To start off, I will offer a disclaimer that I am not an Indigenous knowledge keeper, and I don’t have generations of knowledge behind me to teach and to share. But I am an Indigenous knowledge-seeker. And it is within my process of information gathering that I find myself and my connections. As I began to discover Indigenous beliefs in the sacredness of land, it is here that I found my place. I will attempt to share my ways of knowing, my ways of integrating my Indigenous and non-Indigenous worldviews.

Within the purview of most worldviews, I think we can all agree that land brings us life. It is from nature that we get our food, water, clothing, shelter, transportation and warmth.  Over time, humans have been able to create some of these necessary things in non-nature environments, but without the land we cannot manage all of these needs. What sets Indigenous views apart from this is the belief that land relations are bidirectional, meaning that in as much as we take from the land, we must also give back to maintain holistic balance.  One of the biggest questions that tends to be asked is what this balance is and how we can strike it.

“Country is loved, needed, and cared for, and country loves, needs, and cares for her peoples in turn. Country is family, culture, identity. Country is self.”

Ambelin Kwaymullina

Meaning of Land to Aboriginal people – Creative Spirits

First Nations people have centuries of knowledge of the land to which they have been connected and just as long studying the balance that occurs within the ecosystem. This knowledge, in itself, is a well-accepted form of scientific study different from western science.  In this worldview, knowledge and the learner are interconnected. What this means is that the very act of learning can impact the knowledge. For example, an ecology student watching coyotes in their natural environment will have an impact on vegetation and the microsystems through which she walks. As a result, some Indigenous worldviews of the land tend to be very much about relationships.

Can this knowledge be applied to human relationships? Can Indigenous ways of knowing be valued alongside non-Indigenous views? The answer is yes, if we honour and understand this bidirectional approach. Each worldview influences the other in a way that maintains balance.

Recent events occurring on Wet’suwet’en land and in solidarity events across Turtle Island have ignited passions on all sides. It appears that at least two worldviews are in conflict: those who honour the bidirectional view of the land and those who are looking for the extraction of resources for profit and possibly survival in a particularly brutal and unforgiving economic system. In fact, this conflict in itself demonstrates how connected we all are, but in a way that does not promote balance.  I urge us all to explore ways of looking for healing, while honouring both worldviews and very importantly, honouring reconciliation and the long term effects of the worldview responsible for colonialism.

Just like plants connect to a geographical place, we are all connected to where we live, and to each other.  To keep a balance within the world, the connection requires us to be bidirectional in our relationships with the living and with the land. You as the reader and me as the writer have now been connected through this writing. I present to you my knowledge, you read and absorb this offering, and I receive the gift of your audience.


20181009_113447Erin Newman is a therapist by day, and a writer by night. She is also a parent, student, advocate, artist, and teacher.

Believe it or not: there is a major Human Rights violation occurring in Canada right now. Since 1980, at least 1,182 Aboriginal women are missing or have been murdered.  The Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, however, admits that, despite these statistics, this number is likely substantially higher. How does something like this happen?

Twelve hundred mothers, sisters, and daughters have disappeared or are dead.   Breaking down the issue, the statistics surrounding this are staggering. Aboriginal women report violence 3.5 times higher than other Canadian women, and are 5 times more likely to die of this violence. Furthermore, the level of violence reported by Canadian First Nations women is more severe than that reported of other Canadian women.  The province of Alberta has the lowest “clearance” rates in the country – which means that the majority of the cases are not resolved. Why is this happening?

An inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada, (MMIWC) is taking place to investigate the underlying mechanisms that make Aboriginal women more susceptible to violence, and the corresponding response of government and other institutions. The inquiry is set to be completed in 2018 – after 2 years of data collected. However, the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Report card on the inquiry so far has it falling short of some expectations.

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Why Should You Care?

