trying to get the right emotion behind it and the right vibe definitely can be a little challenging.
Obviously, this story is very personal and meaningful to me. But what did illustrating addiction and the healing process mean for you?
It’s definitely very meaningful to me. A lot of my family had issues with alcohol and drug addiction. It’s very prevalent in Native communities, especially back home where I’m from. You can see it has an effect on the whole community around the area. Seeing how it’s multigenerational and [how] it affects their kids and their grandkids and everyone in their family, it’s definitely an issue that needs to be talked about more and needs to have more awareness surrounding it.
What are the next steps for your career?
I’d like to do more illustrations for magazines and publications, but I’m mostly going towards fine arts and painting. That’s the thing I’m really passionate about. I’m having an art show at the end of next month and that’s what I’m focused on right now.
Josh’s art show “The Legend of Waynaboozhoo” is a series of paintings he’s made based on traditional Ojibway stories. They will be on display from November 30, 2017 - January 11, 2018 at the Skwachays Lodge in Vancouver. The opening reception is November 30 from 6 - 9 pm.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.