Samuel Ash. Ojibway. Artist. Resilient. Kind. Born April 9, 1951, in Sioux Lookout, Ont.; died April 8, 2021, in Toronto, of cardiac arrest; aged 69.
Samuel Ash was an artist whose work – according to friend and fellow artist Elio DelCol – reflected the difficulties he experienced in life. These darker themes were expressed with vivid colours, which reveal, he said, “a comforting touch of whimsy.” “His [work’s] sensitivity, having not been nurtured in his early life, can only be a reflection of his true nature.”
Samuel Ash spent his first couple of years with his parents in Mishkeegogamang Ojibway Nation in Northern Ontario. Sam was 2 when his mother died in childbirth. Not long after, he became ill and lost his hearing. Sam was sent to a hospital in Sioux Lookout but was not returned home to his family. He was placed in foster care in Umfreville, more than 200 kilometres away.
“I remember him when we were kids,” his sister, Rita Campbell, recalls. “He used to chase us around playing tag but when he caught me he would tickle my feet till I cried!”
When Sam was 6 years old, he was sent to the Ontario School for the Deaf in Belleville, Ont. It was here that he began painting. Sam was self-taught. When he was introduced to Norval Morrisseau’s work, he became influenced by his style, but where Mr. Morrisseau’s work dealt with spiritual themes, Sam’s work was based on legends and later became based on stories that he created. Comparisons with other Indigenous artists led to his inclusion in the Woodland Group of Artists.
After he left Belleville, Sam went north to Thunder Bay where he had his first art show in 1973 at Confederation College. He spent many years going back and forth from Toronto to Thunder Bay, and the Thunder Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre put on a show of his art.
Sam went to prison for a few years, and here he painted a large and vibrant work that now hangs in the Toronto Reference Library on the second floor. Sam donated it in 2018, saying he wanted it where “it can be viewed by the public for free.” After prison, Sam went to a treatment centre in Windsor and continued to paint.
Sam eventually returned to Toronto, where he ended up on the streets and in Toronto’s shelter system. He was hospitalized for tuberculosis, but when he recovered, he got an apartment and began painting again.
In October, 2005, Mr. DelCol helped organized an exhibition of Sam’s work, titled Rising from the Ashes, at the Mackenzie Cultural Gallery in Windsor. Frontline worker Gaetan Heroux, who first met Sam in Toronto’s shelters, was awed by his talent. “I was immediately struck by these amazing, sharp, bright, beautiful, loud colours that filled all of my senses. Although I had known Sam for more than two decades, I felt that I entered Sam’s world for the first time that evening.”
After the art show, Sam returned briefly to Thunder Bay, and when he came back to Toronto he lived in a shelter. With help from friends, he found an apartment and tried to paint, but struggled with his drinking and then his memory. In 2015, Sam was diagnosed with dementia and moved into long-term care. As his health declined, friends would often visit and take him out for coffee and pancakes or pizza and Pepsi (but never diet). Sam’s smile and sense of humour remained.
His death is a great loss, but his art and his memory remain. Sam has paintings at the Royal Ontario Museum, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, the Government of Ontario Art Collection, the Thunder Bay Art Gallery and the Canadian Museum of History, the Heritage Center at Red Cloud School in South Dakota and the Dennos Museum Center in Michigan.
When the Thunder Bay Centre of the Deaf heard of Sam’s death, it noted his compassion in a statement and made donations in his name to shelters he frequented: “Sam, as a kind and gentle soul, always used the commission from his art sales to support his people, as he called them, to make sure they were taken care of.”
Sam would certainly have approved.
Danielle Koyama is Sam’s friend.
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