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Cariboo artist finds spiritual healing through painting

Daniel Raphael is a residential school survivor who seeks to help others
First Nations artist, Daniel Raphael creates art that is rich in colour and seems to jump off the canvas. Some of his work can be seen at the Stemete7uw’i Friendship Centre, #4, 330 Birch Avenue in 100 Mile House. (Fiona Grisswell photo - 100 Mile Free Press)

Daniel Raphael’s art draws you in.

The Indigenous artist uses vibrant oranges, fiery reds and brilliant yellows - colours of sunsets and nature surrounding cultural symbols like eagles, orcas and ravens.

It wasn’t always that way.

As a residential school survivor, he never excelled at art in school.

His artwork was all black. Full of angry scribbles.

“I was angry and I couldn’t understand why I was angry,” said Raphael, who lives in 70 Mile House. “I hated Great Britain. Now we have King Charles III. We don’t have to sing God Save the Queen anymore.”

It wasn’t until he took courses in post-traumatic stress disorder that he was able to let that anger go.

“First Nations people have a hard time trying to ask for help. It’s just the way it is. I can say it’s the residential schools, the sixties scoop ‘cause I was all part of it.”

He remembers being sick and spending two weeks in the infirmary. A priest told him he was lucky. He could have been one of the children who never made it home.

Art was a big factor in his healing.

Self-taught, he learned from everything, even his mistakes.

He finds if you can get the look of the mountains right, then the rest of the picture can be added with the correct perspective.

“I just go through pictures and look at them. The main thing is mountains, I try to balance things out how they are supposed to look - natural.”

He points to a painting with a sky full of yellow stars.

Yellow paint had spilled on the canvas. He wasn’t sure what to do with it as it was streaked across the sky. He realized he could take a brush and blend it into the background, making it appear part of the stars.

Art has always been part of his culture. One of his grandfathers used to carve and showed Raphael how to do it.

Somewhere along his journey, as his art took off, he considered attending Emily Carr - as other Indigenous artists had done - but he said it was too expensive.

“Even with the First Nation’s background, it helped (other artists) out,” he said of Emily Carr. “And what they had become - became known worldwide as First Nations artists from Canada and B.C.”

Over the past 30 years, Raphael has been sharing that healing spirit with others suffering emotionally. While working as a social worker in the prison system, he was told to keep his distance from the inmates.

“Don’t try to personalize it,” he said he was told, but “I’m a human being. I did a lot of personalizing because I was pissed off.”

He said the people he was trying to help had the same anger - and the only way to heal was to express it.

During that time, he spoke with many different First Nation master carvers and jewelers who were incarcerated. They had a psychological problem, he said, but they still were artists.

“When I worked with the inmates I just looked at them as human beings. Whether they had a problem or not - that was with the medical, the corrections,” he said. “My job was to help them in a spiritual way because that is the only way I can get to them.”

Raphael jumps between his experiences and painting techniques.

He gestures to a sun done in shades of rich red and oranges. If he had just used one colour, he said, it would be flat. The brightness brought it to life.

“That’s the spirit of doing this stuff,” he said, tapping the painting.

Raphael has a round sponge on a stick which he uses to dab the sun’s outer edges, giving it depth and making it appear to jump from the canvas.

He does not require expensive canvases to create his art. “I got this at the Dollar Store,” he said with a smile, picking up some 12 x 12 sheets of paper.

He said he has a lot of interest in his work. If someone likes a piece, he asks them what they think it is worth or what they can afford. Depending on the prospective buyer, he might even give it to them.

“I know my artwork is worth a lot of money but I’m not interested. I’m retired.”

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Fiona Grisswell

About the Author: Fiona Grisswell

I graduated from the Writing and New Media Program at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George in 2004.
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