  • This issue has lasting impact. The majority of the missing and murdered are mothers. In 2010, an estimated more than 440 children were impacted by the loss of their mother. What becomes of these children in this intergenerational issue?
  • While the violence inflicted on aboriginal women is often done by their partner, Aboriginal women are 3 times more likely to be victims of violence from a stranger. This means that the crime has a lot to do with the vulnerability of the victim – and is far from simply an inter-familial or inter-cultural issue. This means that there are perpetrators among us who are actively seeking the most vulnerable members of our population.
  • Although MMIWC are receiving attention lately, this has not always been the case. There is a societal bias that this human rights violation has much to do with the risky lifestyle “chosen” by the victim. Victim blaming has no place in our society – a crime committed is the fault of the criminal, not the victim. As human beings, we are much more than what field we choose to earn money in. We all have multiple roles – and these women are daughters, mothers, friends, and “stolen sisters”.
  • If your set of personal ethics doesn’t lead you to be concerned, the very fact that there is a large inquiry being undertaken into this matter, that MMIWC is a well-known acronym, and the fact that Amnesty International has found this to be a significant human rights violation should stir you into concern.

What Can I Do?

Educate Yourself:

  • Gain knowledge in Canada’s historical treatment of Indigenous peoples and how these historical events, in particular, the Residential Schools, are impacting Indigenous peoples today.
  • Take a look around at the women in your life. Try to imagine what it must be like to physically search for them, maybe never hearing from them again after they disappear one night, or finding their remains after weeks or months of searching. Thousands of families and communities are directly affected by missing or murdered women. Make it real to yourself. Meet people who are searching. Hear their stories and recognize their humanity as well. Then lend a hand.

Create Awareness:

  • Help out with The Red Dress Project, where red dresses are displayed annually to symbolize each of the 1, 182 missing or murdered.
  • Partake in the Annual Women’s Memorial March that occurs in and around February 14 in various cities.

Influence Change:

  • Do not allow racist dialogue of any kind to occur around you.
  • Spread the word: do not be afraid to tell people that this issue matters to you, in-person and on social media.
  • Expressions of Reconcilliation – become involved in the truth and reconciliation process with suggestions found here.
  • Support feminism – which seeks to find equality for both genders and all races.
  • Reach out to groups doing work around these stolen sisters and at-risk Indigenous women, and lend your time, money and support to keep them safe.

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Erin Newman, M.Ed. is a mental health therapist specializing in the treatment of youth in both private practice and in the public sector. She is also passionate about feminist issues, Indigenous rights, and advocacy for children and youth. Academically, Erin was the recipient of the Indspire Scholarship and the Metis Bursary Award for social services. She hopes to pursue further graduate studies exploring how movement, dance and therapy can assist in healing trauma. Erin uses gardening, nature, and animal therapy for her own personal growth, is a dancer with the integrated and political performing group, CRIPSIE, and spends the rest of her spare time chasing after a toddler.

I attended a conference in the field of child and youth care at MacEwan University this spring. Prior to opening comments, the emcee addressed the crowd. His initial words were somewhere along the lines of “before we begin, I would like to acknowledge that we are on Treaty 6 land”.  Because this was the first time I had heard this acknowledgment, my initial reaction was that it was neat to hear; however, I assumed it was said because there were many people in the room that were First Nations, and many employees of agencies who serve First Nations people (myself being in both categories). Furthermore, I assumed this acknowledgement was directed more particularly to the First Nations individuals in attendance, as a thank-you-for-giving-up-your-historical-land sort of thing. It was fitting and appropriate and I’m sure that most in the audience accepted and understood the acknowledgment.

Now, I wonder how accurate these assumptions were. Did all the attendees understand the reasons behind recognizing treaties? Do I? Given that I come from a lineage that means I am both colonizer and colonized, it is a topic I better be clear on.

So, what is a treaty? On a basic level, it is an agreement between the Government of Canada and First Nations people whereby tribes gave land to the government in exchange for certain “privileges”, such as pockets of land and hunting/fishing “rights”. At least…that’s how the Government explains them. Accounts from the other side, however, tell us that these treaties were coercive and forced upon First Nations tribes while settlers started moving into these lands and encroaching onto the food supply. First Nations signed the agreements, and many accounts indicate that this was done primarily because agreeing to the treaties was necessary for survival. In total there are 11 treaties signed.

My city, Edmonton,  is within Treaty 6, but I can’t help but wonder how it came to be that the land underneath this city does not remain that of First Nations people? The answer seems to be that Treaty agreements meant that land was to be shared between settlers and First Nations, and the way of life of each was to be respected and maintained. However, as time went on, Indigenous people were pushed onto small pieces of land within the Treaty territories, called reserves, which was part of the overall colonial project to erode their connection to the land and their way of life. The widely diverse and rich cultural practices of Indigenous peoples were lost. Or, like the land, stolen.

