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First Nations Business Award of Excellence: Ahnisnabae Art Gallery

From a young age, art was always his creative outlet. Infused with the spirit of Ahnisnabae legends taught by his grandparents, Roy poured those traditional stories out onto canvas.

The late Roy Thomas celebrated the traditions and stories of the Ahnishabae people through symbolism and imagery in his paintings.

His wife, Louise, celebrates his life with the body of his work as the curator and owner of Thunder Bay’s Ahnisnabae Art Gallery.

Nestled in a James Street mini-mall, Louise has quietly transformed the commercial gallery into a cornerstone of the Thunder Bay arts and culture scene.

Through her unwavering dedication to teaching and exciting people about Aboriginal culture, she has established a welcoming climate of comfort and trust in her dealings with local artists and patrons.

Over his 54 years, Roy Thomas was a prolific and internationally renowned Aboriginal painter. He produced thousands of paintings featured in international exhibitions, one-man shows, and appeared in dozens of private and public corporation collections and museums, such as the Art Gallery of Ontario, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and the Inuit Gallery in Mannheim Germany.

When Roy succumbed to cancer in November 2004, Louise decided to honour the man she regarded as her greatest inspirationrather than dwell in grief.

“Even though Roy was well-known and his works were really selling, I needed to do more than that.”

Within eight months, she had converted Roy’s studio into a gallery that showcases his and another 140 artists, many of them Aboriginal from around the region.

It wasn’t second nature for Louise, a Cree woman from Sucker Creek, Alberta, to summon the fortitude to promote her husband’s art. But just as Roy supported his family with his gift for painting, his legacy continues to provide the gallery with the same contributions.

Roy came from a hardscrabble life, growing up on the Longlac Reserve. He survived the misery of residential school, lost both his parents and grandparents at a young age, then battled addictions into his adult life.

From a young age, art was always his creative outlet. Infused with the spirit of Ahnisnabae legends taught by his grandparents, Roy poured those traditional stories out onto canvas. As a self-taught artist, he painted in the Ojibwa Woodlands style, which uses symbols and imagery drawn from ancient pictographs. The style gained mainstream appeal in the 1960s through its pioneering grandfather Norval Morrisseau, who was widely considered to be Canada’s greatest Native artist and a source of encouragement to Roy.

His fine and clean lines with bold sweeping colours is evident in one of his best known works, Relatives, that pays homage to people of other races for their contributions to mankind.

“It was Roy’s way of saying thank you to our relatives for helping me with my art.”

When the pair met in Edmonton in the early 1980s, it wasn’t love at first sight. A friend of Louise’s, who worked as an alcohol and drug counsellor at a treatment centre, introduced her to Roy. Roy was one of his clients.

“I didn’t want anybody with issues,” said Louise, laughing.

After an earlier failed marriage that produced two children, Clint (now 32) and Barry (26), Louise prayed for a “good man” to come into her life. Roy just didn’t pass muster. A few days later, while working at her secretary’s job at a Native business assistance centre, guess who walks in?

“He looked amazing. He had this leather coat on and he was dressed nice and clean. I stood there for a few seconds and thought, “this is the man I’m going to marry.”

Two years later they were settled in Thunder Bay and the parents of twin boys, Randy and Roy, now 21. For the rest of his life, Roy remained clean and sober as he expanded his work into silkscreen prints, arts cards, etchings on glass and published a book on Ahnisnabae art.

One bittersweet memory for Louise came toward the end of Roy’s life when he was invited to deliver a presentation of his work to art students at the University of Minnesota.

As the date approached, Roy was getting too weak to travel.

He asked his “Lovely” to go in his place. Louise was reluctant to leave his side and was intimidated to speak about his art in front of large gatherings.

“He said, ‘Lovely I’ve taught you enough through the years to know what to talk about.’”

Those words resonate whenever she does presentations. “I think, hey, this man had more confidence in me than I had in myself.”

As a regular volunteer at Thunder Bay’s Shelter House, Louise measures success, not by the number of prints sold, but by her personal growth that started with her first tentative steps as an unsure entrepreneur.