It took Damian John decades to realize words weren’t always the best way to connect with people.
When John was in his 20s he became woke to the problems of the world and hoped to make a change. In his 30s, having failed to make that change, he struggled with depression and anxiety.
But four years ago the now 43 year old quit his career as a massage therapist to focus on his art. That choice led to an epiphany.
“I think the dialogue that we have with words is limited. You have this understanding of words, I have an understanding of words. Sometimes they don’t match up,” he says.
“We’re really bad at telling each other what we’re feeling and we’re really bad at understanding what the other person is saying to us in general, even with people we know well. So I thought, but what about having art do that for us and being creative with how we speak to each other.”
John, a Ymir-based artist, hopes to meld words and art into a new type of conversation when he hosts a workshop for BC Culture Days on Sept. 26. Jones was the only West Kootenay artist named ambassador to the annual event, which will run Sept. 25 to Oct. 25.
His livestream is titled Exploring Reconciliation Through Creativity, in which John plans to tell the story of how colonization affected his family and people before having participants create art based on the discussion.
A member of Tl’azt’en First Nation near Prince George, John grew up with a family traumatized by the residential school system. His father attended nearby Lejac Residential School, a Catholic-run facility that operated from 1922 to 1976.
The school is partly remembered now for being the place four boys froze to death while trying to escape from in 1937.
“All of my family on that side is directly impacted by colonization, by residential school,” said John, “and that impacts us as his children, that affects nephews and generations that are coming after us. There’s a heavy, heavy impact mentally, health wise, relationally, all of these various components which would take a long time to talk to or speak to in a real strong way.”
First Nations art has always been a part of John’s life. His father brought pieces home, and John was later influenced by artists Robert Sebastian and Roy Henry Vickers.
John’s own art is vibrant, colourful and distinctly modern. In his work he’s found a place to explore his culture and voice concerns while also being in control of the outcome in a way he never felt he could in conversation.
“If I want to have a life that has any feelings of quality to it, I need to shift things,” he says. “So making things that I think are beautiful, and allowing people to engage in that space as well, felt useful.”
That’s how he hopes the people who take his workshop feel after creating their own work. John wants to inspire new ways of discourse about difficult topics despite personal differences, and he thinks art is the key.
“How do we bridge those spaces to come to a place of community and goodwill and conflict resolution?” he says. “In spite of being devastated by all the information out there I still have hope we can do things differently.”
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