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i u a pi pu pa ti tu ta ki ku ka gi gu ga mi mu ma ni nu na si su sa li lu la ji ju ja vi vu va ri ru ra qi qu qa ngi ngu nga lhi lhu lha

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This Anishinaabe artist is Indigenizing spaces in southwestern Ontario

CBC News | June 24, 2023

Categories: news

Mike Cywink is experiencing an "explosion" of interest in his Woodland-style art.

CBC News · Posted: Jun 24, 2023 5:00 AM EDT | Last Updated: June 24

A man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a Detroit Red Wings jersey stands in front of a brightly-coloured mural on a wall.
Artist Mike Cywink with one of his murals at Western University, completed in early 2023. (Submitted by Mike Cywink)

Mike Cywink says he just tries his best to add some colour to a world that can sometimes be pretty grey.

The Anishinaabe artist lives in Ingersoll, Ont., east of London, where he's juggling multiple projects, including a recently-commissioned 12-metre tall mural for a library wall at Wilfrid Laurier University, as well as artwork for the foyer of the St. Thomas Police Service. 

Cywink grew up on Whitefish River First Nation, south of Espanola, Ont., where he is a member. His father is from Chippewas of the Thames. He sat down with CBC London host Allison Devereaux to talk about the demand for his artwork. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Allison Devereaux: How busy are you right now, painting murals?

Mike Cywink: It is absolutely insane. I've been working with a bunch of Indigenous students at H.B. Beal Secondary School. The Boys and Girls Club of London, they gave us a canvas, which is a half-bus, and they said, "Hey, do you guys want to paint this?"

Back section of a bus, painted with a blue and green background. In the foreground, a large turtle with a long tongue.
This half-bus, owned by the Boys and Girls Club of London, is being painted by Mike Cywink and students from H.B. Beal Secondary School. (Submitted by Mike Cywink)

We started one at Woodland Heights Elementary School, a mural that was eight feet by eight feet. I'm starting up a couple other ones for Vanier Children's Mental Wellness in London. Then a big one at a library wall at Wilfred Laurier University, which is a 40 foot mural. 

AD: Why do you think you're seeing this kind of surge in the level of interest?

MC: I'm really hoping it's that businesses and institutions are making a conscious decision to work toward reconciliation and to do their part in supporting Indigenous communities. I know art is just one form of that, and there's a lot more work that can be done in terms of making things better for the communities, but I hope that's what it is.

And I think people just like art. They especially like my style of art which is so big and bright and colourful. I think people like that and get drawn to it. 

Anishinaabe artist Mike Cywink on London Morning talks about his murals across Southwestern Ontario.

AD: I'm wondering if you can elaborate on the reconciliation piece. Does it feel like reconciliation to you?

MC: As an artist, yes, because I'm a big believer that representation matters. We need to be seen. We need to be heard and to feel included in a lot of these places and institutions. I remember when I first started working and going to Western University, I didn't see myself at all, anywhere, there. I didn't see myself on the walls and in the staff. So, it definitely left a feeling of disconnect.

A man standing at the bottom of a brick wall, looking up at it. He looks very small by comparison.
This 12-metre tall library wall at Wilfrid Laurier in Waterloo, Ont., is Mike Cywink's next canvas. The project includes public input on the design, and is expected to be completed by September 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. (Submitted by Mike Cywink)

I think when I talk about representation, people need this, even if it's just a visual thing, like a painting on the wall, or a giant mural or whatever. They need to feel welcomed and feel like they belong, too. And I think art helps kind of bridge that gap. That's how I see it. 

AD: What is it like to see your work existing out in the world, on this large scale and all around you?

MC: It's humbling. I didn't start painting until maybe eight years ago. Recently, over the past couple of years, it's really exploded. I took art through high school, but that was a long time ago. Back then, I was more obsessed with drawing Spiderman and I never really got into the Woodland-style art that I do now. 

I'm trying to share about our culture within every brushstroke. Every element that of piece has meaning, and there's a story behind it. And so, working with indigenous youth over my career, I really wanted to to learn more about the culture. Doing the artwork really helped me in terms of learning more about who I am and learning about the culture.

If I paint a big bear or a big wolf, or something like that, I want to be able to explain why, and what the wolf means and what the bear means. I'm a storyteller.

A man leans on a half-wall painted bright colours. The mural includes an eagle.
Mike Cywink's mural in the library at East Elgin Secondary School in Aylmer, Ont., was painted with the help of students. (Submitted by Mike Cywink)

AD: Are you self-taught, in terms of technique?

MC: For my painting, I've just worked at it, putting in the hours and deciding what works and what doesn't. For digital stuff, you gotta thank YouTube for learning how to use the iPad and the Procreate and all that stuff. But in terms of design and everything, that's just all me.

AD: What does it take to make a good mural? 

MC: I think, for me, it's just making sure that we're telling the right story. And for everything else, have meaning and purpose within my heart. I think visually it's just making sure all the colours and everything contrasts well, and all that stuff. And then just making sure that the elements and the key pieces are all evenly spaced out and you're not leaving a whole lot of blank space.

AD: Do you have a dream canvas that you would love to paint?

MC: I would love to do an Indigenous-themed court for the Toronto Raptors. I'd like to design an album cover for one of my favourite bands, and just to continue to grow and Indigenize these non-Indigenous spaces in southwestern Ontario.

Frosted glass art at Western University’s Wampum Learning Lodge
A frosted glass piece by Mike Cywink provides privacy for students inside the classroom at Western University’s Wampum Learning Lodge. (Submitted by Western University)


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