Why should we acknowledge this? Because this land is both stolen and shared – stolen from the Indigenous people who lived here long ago and now shared between those with lineages that settled here and those with First Nations lineage who remain. In my case, I embody both. Yes, now shared, although most of us would never know this and shared in way that does not maintain or respect the Indigenous ways of life found here, as was promised. In fact, what we see today is the continued segregation of First Nations people,  spatially and socially.

“The ground on which we walk is sacred ground. It is the blood of our ancestors”

– Chief Plenty Coups

So, what do treaty acknowledgements do? Treaty acknowledgements serve as a reminder that this land is shared imperfectly, and that we have real commitments to fulfill towards one another. They also remind us of the historical treatment of First Nations people in Canada, and how we are or ought to be working toward reconciliation as a society.

Fast-forward to this fall, where I was a part of a performance. I don’t believe it was attended by many First Nations individuals, yet the organizers still acknowledged Treaty 6 territory. This time I better understood the importance of the acknowledgment, and that it not only serves to remind that the land was taken from First Nations people, but it moves us away from segregation, towards an imperative of sharing the land and experiences, while appreciating and embracing cultural differences. It is a small gesture with profound impact. This time, when I heard that acknowledgement, I recognized that I am both settler and indigenous, privileged and segregated, oppressor and oppressed, colonizer and colonized, and I continue to work through those divisions within me, represented by the land I walk upon and the society I participate in.


erinErin Newman, M.Ed. is a mental health therapist specializing in the treatment of youth in both private practice and in the public sector. She is also passionate about feminist issues, Indigenous rights, and advocacy for children and youth. Academically, Erin was the recipient of the Indspire Scholarship and the Metis Bursary Award for social services. She hopes to pursue further graduate studies exploring how movement, dance and therapy can assist in healing trauma. Erin uses gardening, nature, and animal therapy for her own personal growth, is a dancer with the integrated and political performing group, CRIPSIE, and spends the rest of her spare time chasing after a toddler.

As a mom, almost every day there is a moment where I think to myself, am I messing up my kid?  Is she eating too much sugar? Am I on my cellphone too much? Is the TV on too often? And, even when she has my undivided attention – is it truly undivided if my mind wanders? Can any or all of these concerns screw up my kid for life?

As a therapist, I know how ridiculous this line of thinking is. Every day, I see kids whose lives are truly negatively impacted by their past or present. Their parents are on the streets as drug addicts and we now have a teenager questioning her very existence and contemplating suicide. A youth diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and ADHD is moved in and out of various residences and can’t quite connect to anyone because he was severely emotionally abused as a child. Sugar, phones, TV, and thoughts do not cause trauma as drugs, abuse, and dysfunction do. And while it is important to consider all factors when raising our children, I also know that somethings are more harmful than others.

But let’s back up. Why would a parent turn to drugs? What leads someone to take their frustrations out on a child? How can someone sexually abuse their own?  Are they only an individual problem? Many agree that most of these issues are systemic, inter-generational and related to widespread trauma. When these associated effects accumulate in certain communities, the possibility for these terrible social side effects multiplies for everyone involved.

As a Metis and white person, I’ve never had to wonder in which generation things went “wrong.” Fortunately, I’ve never had to live with the stigmas that come with addiction, trauma, and other mental health issues. As a Metis person who looks fully white, I’ve never had to live with discrimination on a daily basis. But I do live with dissonance – like feeling exceptionally close to the First Nations community but always considered to be an outsider, treating racist individuals in therapy, and raising my multi-race child to be open and inclusive and loving to all, while protecting her from the problems of the world that I see everyday.

