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Jobs of the future: Local NFN author and artist creating content for National Basketball Association program

'I typically focus my artwork on pop culture items, but this opportunity has allowed me to think about how to incorporate new themes into my work while still mixing it with  Woodland style art and storytelling from my cultural background'

The 2022 NBA All-Star weekend had a North Bay/Nipissing First Nations tie-in. Artwork shared by NBA Canada was created by Anishinaabe digital artist and painter, Jenny Kay Dupuis as part of the NBA creators program presented by Microsoft. 

This is a design-focused program where the goal is to provide a platform for Canadian illustrators and graphic designers who identify as Black, Indigenous, Asian, Hispanic, and Latinx to elevate and increase their presence as artists and share their stories. 

Five people across Canada were selected to take part in the 2021-2022 season for this program, which is in its second year. Dupuis says as one of the artists chosen, she gets to create a series of images for various events the NBA is hosting. 

The first one I produced was unveiled during this year's NBA All-Star weekend, and I have another one coming out in April to feature the ‘Play-In Tournament.' Other images using my Woodland pop art style will follow,” says Dupuis. “The suite of images get shared on the league's various social media channels and so it gives me an opportunity to get my work seen at a different type of level that I never thought was possible.”

Dupuis adds, “I typically focus my artwork on pop culture items, but this opportunity has allowed me to think about how to incorporate new themes into my work while still mixing it with  Woodland style art and storytelling from my cultural background.”

Dupuis says she developed an  interest in pursuing digital art after spending years painting on canvas and “started looking at different ways to integrate both digital art and technology with her interests in Woodland pop art.”

“I like bold, bright colours and symbolism and so I was drawn to the style of producing pop art images. I first used those images to create limited edition prints, but then packaged them as my portfolio to apply for the NBA creators program.” 

Dupuis adds basketball is already a popular sport across many Indigenous communities throughout North America, where many of the youth grow up playing the sport, including a version of what is known as "rez" ball, which is an alternate version of basketball.  

“A lot of Indigenous young people and their families are really drawn to the sport and the NBA creators program gives community members with artistic talents a unique space and place for their art to be seen and a new opportunity to be involved in sports outside of playing the sport itself.” 

Dupuis says this shows there’s an evolution to what people can accomplish by studying art or when they set themselves on a path to wanting to work in visual arts. 

“When I went to school I was thinking I could use my degree to be an art teacher, but now there are many other fields you can open yourself up to when you look at the technology and the way you can connect with people around the world,” says Dupuis. 

“Especially with the opportunity to work remotely, there are ways to really let your work shine.” 

Dupuis’ background is in art and education, she holds a Master of Education in Special Education and a Bachelor of Arts and Education in History and Visual Arts, while also having a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Calgary.

Her name may also sound familiar as she is a multi-award-winning author, who co-wrote ‘I Am Not a Number’, a children’s book about her granny’s experience at a residential school in northern Ontario. Dupuis says authoring the book and getting it published was a journey in itself. 

“At the time when I was involved in the education system, there wasn’t a lot of opportunities to talk about the residential school system and I was actually pulled in and told not to at the time by a senior educational leader,” says Dupuis adding it was before the Truth and Reconciliation report ever came out.

“When you experience that you look for other opportunities of where young people can get their information from and I realized they can possibly get it from books. So I chose to very carefully do that story, considering how sensitive of a topic it was to talk about the residential school system for those who were forced to attend the schools and their families.”

Dupuis says it was difficult in the beginning trying to find an age-appropriate way to retell her grandmother Irene’s story. 

“The book was geared to ages seven and up,” says Dupuis. 

“How do you take such a traumatic experience where the kids were taken from their homes and forced to live in an abusive environment that deprived them of their culture and connections to family and community?”

Dupuis says she sought out some expertise in studying and writing children's books. 

“I’m not formally trained as a children’s writer but with anything I do I take a look at the skills that I have as an educator, researcher, and artist and figure out which skills can be transferable to the task at hand,” she says.

“I came to realize that there is a format involved in how a children's book is written, how it looks and so I spent a lot of time not just writing the story but studying the mechanics of it all.”

It became a best seller across Canada and the United States and won multiple awards. Dupuis says once that happened she realized authoring the book is just the first step. 

“You have to think about marketing and doing presentations and working with your publisher about where the book is going to be distributed, and what booksellers or events you’re going to work with and need to develop relationships to make sure the book will be successful and respectfully shared,” she says.

“I also had to go and make in-person appearances to share the book and do ‘book talks’ and in this particular case, I wasn’t really there to just read a story, I was there to educate people about the residential school system and what went wrong, and also share my own journey in writing and finding my own voice.”

Dupuis says it’s important for people to see that this wasn’t just a story but there’s truth to it. She says, “I hope it encourages people to not only reflect on their own histories but also pick up other books about the histories and current lived realities of Indigenous peoples and those from other diverse communities. It allows people  to learn about themselves but also learn about the bigger community around them - to create that understanding and awareness and build better relationships.” 

Dupuis is regularly asked to speak to corporations and non-governmental organizations, as well as school districts, universities, and colleges to share her story and expertise. These organizations develop a deep understanding of Indigenous realities while moving their organizational structures and initiatives forward.

Dupuis says, “It’s really about understanding the policies and procedures that have been in place over time and what went wrong, or where did oppression possibly exist or still exist.”

Dupuis says the goal is for them to reflect on what they can personally do within that organization to help support and become strong advocates for change.

“The conversation usually comes through the book ‘I Am Not a Number’ and Dupuis talking about the idea of growing up without a voice and how she personally faced a lot of discrimination and racism and how she worked to face that through story work,” she says.

“I found comfort and strength and resilience through literature and finding my voice through art. Being able to draw and paint and write stories helped a lot.” 

Dupuis says she feels very fortunate to be in a position where she has so many diverse skill sets and be able to use those as an educator, author, and artist to travel throughout the world to create and share these messages. 

“My self-esteem and self-confidence has definitely increased because of that, but I also realized that I’ve worked very hard to get here,” says Dupuis. 

“Nothing ever comes easy. There are so many edits you have to make with your books and the same with your art, having to constantly learn new skills takes patience, but if you’re persistent and recognize that work, those skills will pay off.” 

Dupuis is currently working on a new children’s picture book, scheduled for release next year. 

If you have a story idea for the “Jobs of the Future” series, send Matt an email at m.sookram@outlook.com


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Matt Sookram

About the Author: Matt Sookram

Matthew Sookram is a Canadore College graduate. He has lived and worked in North Bay since 2009 covering different beats; everything from City Council to North Bay Battalion.
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