Wayne Mckenzie is an Algonquin/Cree painter from Timiskaming First Nation. A self-taught artist, Mckenzie’s use of bold colours and confident lines lead to a body of work that exudes a sense of cheerfulness and spirit. His pieces are steeped in First Nations teachings, which Mckenzie considers an essential function of his art. A firm believer that art is synonymous with knowledge, he views his work as resource for viewers to learn about the Anishnabe way of life and to honour the Indigenous peoples of Canada.

Honoring the Family Wayne McKenzie Lineage Arts Gallery Ottawa Indigenous Art

How did your journey as a painter begin?

I started painting in 98′. In Sault Ste Marie, two friends of mine showed me how to paint and work with colours to bring them together. That first week I started learning, I sold my work. That’s when I was like, “I’m gonna try doing this full time.” I went back to Timiskaming, my mind flowing with all sorts of images and colours. Eventually, I got an art grant, and I was off to France and the UK, just doing pop-ups to sell my art. When I came back, I ran with this idea of pop-ups. It took me all around Canada and the USA, journeying to sell my art and learn about other Indigenous communities in the places I traveled.


Do you have any of your very first drawings? What was the subject matter?

I have one of them. It was two Eagles facing each other with their beaks connecting in the shape of a heart. It’s pretty big, about four foot by two and a half foot.


How would you describe your style and technique?

When I think of my older pieces, the lines are thin, the colour isn’t so vivid, and nothing really fills the canvas space. Now my work is bold, with confident lines, intense colors. I know who I am as an artist, and it shows up on the canvas. I’ll put a lot of pinks and light colors, along with bold, dark hues. That balance between soft and bright colours is essential. I temper intense colours with solid lines, either in white or black. Colours represent emotions to me, so I pick colours to reflect sadness, happiness, love. These little things create a balanced piece for me.


Who are your biggest artistic influences?

It would be the two guys that helped me start in 1998. They showed me a whole way of putting things down on the canvas. Of course, Norval Morrisseau was a genuine inspiration because of what he did. He was out there, you know, and it takes a lot to be on the stage like that continuously.


You have a blank canvas in front of you. How do you start?

I always start with a smudge using sage and cedar. I have a little altar beside me. It holds my eagle feathers and my sacred items there. My pipe is there. I’ll smudge the canvas, my paintbrushes, my paints, the whole room. I have my traditional drum, and I’ll sing a song. This process grounds me. I like to be grounded. Not thinking of politics, money, or any outside influences like that. My mind needs to be clear. Painting is almost meditative.

Once that’s done, the painting starts. I usually begin with multiple canvases at a time. In my head, I already have a certain number of colours floating around. I’ll start with the background. After that, I add the birds, images, things that inspire me to create.


Where do you draw inspiration for your works from? How has your Indigenous identity informed your pieces and work as an artist?

Artists like to express the good and bad about life. I struggled with alcohol for a while and turned to my culture as a way out. Learning about my people, the Algonquin people, changed me. It also brought me to painting. I get depressed, and I get down like everyone else. Instead of turning to a bottle, I’ll paint. This whole experience of learning about my culture and translating it into art has put me on a path away from the bad life I was living.

I drove down to Los Angeles for one of my earlier paintings, and I stopped in Arizona. I saw these two rocks. They were a fantastic colour. I wanted to take them with me, so I pulled over and picked them up. In my community, though, we give something back when we take. I gave a song, a wolf song, and sang it four times in each direction. At that moment, I could just feel the presence of people around me. I could see the colours of that feeling. I left an offering of tobacco. At the first chance I got, I painted the scenery that I was in with a wolf in the middle of the canvas singing. My inspiration is rooted in Indigenous teachings and stories, and the people I’ve met, the places that I’ve been.

My art is all about my culture. The teachings I share from my culture are all about love, honour, generosity, and respect.


Life experiences and the multiplicities of identity often shape artists in ways that translate to their work. You were the elected Chief for the Timiskaming First Nation. Can you tell us a little bit more about that chapter of your life? Has that come to inform your work as an artist?

The thing with politics is you start with people loving you and end with them hating you. So by the end of it (and even the middle), I was just emotionally and spiritually drained. And I remember thinking to myself that I only painted twice when I was Chief over three years. My common-law partner at the time encouraged me to get back into painting. I stepped aside from politics when my term as Chief was done and poured everything into my art. There was a lot of trauma I was dealing with from my position, and I needed to heal. I needed to shed that role and get back to me. That process also changed who I was as an artist. My work just started to open up.


It seems like art was both a teacher and your salvation. You’ve been on this journey with art, and it’s really been a companion for you. What do you hope to accomplish as an artist?

Like most artists, I want to sell my art, but it’s a bit more than that for me. I want to teach and mentor people using art as a way to better themselves. I’m taken to create spaces for people to learn and buy art in the community.


Why do you think it is crucial for art collectors and enthusiasts to support Canadian Indigenous artists?

Education! Our art is a doorway into our culture. Our art is a part of the heritage of this land. It’s powerful storytelling. It creates greater knowledge about our culture and history. Some people still have a hard time believing that the colonialists tried to assimilate us or wipe us out completely. These stories come with our art. This knowledge comes with it. Indigenous art forces you to learn about the artist and their community. It breaks down walls so people can start treating us like humans based on shared humanity and not racism or harmful stereotypes. Education and knowledge go a long way. Art wakes people up.


How can people support Indigenous artists?

Honour Indigenous. Buy our art, put it on your walls. Spread the word about us. Do research and actively seek out true Indigenous artists. If original art is not in your budget, try buying prints. They are a great alternative.

My final piece of advice is to go to Pow-Wows if you can! You can find beautiful art and handicrafts for such affordable prices, but at the same time, you can learn about the Nations whose land we are on. You can watch the traditional dancers, you can try different foods. You get the art and the education. It’s an important experience for people.