The biggest way I could screw up my child would be allowing her to live a life of ignorant bliss. As a society, we mess up our kids by allowing them to embrace or ignore the discriminatory racial values of society, to view mental illness and trauma as an individual problem, and by not embracing, helping, and loving those whose lineages constrain the choices for their future course in life. Next time you see that an allegedly “thugged out” POC kid walking around downtown – give her a smile and then get to work on educating your kids about these important subjects. A little compassion goes a long way to breaking social isolation and she needs to know that you care about not messing up kids.


erinErin Newman, M.Ed. is a mental health therapist specializing in the treatment of youth in both private practice and in the public sector. She is also passionate about feminist issues, Indigenous rights, and advocacy for children and youth. Academically, Erin was the recipient of the Indspire Scholarship and the Metis Bursary Award for social services. She hopes to pursue further graduate studies exploring how movement, dance and therapy can assist in healing trauma. Erin uses gardening, nature, and animal therapy for her own personal growth, is a dancer with the integrated and political performing group, CRIPSIE, and spends the rest of her spare time chasing after a toddler.

In personal solidarity with Alberta’s First Nations and Indigenous communities, The Drawing Board owner, Nakita Valerio, is raising money raising money in support of the Young Indigenous Women’s Circle of Leadership youth camp by getting sponsorship for a 5km run on October 8th, 2016.

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The money will be donated to the YIWCL to be used for basic operational costs of their 8-day intensive, Cree-immersion cultural camp. Recently, this camp lost funding and faces an uncertain future.

This initiative means a lot to me because I have learned that one of the first points of cultural erosion and social disorder is the erasure of a community’s history and culture. In my experience in women’s advocacy, I have also learned that incredible social change comes through the empowerment of women and the creation of safe spaces in which they can learn and grow.

I am doing my very small part to get fundraising kick-started for this very worthwhile cause and would appreciate your support of both my social justice and exercise efforts in the meantime.

Donors will receive social media shout-outs and other perks along the way.

Help spread the word!
IMAGE CREDIT: Artist Aaron Paquette – please visit his blog HERE and support local artists.

 

 

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The Drawing Board owner, Nakita Valerio, had the pleasure of sitting down with graffiti artist and community leader, AJA Louden to talk about his art, his genre and all of the incredible social justice work he is doing with both. As always, Louden proved himself thoughtful and eloquent beyond measure and it is our joy to speak to such passionate, intellectual individuals, as well as uplift their work by providing it with the public platform it deserves – something to which Louden is no stranger. As the founder of the Aerosol Academy, a participant in CypherWild and avid supporter of First Nations community causes, Louden has the perfect marriage between doing what he loves and doing something that matters: his art is where those two principles meet.

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Louden grew up in Calgary and recounts his first distinct memory of seeing an incredible graffiti display when he was around ten years old. “I don’t have a lot of contextual memory for it, but I know I was traveling in the backseat of a car, even if I don’t know where I was going or anything. These kinds of memories are the best because they are hazy but so foundational – something really jumps out at you through a fog. I saw a series of five or six light posts and each of them had the word “Trikone” written on them vertically. I couldn’t help but wonder “Who was doing this? Who would do this?” It was like a rabbit hole of questions I was falling into trying to reconstruct the story behind this public display. I just kept imagining six people standing there and painting the posts at the same time – I could see it like a film in my head, and for me it represented something hidden and esoteric – a private world made public that not a lot of people have access to. After that, I started seeing tags all the time – they stopped fading into the background for me.”

He didn’t do much about it but in middle school he got into hip-hop and break-dancing. In such communities, people are encouraged to develop a new identity that will be connected to their work and Louden was gracious enough to reveal (laughing the whole time) that his middle school name was “Spyda.” Of course, we vowed never to let him live it down, but Louden, with his sharp wit and humble demeanour, was quick to offer himself up, telling us the story of his first graffiti experience:

“I remember that one of my first graffiti moments was carving that name into my desk at school and then filling it in with markers. I didn’t think of it as wrong at all. It was just putting myself out there. Later, I wrote an exam and on the back page of the test, I wrote the same tag. Well, not surprisingly, my teacher saw the graffiti and then the tag on my test and pulled me aside. This was my first clash with authority over my graffiti. I was so brutal because I just told him a bold-faced lie: I had seen the graffiti and copied it onto my exam, of course.”

