By Meng Wei
Ryan Jason Allen Willert started selling his art on the streets when he was 18. Over the past 20 years, he kept “grinding,” to use his word, to make a living as an Indigenous artist—going from only being able to draw stickmen to painting murals and creating landmarks.
His art marks his talent, his healing, and Indigenous teachings when he became a Knowledge Keeper. But it’s not often that a full-time commissioned artist gets to create art for himself, not even during the pandemic.
On the one hand, recognition brought him a consistent income, but on the other, it didn’t give him time to stop and have some space of his own.
nvrlnd. Arts Foundation reached out to Ryan and offered him a one-month residency. Busy making money and fulfilling his obligations, Ryan was going to turn it down until a funding opportunity came and allowed some breathing room in his life.
“I was able to go in there, and I was able to put hours and hours into just one painting where I don’t get that luxury as a full-time artist,” Ryan says. “It was such a therapeutic feeling for me.”
He says he produced “the best pieces of art I’ve ever made” because for the first time in a long time, he painted in peace for no one else but himself on pieces that are not to be sold.
“I’d like to create a large body of work and come up with a plan for them,” Ryan says. “I’ve got all sorts of ideas for what I want to do.”
Ryan’s next goal is an exhibition at a gallery with his original works carrying his identity and the knowledge he inherited from the teachings that have been passed down for centuries.
Myke Buckingham, an artist and the residency director at nvrlnd. says, “Ryan has been my mentor as I seek to better understand the ongoing process of reconciliation in Canada. I want to help Ryan to teach others much like he has taught me.”
Ryan is going to keep himself busy teaching and helping with ceremonies as an Elder in the making. At the same time he’ll continue as an artist to bridge Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.