Story by Andrea Wong
Photo by Elijah Beaver
When Keegan Starlight draws a portrait, the first thing he looks at are the eyes. He is methodical in familiarizing himself with the subject, often staring at a picture for weeks on end, until he reaches an understanding that he can pass on to someone else.
“When I get started, it’s almost like I’m catching my breath, my artistic breath. I look at a page, I look at a canvas, and I just keep looking at it, trying to figure out where everything’s going to go,” Starlight says. “You want to give it that sense of ‘I know that person’ when I look at it.”
Learning to be patient through the process is an invaluable lesson Starlight has learned over the years.
“When I was trying to teach myself how to do all of this, I was getting kind of upset with the fact that I couldn’t get it the first time, and for anybody that knows how to do art, it’s not about getting it the first time, it’s learning how to adapt, and how to work with your tools, your subject matter.”
Growing up in Tsuu T’ina Nation, Starlight was exposed to art through learning traditional beadwork and creating regalia for grass dances. But, he was always amazed at how someone could take an image and recreate it.
Though Starlight says he was never talented artistically, excelling in sports instead, there was something that told him to keep practicing.
“As soon as I put the pencil to the paper, it started just making sense. I had ADHD, and it was really hard for me to focus on school. Art definitely helped me to be more comfortable in that space.”
As a career path, however, art was not on Starlight’s radar, at least not at first. At 17 years old, Starlight went into full-time construction work while doing art on the side. Eventually he met his wife, also an artist, who convinced him to enroll at ACAD.
Starlight enjoyed the independence of working in the school’s studio and exploring his creativity, which allowed him to develop as a professional artist.
At the same time, Starlight was raising a newborn son with his wife, and while it presented challenges, it also served as motivation.
“It’s not easy to apply yourself as well as you should because you’re so tired,” he says. “I learned how to work around obstacles that come up in life. I credit my son more than anything. Everything I did was for him and my wife.”
Since then, Starlight has worked on several art projects, including a series of 160 prints for SAIT, a nine-foot tall painting for the Tsuu T’ina Nation Culture Museum, and showcasing at an Aboriginal youth conference with Canada Bridges.
More recently, Starlight was also selected to produce artwork for Calgary’s New Central Library, a project that he had been long anticipating.
“To be able to have my work showcased in the central part of Calgary where people of all races can come and see the work that I’ve created, that’s a dream job.”
To date, though, Starlight says the piece he is proudest of is a charcoal drawing of his son.
“I had captured him kind of mid-motion when he was standing up leaning on my wife’s leg and he made this face. It captured his spirit basically. When I look at it, I’m like, ‘That’s my son, I remember that.’”
People that have influenced Starlight along the way are those who break the mold. Comic book artist Alex Ross and fellow Indigenous artists Roland Rollinmud, Kalum Dan and Starlight’s wife have all inspired him to strive towards meaningful work.
One important transition for Starlight was realizing the difference between doing and understanding.
Doing is just taking the subject matter and transferring it to a paper,” Starlight explains. “Understanding it is actually taking that image…taking its life and putting it into a brand new canvas to bring life into something.”
Now with every piece he starts, Starlight holds himself to a standard of creating art for his family to remember him by and for others to understand where his art stems from.
“‘Keegan, he looked at eyes and he looked at faces, but he captured the soul of that person. That’s what he meant to do.’ That’s what I hope people will see.”
Follow Keegan Starlight on Instagram.