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Despite this first foray into this world, Louden says it left him a bit. He didn’t take visual arts seriously and was not informed on the history of the culture around it early on. In high school, he became rebellious and anti-authority – what some might call “a critical thinker.” He ended up taking a year off after high school and this, combined with moving to Edmonton for university and having more control over his own time ignited a search for his identity. He ended up studying sciences and much of what he learned is used in his painting work now, including lessons from biology and anatomy but also the soft sciences like psychology and sociology. Despite dedicating himself to his studies, he never saw himself working in a lab and realistically, employment prospects were low.

Louden notes that the biggest thing he took from that experience was realizing how passionate he is about knowledge and learning. It has informed how he asks questions and expresses himself artistically as well, especially since subscribing to several academic journals. He credits scientific observation with informing his ability to recognize patterns, activities and methods of expression to elicit affect.

While Louden’s work seems so visceral and spontaneous, he does mention the influence of technology in what he does. He has a graphic design background as well and that has affected his painting as an artist by putting different tools in his repertoire. He admits to being deeply interested in the technology of actual paint which is not something people often think about. “Changes to paint have reflected the commercialization and commodification of graffiti which is not necessarily good or bad. There are some people who have strong opinions about it but I just view it as change, like anything else. As a result, an artist these days has a whole lot of caps, cans, propellants and pigments to choose from, each of which can dramatically alter how they express themselves.”

Of course, Louden is also inspired by the masters like Caravaggio or by those who are really passionate about typography, citing a classic book by Robert Bringhurst called The Elements of Typographic Style which he says is essential for painters using words. The book helps us to understand how words have shapes of meaning and makes us more conscious of those we choose to express ourselves.

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Despite all of this brilliant forethought, Louden still has a hard time answering the question of how he would describe his work now, noting that when he first started getting back into painting, he worked solitarily for four or five years. In the graffiti world, that meant he was using styles that hadn’t been passed down through the community; however, as he broke into the community more, he started meeting more people and getting a variety of influences. And because of this diverse background, Louden is influenced by different, somewhat disparate things. He might describe his work right now as being about realism with some impressionistic effects. He is into portraiture and his lettering varies depending on the project, adapting to his expressive needs: It can be somewhat abstract at times while his subject matter revolves around authority, conflict and asymmetric warfare.

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Recently, Louden has put these themes to good use, doing important community work in indigenous communities and other humanitarian work as well. He had the pleasure of doing an AFA one week workshop at Beaver First Nation, near High Level where participants focused on the theme of finding identity through creativity and in place. A strong understanding of one’s identity becomes a powerful tool in the uneven match between oppressor and oppressed. Louden states that he tends to be less interested in struggles when the power is matched, helping participants to draw attention to discovering who they are, the psychological effects of occupation, reigniting one’s relation to the land, and how traditional wayfinding is communicated. Discussing one’s orientation in their environment and how this is dictated by our historical upbringing and cultural awareness was a particularly moving point in the project.

Additionally, Louden has been thinking to do some work on the parallels between Palestine and the plight of indigenous peoples in Canada, drawing symmetries between their experiences with colonialism and invasion. This has been a driving interest for him and a personal curiosity and is part of how he thinks more critically about the land he lives on and the context of where he paints in the environment it sits. Louden is nothing if not conscious of being respectful of the fact that this is Treaty 6 territory, effectively stolen land, and taking serious steps to avoid the appropriation of settler narratives into his work unintentionally, while at the same time not telling stories that are not his to tell. This careful balancing act is part of the reason he flourishes in graffiti education and in helping others express their own stories as well. Louden notes,

“In reality, I’m connected to the colonial narrative and the indigenous story through the land; it is part of my history too.”

Another high-profile project Louden got to work on was a wayfinding and signage program for the net-zero Mosaic Centre, creating landmark art pieces and using recycled parts from the building construction to do so. It was an amazing project because it got him thinking more consciously about how words perform a communicative function but are also aesthetic. The group collaborated with a neurologist at the University of Calgary who was studying brain cells that define our spatial awareness and how people navigate spaces, their literal place-making cells – research which has huge implications for the creation of landmark artworks and its relation to the interpretive capacities of our minds, even if such landmarks have a long historical use, such as Inukshuks.

