As Selkirk College student Darwin Greyeyes handed out his commissioned hand-made bronze feathers to Aboriginal graduates at a breakfast celebration held at the Gathering Place on the Castlegar Campus recently, he did so with pride.
Greyeyes is proud of himself, his renewed artistic accomplishment and the healing journey he’s found the strength to take—all the way back to his First Nations roots.
Darwin Greyeyes enrolled in Selkirk College Kootenay Studio Arts last fall amid a mental health crisis that shook his foundation. Now, thriving in his new environment, the sculptor has reconnected with his artistic self and his First Nations roots in a healing journey taking him forward one step at a time.
A Kootenay Studio Arts at Selkirk College (KSA)) student, Greyeyes has found great success as a blacksmithing and bronze casting artist.
“He really is an amazing craftsman and an amazing guy,” says Kleine, one of the region’s most well-known sculptors.
A Painful Journey to Powerful Connection
It’s a triumph of considerable proportions for Greyeyes considering his struggle to get there.
Just a few years ago, Greyeyes was down and out struggling with anxiety attacks and mental distress. No longer able to work, his successful construction company had crumbled and he faced financial ruin.
“It was hard to crash in life, to lose all who one thinks they are and were,” he says.
A bi-polar diagnosis two years ago brought Greyeyes self-understanding to a decade of uncharacteristic erratic behaviour and came with the support he needed to manage his mental health including spending four months in care. Still, the 54-year-old was lost in life before finding his way to Kootenay Studio Arts where he rediscovered a passion for creating sculpture.
“It’s nice to have that fire lit inside again. I was lost,” he says. “This program has been like a godsend. It’s been a blessing. I’m going to look back at this as the turning point for my new me, starting here at KSA—and being diagnosed.”
At the mid-point in his life, amid crisis, Greyeyes took a risk and enrolled in Blacksmithing at Kootenay Studio Arts, finally pursuing a dream to be an artist.
Greyeyes grew up north of Saskatoon in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. He is Cree and both his parents and two older siblings attended St. Michael’s Indian Residential School. The tragic impact on his family unit was akin to the experiences suffered by other Indigenous people in Canada. Experiencing abuse and isolation in childhood had a lasting impact on the man.
“Residential schools destroyed the family system. Us ten kids were raised never knowing what affection was,” Greyeyes says. “We couldn’t communicate with each other because we didn’t know how.”
Honouring his mother’s wishes, Greyeyes graduated from high school in 1979, the only male in his family to do so, and then he promptly set out on his own.
“Like the rest of my family, I left. We scattered like rats from a sinking ship,” he says. “And once you start running, you just keep going.”
Greyeyes threw himself into work, repressing all that happened to him as a child. He made a name for himself with 30 years of experience in the construction industry, 20 of those years as owner of his own business. He worked in Edmonton, Victoria and then in Nelson, arriving in 1999 with his young family.
An Artist at Heart
Before his three daughters and running a business became his focus, Greyeyes actively explored his artistic side. Self-taught, he did portraiture in pencil and charcoal and was included in a few juried art shows.
“I’ve always been an artist. It’s always been in me,” he says.
Then, he found stained glass. Greyeyes has five years’ experience working in stained glass shops—first in Saskatoon and then in Victoria—where he ran a shop with a business partner. While doing this, he taught classes and was able to display his own work for sale.
But Greyeyes let his art fall to the wayside and before returning to study at Selkirk College, he’d been on a 22-year hiatus from creativity.
“I didn’t even doodle or anything,” he says. “It was like I closed that door. And I was okay with it. I was happy to be a dad and just working hard but now that the door is open again, it’s like the flood gates, I love it. It is part of my healing.”
At the mid-point in his life, amid crisis, Greyeyes took a risk and enrolled in Blacksmithing at Kootenay Studio Arts, finally pursuing a dream to be an artist. It wasn’t easy.
“Here I was, a grown man who could build anything. I was doing high rises on the coast. Coming into school, I was terrified, my first day. I felt like I was in Grade One. But once I got here, I was allowed to just relax and create,” he says. “As daunting as it can be, the first steps can be hard, sometimes so is the second one and the third. But it’s just a journey. You have to start somewhere.”
Over the past eight months, Greyeyes has aced his Blacksmithing and Bronze Casting Studios with top marks and has buyers interested in his homework. Bellaflora in Nelson has just taken four blacksmithing pieces and two custom bronze planters on consignment with an open invite to be a continuing contributor. As part of his year-end open studio, Greyeyes is doing five Native portraits in bronze to be presented to the Osoyoos Indian Band.
Greyeyes has also completed several commissioned pieces for Selkirk College including the 21 bronze feathers given as grad gifts. The Gathering Place has several other features created by the student—a coat rack with feather motif hooks, book shelf brackets with large eagle feather braces and a large cedar shelf with six ornate struts of bear, blue heron and a salmon. The shelf has a bronze “honour your elders” plaque and metal feather end plates.
The themes of nature Greyeyes explores in his sculpture today are tied to his First Nations past. He is telling his story, a story of a past he’s come to terms with through art.
“I’ve matured. I have a better understanding really of who I am and what it means to be native,” he says.
As he’s learned to hone his craft, he is also learning to be in tune with his emotional health, trusting dark moments will pass, knowing when he needs solitude and when he needs help.
“I now know my emotions, fears, strengths and an inner-voice I hardly ever heard before, are not only part of who I was but better yet, who I am to be. A dad of three grown daughters, grand-dad to one boy, I can only keep one foot in front of the other and not lose faith,” he says. “My kids are proud of me for the steps I’ve taken. I’ve had to turn some pages in my life.”
On June 17 and 18, Kootenay Studio Arts will be having their annual year-end show and sale at their studio at 606 Victoria Street. Darwin Greyeyes will have his work on display alongside his studio and school classmates. It runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days.