The Story of Robert

A life of survival and creativity

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I had seen the beautiful painting in the Board Room of Shelter House many times. It’s hard to miss, as it illustrates so beautifully the nature of home. And then I found, rolled up and tucked away another canvas by the same artist. This one features an eagle protecting its two chicks in the nest. Yellow, orange and black, the painting reminded me so much of the protectiveness a parent feels towards his or her young. I had it stretched, and it hangs in my office for all visitors to see. Both paintings are by Robert Moskotaywenene, also known as Mosquito to his friends, who sometimes stays with Shelter House.

When I finally met the artist, I was impressed by his gentle spirit and obvious kindness. We asked him to help infuse more beauty into the Shelter House environment. Drawing on the Seven Grandfather teachings, Robert painted a large canvas that we hung in the lobby. Each teaching is depicted by an animal and has a story that illustrates the value. The values (wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, truth and humility) are good reminders to all of us about how to live with integrity.

The dining room wall at Shelter House seemed like another logical spot to beautify. We asked Robert if he could do a series of murals to share the teachings with those who eat, volunteer and work at Shelter House. The results are nothing short of spectacular.

I sat down with Robert to talk a bit about his life, his work and his plans.

Robert comes from Bearskin Lake. Located in the territory of Treaty 9, Bearskin Lake is a remote community 425 kilometres north of Sioux Lookout and accessible only by air in the summer and winter roads. He has been back and forth from Bearskin since he was 25 years old. After his mother died in Thunder Bay, his dad returned to Bearskin Lake. Robert has been painting since 1995, although he used pencil and other mediums before that. He said that he first started by mimicking the style of Norval Morrisseau and other woodland artists, but eventually his own way emerged. “I guess that is the style that I was given to paint like this. I am more comfortable with my own style.” Robert often researches the animals he paints at the library to better understand their spirit and behaviour.

Robert has struggled with homelessness for some time. Although he would like his own place in Thunder Bay, he doesn’t generate enough monthly income to for rental market rates. He lives with disabilities that increase the already significant barriers to housing. He talked about how hard it is to save and budget money, even when he earns extra through painting. Many family members are also in poverty and he shares what he earns with them. And living in Bearskin Lake is not possible, as he doesn’t have the support he needs to stay in that community.

Robert is open about his struggle with alcohol addiction. He shared a story about how he nearly died one winter through exposure to the elements. His heart stopped six times and he says he is amazed to be alive, as is the police officer that found him in the cold, with blood barely flowing.

Shelter House thanks Robert for sharing his talent with all of us. Your artwork lifts us all up and reminds us of the values that lead to a good life.

 Visit our facebook page to see more paintings done by Robert in Shelter House. https://www.facebook.com/shelterhousedotondotca