THUNDER BAY -- Lucille Atlookan's passion for art has opened up a world of opportunity for Aboriginal youth. New challenges arose when Atlookan moved to Thunder Bay leaving her feeling as though she didn't belong.
"I was going through a culture shock by the time I moved,” said Atlookan, an Anishnawbe artist from Eabametoong First Nation. “The transition from on-reserve (life) to the city really got to me.
"I got into the Die Active Art Collective but it was only for the summer time. I couldn't find anything during the school year that was free. I was asocial, shy and I didn't know how to get around."
Her passion for art awarded Atlookan the opportunity to be part of the team that created Neechee studio. The youth-driven program focuses on collectively confronting personal struggles faced by many Aboriginal youth through artwork as a practice of being restorative and skill building.
The idea originated a few years ago when Atlookan attended a meeting with her mentor, Moffat Makuto, executive director of Multicultural Association of Northwestern Ontario. Makuto along with other individuals were considering applying for a grant at the time and were discussing their options.
When asked, Atlookan mentioned using the grant to create an art program.
"They liked the idea," Atlookan said. "I told them about what Lora does at DefSup with Die Active Art Collective. I asked my colleague and friend Matilda Suganqueb to join us and that summer we became a committee."
The Neechee studio lead outreach coordinator said she wanted a space that empowers youth through artistic expression.
"For me, art tells a story. When I'm doing my artwork I don't think about anything. It helps me escape," she said.
Throughout a six month period Neechee studio produces seven art workshops led by local emerging and Aboriginal artists, covering a wide range of art including beadwork, quillwork, silk-screening, street art, sculpture, film and photography.
Based on the interests of the participants, culturally applicable art themes are created to teach youth about different art mediums.
Despite Neechee studio's learning atmosphere, the studio's main purpose is to exist as a safe space for Aboriginal youth to fit in.
"It's a community," she said. "It's a safe environment for youth to feel like they fit in.
"I feel as if I don't belong here in the city but when I go to the studio I feel like I belong."
DefSup's youth outreach coordinator Lora Northway explained that Neechee studio is a fun, free, safe drop in art collective for Aboriginal youth ages 14 to 30 years-old to meet new people and learn different art skills.
"The youth that come to the studio are looking for a place to fit in and they get that there, they meet each other and they can access a variety of community opportunities," Northway said.
"When I think about what it would be like to leave my home town at a young age and go to a high school in a new city all by myself how scary that could be. Just to imagine that sort of transition it was pretty obvious that a program like Neechee studio was needed.”