Quentin Syliboy’s voice is soft as he introduces himself to a Grade 2 class at Winding River Elementary School.
He doesn’t need a big booming voice to quiet down the students because the stack of paintings next to him does all the talking for him. Syliboy is a Mi’kmaq artist who has been painting for approximately the last three years.
As he holds up his first painting – a hummingbird – it’s greeted by oohs and ahhs from the students. It’s a reaction the shy artist still isn’t used to.
“I still struggle with it at times, to be honest,” said Syliboy, a resident of Indian Brook, which is a First Nations community just outside Shubenacadie. “Art can be very personal at times so it’s not always easy to put yourself out there.”
Four years ago, Syliboy’s mother passed away. As he dealt with her death, it caused him to step back and re-evaluate his life.
Working as a bouncer, he made the decision he wanted more out of life.
“It was about a year after her death. I realized I wasn’t happy with the way my life was going,” he said. “I was miserable working as a bouncer. I needed a change. I needed to focus on what was going to make me happy.”
Syliboy and his work are becoming more well-known, especially by those with interest in aboriginal artistry. While he remains humble, he admits the switch to becoming an artist required a lot of commitment and dedication. When he first started selling his work, a piece he would work approximately 60 hours on would fetch $20.
That’s a far cry from the $600 to $700 his artwork can sell for now.
Despite his rise in the art world, Syliboy has always ensured he keeps both feet on the ground. That’s what brought him to sitting around a table with Marilyn Raymond’s Grade 2 students.
“I was at a powwow at the Nova Scotia Community College with some of my work when I ran into Heather Raymond, who I used to go to school with,” said Syliboy. “She saw some of my work and asked if I would be interested in meeting her class and telling them a little bit about what I do. I agreed to do it but instead of me just standing in front of the class, I asked her, ‘why don’t we paint in your class?’”
While the idea was a good one, securing the supplies needed for a classroom was no easy task. But that didn’t stop Syliboy. He chose to use social media for the good, launching a fundraising campaign on Facebook.
He managed to raise $1,450 which helped him purchase more than enough supplies for his school visit. Part of the fundraising effort included a donation from fellow artist Alan Syliboy.
“He ended up giving me a handmade drum. He told me to get whatever I could for it. I found a buyer and we agreed on $300 but when she found out what I was raising money for, she ended up paying $450 instead,” said Syliboy.
Hearing about Syliboy’s appearance in her daughter’s class, Marilyn reached out to see if he would consider doing the same for her class.
Without hesitation, he agreed and once again brought enough paint sets, pads, colour books and canvasses for 26 students. The $1,450 raised through social media gave him enough to cover both school visits as well as a six-week program he will be leading in Indian Brook this September.
“I told him we could get some supplies,” said Marilyn. “I just wanted an artist in the room who would work with the kids. Whatever he needed, we would get it. He told me he would get back to me in a week or so and when he did, he had it all covered. It was a ‘wow’ moment for me.”
After showing off his own work, Syliboy challenged the students to return to their desks and paint. From a teacher’s standpoint, Marilyn says it was hard to wipe the smile off her face.
“This has surpassed what I ever could have expected,” she said. “When he asked the students if they wanted to paint, it was a resounding yes. They couldn’t wait to get into it. As they’re painting, he’s going around to visit with each of the students to see what they’re painting. He’s very interactive. When kids ask him to show them something, he was more than happy to help. It’s exactly what they needed.
“What’s amazing is he doesn’t have to do this. He wants to do it,” Marilyn continued. “He wants to spread his love of painting to the kids. To me, that’s outstanding. All of my students were amazed by his work. It’s great exposure for them to see a different type of artwork. I enjoyed watching the love my students were showing and the enthusiasm they expressed over artwork.”
Appreciative of all the kind words, Syliboy says the payoff for him is watching kids express their creativity – whatever that might look like.
“I bring the supplies but I don’t tell the kids what to paint,” he said. “They get told what to do enough all day. I want their creativity to take over. I like seeing one kid paint Minecraft while another paints a family portrait. I didn’t really have a talent for artwork when I started. I had always doodled but it was nothing serious. But I worked hard and didn’t fear the unknown. That’s what I want these kids to take home with them. If they’re committed and put in the time and effort, they can do great things.”
He was also quick to downplay his fundraising efforts.
“I’d like to take credit for all of it but I owe it to the great people around me,” he said.
“They’re the ones that believe in this just as much as I do. I couldn’t do it without that support.”
Since his visit to Winding River Elementary, Syliboy has been contacted by several schools and is planning more visits. That includes an upcoming visit to North River Elementary School.