By Terry Lusty
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
This year’s winner of the Peace Hills art competition, Steven Thomas, was formally acknowledged during a reception at Edmonton’s west end Doubletree Hotel last month, surrounded by fellow artists, Peace Hills Trust staff, board members and clients, in addition to an array of art pieces submitted by Indigenous artists from across Canada.
The celebration, which garnered Thomas a cool $5000 in prize money, kicked off with a grand entry, several Indigenous dance performances, an opening prayer, and introductions.
In addition to Thomas’ first place win was runner up Jason Sasakamoose and third place winner, Linus Woods, who received $3,000 and $2,000 in prize money respectively.
Competition organizer Erin Buffalo explained that the art pieces on display were, with some exceptions, for sale to people on hand with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the artists.
After all, the company prides itself in living up to its “support of Native culture and tradition,” and views the annual event as an “integral part of shaping our proud history and will remain an ongoing contribution” to achieving this goal.
All considered, Thomas’ win was actually quite a feat if one factors in the fact that he has only worked at art professionally for one year. And, he’s never taken any formal classes in art nor been tutored by any art mentor. While many artists develop themselves from an early age, not so for the 41-year-old Thomas. He explains that he never really aspired to art as a career and, generally speaking, earned his income from working in the construction industry prior to recent times.
Thomas was largely influenced culturally by his grandparents, especially his grandmother, he explained in a recent interview with Alberta Native News. Despite coming from a deprived upbringing, his granny instilled good values, ethics, traditions and lifestyles, he said. For Thomas, these special gifts are ones he continues to treasure and hold dear.
It is those blessings and ideologies that Thomas attempts to infuse into his art. As he states, most of his art pieces are not necessarily pre-planned. Rather, they are the result of specific customers’ orders and he respects the sentimental attachments individuals have to the representations he creates. Whatever his clientele desires, he tries to build it into his work. It may be something that has personal or private sentiments or it could be an event or occurrence, an honouring, a celebration of sorts, or something else.
Thomas does his utmost to create art that is memorable and lends respect for his client and subject matter. “I try to put as much meaning as possible in my art,” he explains, though he points out, “some art is quite private.” He also aims to provide art that “gives hope, and joy” to people.
Looking down the road he’d like to “start an art group” in his local community. “Even an art gallery would be nice,” he expressed.
Thomas currently works from home and both his brothers are into some form of art; his older brother is a tattoo artist while his other sibling is a woodworker.
As a young child, Thomas dabbled in art with no particular longings or vision to becoming an artist. He would knock off some sketchings and doodle with pencil and paper, but the pursuit of art as a career was always quite foreign to his thought patterns, he says. He first experimented with oil paints, which is his desired medium today, when he was into his senior years of high school.
Most artists have someone they admire or whose work inspires them. Thomas admires the artwork of Michael Lonechild who is one of Saskatchewan’s most accomplished and respected Cree artists.
He also admires the work of the late veteran artist, originally from Canada’s eastern woodlands, Norval Morrisseau who achieved international acclaim and was one of the more prominent members of the original Indian “Group of Seven.”
Thomas is now starting to be on the receiving end of more demands for his art, including some commissions. This is keeping him busy and doing what has become an enjoyable and fruitful element in his life. At this point, he does not see himself going in any other direction and people are likely to see more of his work in the future.
Steven Thomas’ winning piece is now the visual subject for the 2023 Peace Hills Trust calendar.
Terry Lusty is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with ALBERTA NATIVE NEWS. The LHI program is federally funded.