Ever humble, Louden casually notes that he has also been fortunate to do a lot of workshops through Aerosol Academy which is a graffiti school he started. Through this group, he has developed an educational workbook – a kind of history of unsanctioned public art which examines culture, graffiti practice, tools and techniques and how to make art in legal spaces. And he has also had the privilege of opening up some street art walls as a lead artist consulted by the City of Edmonton and chosen as the city’s artistic representative. Traditionally, walls are about separating spaces and keeping things apart but Louden is unique in that he has tasked with building communities around walls, as gathering spaces to meet and practice the craft.

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Through these walls and other work, Louden is inspired to resist, especially in breaking down the false binaries between art and graffiti, and graffiti and crime. Louden is aware that there is a lot of scapegoating that happens about graffiti primarily because it is an intensely visual form of protest and the ultimate unruliness to change the landscape around us. However, in this context, it is important to realize that graffiti is a symptom of other social ills and a way for the disenfranchised to express themselves when made voiceless. The public expression of graffiti provides a venue for people to have their voices heard in terms that they dictate.

Louden points to the exaggerative campaigns against graffiti by hegemonic powers that be show an imperfect approach to the understanding and remedying of social ills.

“Graffiti is easy. It makes it easy to look like the government is doing something when they clean graffiti up, but in reality it’s a bandage solution masking what is still simmering below the surface.”

Ever the scholar, Louden cites a criminology theory called Broken Window Theory that continues to influence public policy development because it claims that where signs of crime exist, crime will accumulate. The theory is so named because it uses the example of broken windows in destitute neighbourhoods as an example. For Louden, he doesn’t see how this applies to graffiti at all, except to those who are not sufficiently well-versed in graffiti language to interpret what kind of painting exists in certain areas. Ultimately, it is the quality of graffiti that dictates more information about the state of a community and indicates its richness, not poverty, of culture.

Louden’s project of “gathering walls” seems like the ultimate reclamation of a symbol of colonial oppression, turning its meaning on its head to give the oppressed a voice. But resistance is not the only regular theme of his work. Louden is also inspired by what those in the trade call “them feels” – a term to describe a moment of inspiration or emotion. He is influenced by something as simple as an aesthetic glimpse, the emotional response one gets when they look at something.

The other cause that calls him to certain avenues of visual expression is the study of restorative versus retributive justice. Louden describes the latter as what we are accustomed to in North American settler culture: There is a lack of contact between a victim and their perpetrator because their conflict is mediated through the state and the resolution is usually a state-mandated punishment of the offender. Restorative justice models are based on traditional indigenous models and aim at “restarting” a relationship between “victim” and “perpetrator”. The meditation is not of the punishment but of the relationship that has been damaged without recourse to revenge narratives. The model is based on a circle in which both groups communicate with one another and an authority mediates the discussion to initiative self-reflectivity. The goals are understanding not only why the person violated the relationship but to make them understand the ripple effect it had on the lives of everyone around the victim. Louden says that if graffiti artists were more aware of the effects – positive or negative – of their painting on the world around them, it would go a long way to bridging the disconnect between the painters and the community in which they paint. Venues for communication, breaking down the fear of graffiti, and its decriminalization would go a long way in showcasing the realities of a sorely misunderstood group. Not a lot of people realize that less than 2.5% of all graffiti is gang-related, but the societal obsession with it is a symptom of capitalist society’s obsession with private property – a cultural phenomena, that contrary to popular belief, is historical and not universal.

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Ultimately, this is what Louden puts into his work but he is clear when he says that there doesn’t have to be a higher ethos behind graffiti work. Rather, self-awareness among graffiti artists and changing the language around public art in the communities it exists would go a long way to creating mutual understanding between people.

What all of this boils down to is a commitment, from Louden, to education creating channels of communication. He believes in providing people with tools to understand the Other and argues that sometimes doing this through art is the best way because it often speaks right to the heart, “them feels”. Through his work, something as ethereal and fleeting as empathy is a very real, achievable goal.

As we drew our interview to a close, Louden wanted to leave our audience with the final inspirational thought:

“Look a little closer. There are a lot of rabbit holes to peer into and there is a richness to life you can easily miss. You have you use your eyes and your feelings to see it.”

An incredibly talented and ever humble artist, AJA Louden is just the kind of visionary that the Canadian arts and graffiti scene need – someone to who gathers people and takes back the walls we build between one another.