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In Fort Smith, a new school mural reflects students’ journeys

Melanie Jewell spray-painting the PWK school mural in Fort Smith. Photo: Morgan Tsetta
Melanie Jewell spray-painting the PWK school mural in Fort Smith. Photo: Pierre-Emmanuel Chaillon

Artist Melanie Jewell’s latest mural is now complete at Fort Smith’s Paul William Kaeser High School, the largest project she has worked on in her hometown.

Jewell, an alumna of the school, said her work at last year’s Vancouver Mural Festival – where she had a mural unveiled in the city’s South Main neighbourhood – had expanded her opportunities.

Ispiciwin, which means “journey” in Cree, is 60 ft by 14 ft and made entirely with Montana-brand spray paints.

“I’ve never painted anything this large by myself before,” she said.

The idea of depicting children playing sports or reading books seemed “too literal” to Jewell, who wanted the mural to be “reflective of the North.”



Her work instead shows the school’s mascot, a husky, wearing a traditional dog blanket (Jewell has two dogs of her own, including a husky and German shepherd mix). The drum in the top left-hand corner doubles as an illustration of the sun.

“Drumming is a huge part of our culture,” she said. “I wanted to add the representation of the school working on reconciliation.”

In the first week of class, the school’s seventh and eighth-grade students normally travel to Sweetgrass, a backcountry station inside the nearby Wood Buffalo National Park. Jewell said the mural reflects that trip by depicting two people paddling a canoe over sweetgrass braids that represent water.

The finished mural. Photo: Pierre-Emmanuel Chaillon

The sweetgrass turns into a ribbon skirt on a woman to the right of the artwork, who is smudging – a ceremony in which sweetgrass, cedar, sage, and tobacco are burned to create smoke for purification.



Christy MacKay, the high school’s principal, said the artwork incorporates the journey students take while at the school.

“Our journey with the students is to bring them from Grade 7, give them as many skills and as many experiences as we can, [and] help them leave in Grade 12 to be able to go out into the world,” she said.

Creating the mural was not helped by the town’s evacuation a week after painting began, MacKay said.

Even getting spray paints to the school had been a “community effort,” with Jewell’s family members in the south helping to arrange for supplies to be delivered.

Regardless, painting a mural in Fort Smith was a whole new experience for some residents, Jewell said, who ordinarily “don’t see murals happening.”

“I wanted to come up with something positive, hoping that it inspires them in some way,” she said of her work. “To brighten up their space, to make it more welcoming, to make a positive impact on the community.”