Lorne Julien has worked in construction and carpentry, in drug and alcohol treatment rehab, in federal prisons and as a tailor.
But none of those jobs worked for him.
"I've always been doing artwork. When I was growing up, I started with pencil sketches," he says.
He began painting with the help of his friend and mentor Gerald Gloade, also from Millbrook First Nation, N.S. He says Gloade helped him like a big brother.
"We bartered. I gave him some frames and he gave me some paints," Julien says. "And one of the things Gerald suggested was he said, 'Just jump right into it, Lorne. Just start doing it.'"
Family is never far from his paintbrush. He grew up part of a big family and today beams when talking about his grandchildren.
One recent image has come to him as a small painting, a mural, and others will eventually hook it into a rug.
"You've got the family, mother and father, you've got the children. And then also in a lot of Mi'kmaw work we've got a lot of what you call a double-curve design. So I wanted to incorporate that within there, plus within the circle," he says, holding the small version of the painting.
"It also represents the four seasons, the four colours of man and then you've got the four directions. And then the orange in the centre representing the residential school survivors and also the children that didn't make it home."
He calls his style native abstract. He draws inspiration from Copper Thunderbird, also known as Norval Morisseau.
"I started doing some of my own work, my own paintings, and actually having some successful shows in the beginnings of when I first started painting. It actually scared me off for a while," he says.
'I knew it wasn't going to be easy'
Julien returned to painting, though. It gave him something nothing else could. It took things, too.
"Over the years, I've been kind of off and on with my painting because I knew it wasn't going to be easy. I don't feel like it's an easy road or thing to pursue," he says.
"I believe you have to be somewhat courageous to pursue any kind of art form."
He gave up day jobs 15 years ago to pursue art full time. He's produced three books of art and in recent years has been busy as a public artist, often called on to create images of reconciliation.
He says creating a house-sized painting in Halifax as part of the Ecology Action Centre celebrating 50 years with 50 works of art shifted something, and he began to think of himself as an artist, not a tailor doing art on the side.
"This past year, I finally feel like I'm where I'm supposed to be," he says. "I've always felt a responsibility with artwork. I guess why I keep going back to art and painting is it's always been an outlet for me. I guess it's therapy to me. It's part of my healing."
And when he watches others contemplating his work, he sees healing there, too.
"I like to think of my art, too, as colour therapy. Different colours may have different meanings to me, but I think using a lot of bright, vivid colours also lifts people's spirits at the same time," Julien says.
"Most of the people that have 'nailed it' are usually very spiritual people that they can see beyond what's there."
During CBC's visit, he worked on a new piece inspired by an older couple in his life going through hard times. Up close, you feel like you're looking at four birds. Back up, and you see the entire image is one face.
"I just felt bad for them because they had some falling outs with their children. They no longer talk to each other. I just felt really sad for them."
Some days, the paint seems to have frozen on the palette.
"I think when the spirit's flowing, it comes so naturally and easily. And then there's been times where I'm just totally stuck for ideas and I would just put a couple of lines on the canvas and build from there."
He saves ideas from dreams, the natural world around him, and from visions.
"That painting there was of a bear that I did. It's in a circle and that circle could represent another dimension, like a spirit dimension, or it could also represent a medicine wheel. It also could represent the four directions, north, east, south and west. And traditionally, too, bears were known for medicine."
He's created murals in schools, in Kentville, Bible Hill, Annapolis Royal and Halifax in recent years. He says he loves working with others, especially First Nations youth, who face horrifically high suicide rates.
"I think it's healing. Not just for First Nations people, but for a lot of non-native people as well," he says.
Warrior on the Hill
"Most of my work has some sort of meaning or a little bit of a story to it, but at the same time I won't give it all away. Like maybe there's a couple of other things in there, there's other meanings in there, but I keep that to myself. I don't want to give everything away."
The final brush stroke is always the same. In his youth, he met with an elder to talk about his life and his identity as an artist. The elder went off and had a vision. Julien took on the name of what the elder saw: Sma'knis, the Warrior on the Hill.
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