The hand-crafted pipe cleaner dragons started out simple; lacking symmetry at times and colours not quite matching.
Now, 18-year-old Kieron Mackenzie, the young artist behind the craft that has turned heads in his community, has fine-tuned his method — even the way his hands move while he makes them can be considered part of the art for some.
"The detail that's in there," says Ashley Deavu, a teacher who has been working at K'alemi Dene School in Ndilǫ, N.W.T., which Mackenzie attends, "is pretty amazing to witness."
Mackenzie's more recent models have 3-D torsos, with complicated weaving of pipe cleaners to form two symmetrical wings, with complimenting colours and textures that he'll build in all the way down the tail. The furry parts of the pipe cleaner were even removed to form the dragons' claws.
"His work is prolific, like, probably every kid in and around Kieron's grades would have a Kieron dragon somewhere," Deavu said. "And, every child appreciates Kieron's artistic skills, and recognizes that they are unique and special in that they don't have those [skills]."
This week, Mackenzie's work is part of a public exhibit in Somba K'e on Tuesday, as part of the Indigenous People's Day celebrations.
Sarah Swan, a member of YK ARCC (Yellowknife Artist Run Community Centre), the organization that runs the mobile art gallery where the dragons will be featured, said she received a text from Deavu about Mackenzie's art.
"I just saw the hands of an artist, when you watch somebody who's been doing what they do for a long time," Swan said after seeing Mackenzie make a dragon.
"You can see the deftness in the movements, you can see how quickly his fingers move. So the genius is in the mind of the artist, but it's also in the hands … that was really nice to behold. It's just beautiful to see skill and imagination entwined like that."
Swan said it was a "no-brainer" to include Mackenzie's craft in the exhibit.
"I said, 'absolutely, what a miraculous bunch of artwork that this kid is making.'"
An early gift
Deavu said it became clear early on that Mackenzie had an artistic gift. She said an educational assistant that worked with him aimed to help let him shine.
"It was already in there, we just let it out," Deavu said.
It's certainly not a skill that can be taught, either she added.
"As much as teaching is delivering content and making critical thinkers and stuff, sometimes you just have to let the door come open and let the spirit come out."
When it comes to seeing his work on display at a public gallery, Deavu said she "could cry."
"I will [cry] when I show up at the gallery for sure," she said. "Beyond proud that we're just able to open that avenue for Kieron … the light that he shines on the world is through dragons and pipe cleaners."
Mackenzie's skills don't end at his dragons, Deavu said he also has the skills to be a children's illustrator for children's books.
"He's a treasure. And he's taught us as much as we've ever taught him for sure."
She said his peers are proud of him too.
"They really see Kieron as his unique self, as an artist … they're incredibly proud and kids of all ages say, 'Whoa Kieron that's really cool.' You know the big kids will say that as much as the little kids were, hanging off his legs asking him for dragons."
And, she adds with each new year of kindergarten kids starting at the school Kieron's "fan club just builds, which is wonderful to witness."