The Positive Side

Summer 2011 

Art Posi+ive: Bead It

After overcoming a drug and alcohol dependence, Ron Horsefall started to string his life back together with beadwork and so reconnected with his stolen culture.

MY NAME is Mashkiki-waabika-inini (Medicine Circle of Stones Man); my given name is Ron Horsefall. I am from Pasqua First Nation, Saskatchewan. I am 45 years old and currently reside in Vancouver, BC. The first time I was tested for HIV was December 1996 and I was diagnosed with AIDS. At the time I was living in a room in a single-occupancy hotel in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. I had shingles, which was what prompted me to get tested.

After my diagnosis, I was put on HIV meds; AZT was one of them. For about four years, I was on and off meds: The times when I was not drinking were the times I was able to take the meds. My health finally made a turn for the better when I sobered up in 2000. Now my health is good: I’m on therapy, my viral load is undetectable and my CD4 count is 400.

I am a survivor of a residential school. I started attending when I was five years old and I was abused before and while at the school. After leaving, I wanted to distance myself from everything that had happened there and I discovered the best way to do that was to use drugs and alcohol. My addictions led me to ugly places and to a life of high-risk behaviour. I just didn’t care about myself and, more fundamentally, I didn’t love myself.

Bottoming out

In retrospect, I see HIV as a gift — it helped me hit bottom. Trying to manage my addictions and my health at the same time was not working. So I had a decision to make: Get sober and live or keep using and die. After 23 years of drinking and drugging, I reached out. I joined Alcoholics Anonymous, found a drug and alcohol counsellor and eventually saw a psychologist. These were the hardest things I had ever done up to that point.

HIV and the drug and alcohol use were symptoms of more deep-seated problems in my life. Under the surface were some very serious issues — issues that I’ve had to deal with over the years. Addressing them meant turning inward to look at myself and my life and putting away the blame and self-pity I was feeling. I became aware of why I used and why I became HIV positive. It is a very hard road to walk, and I didn’t walk it alone; I had help from a great many people. It was the journey from my head to my heart.

Eventually, doing my own inner work and practicing a healthier lifestyle brought me to a place in my life where I could give back what had been so freely given to me. From 2004 to 2007, I worked with two Aboriginal AIDS service organizations: Healing Our Spirit here in Vancouver and All Nations Hope AIDS Network in Regina, Saskatchewan. I spoke publicly about my life with HIV — something I still do on occasion — and developed workshops for Aboriginal people with HIV. It gave me joy to help people on their own journeys, whether they were HIV positive or not.

The residential school system disconnected me from my culture and spirituality. I knew I was First Nation; however, I didn’t know what that meant. As part of my healing, I embarked on another journey, this time to reclaim my culture and spirituality — my birthright. As I learned about my identity, I became interested in powwow dancing. I decided to make my own regalia (dance outfit) and this required beadwork. Thus began my artistry with beads. I am a self-taught bead worker — I learn from books, videos and the Internet.

Phoenix rising

I have always been creative; I took art classes throughout high school and at university. For years, low self-esteem and a sense of low self-worth prevented me from pursuing my dream as an artist and I listened to people who said it was hard to make it as an artist. More importantly, I listened to myself when I said, “I’m not good enough.”

However, as I walked my journey I came to see that I was good enough and that I did have potential. Two and a half years ago, I made a commitment to my art and began selling it at arts and crafts fairs. Before that, I had done commissioned work for friends and friends of friends. Then, in September 2009, I learned that the Carnegie Community Centre — a drop-in centre serving the people of the Downtown Eastside — had an arts grant program that was funded by the Vancouver Foundation, Canada’s largest community foundation. I applied and, surprisingly, I was selected. Not only was I very excited, I was also now accountable for my artwork. I had a body of work to produce and had to answer to someone other than myself for it. I had obligations!

The project included a series of beaded circular wooden and metal containers ranging from 1½ to 7 inches in height. I chose the name “Out of the Ashes,” shortened from “Phoenix Rising Out of the Ashes,” to represent how I rose out of darkness and into the light. I dedicated my project to my niece, Lorraine Horsefall, who died of AIDS in 2006. As part of the program, all recipients exhibit their work, and so last summer I had my first art show. Thanks to this experience, I now call myself an artist, without any reservations.

Creating is a spiritual process for me and what comes out is a tapestry of my life. When I sit still and bead, “me” catches up with “me” — feelings from the past begin to flow and they go into each piece I create. As I continue to walk in and with the Light and to expand spiritually, my work expands along with me.

Photo: Tiffany Cooper