Have paint, will travel

Art saves children, says Beth McKenty



Beth McKenty dreams of every child in Nunavut armed with paint.

That’s because the 74-year-old sees a change in kids who are angry, depressed or hopeless after they pick up a paintbrush and swirl together different mixtures of red, yellow and blue.

“Although it’s simple on the surface, I’m realizing it’s deeper than I thought,” she said.

For the past six years she’s encouraged idle children to try their hand at painting inside her Iqaluit home. Now she’s taking her project, named the Arctic Youth Art Initiative, to other communities across Nunavut.

Eventually, she says, she’d like to visit them all.

McKenty stopped in Kimmirut for several days during the last week of November.

“I tried to paint with every one of the 138 children in the school,” she said. “And I think I did.”

The art supplies stayed behind. Her goal is to find a contact in every community across Nunavut to ensure a similar painting project continues.

McKenty hopes to visit Pangnirtung during the first week of January, and Cape Dorset later that month. Those trips were scheduled earlier, but illness held her back. At her age, she says travel becomes a little more difficult.

She receives money for her project through a few sources: The territory’s department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth, as well as federal crime prevention money.

And there’s also one wealthy donor from Seattle, who McKenty won over while speaking to a group of Inuit art collectors in Vancouver several years ago. He called her six months later and asked how he could help, she said.

“I said I wanted to go to all the settlements. He said all right.”

Kenn Borek Air has offered to fly McKenty for free. Money from the mystery donor helps cover the cost of a hotel, food, and of course, plenty of paint, paper and brushes.

Her project first began six years ago when two kids started throwing rocks at her house in Iqaluit. “I invited them in for hot chocolate,” she said. Then she broke out the paints.

But she came to Nunavut with the intention of helping kids in crisis, after hearing about the staggering suicide rates in the territory. There’s a personal reason: Her younger brother killed himself when he was 21 and she was 23.

She sees art as a way to unlock hidden potential in all kids, and sometimes save lives.

“If children had channels to their own true self, I don’t think we’d have so much tragedy,” she said, stopping to hold back tears.

She also believes every kid can paint, whether they know it or not.

“It seems to me most of the world gets this message that they’re not artists,” she said. “Each one of us has a response to colour.

“It gives them a feeling of wonder, of what they’re capable of, whatever they do. Invariably, it’s beyond what they hope.

“For some it’s a phase. But for others, that feeling underpins all the other parts of their life.”

McKenty says she continues to try to throw “a big party” at her home every two months, attracting 20 to 30 kids. And older teenagers stop by, too, who used to paint at her house years ago.

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