Geanna Dunbar is a Cree-Metis entrepreneur who makes a living with art and hopes her story will inspire others to do the same.
In elementary school, Geanna Dunbar drew on her desk so often that her teachers, out of annoyance, began taping paper to it.
Now in her mid-30s, the Cree-Metis entrepreneur makes a living with art and hopes her story will inspire others to do the same.
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“I’ve always done art,” says Dunbar. “My dad was a musician and he was an artist and I think I got a little bit of that from him. It’s always kind of been there.”
However, the line to get there hasn’t always been straight and narrow.
During high school, Dunbar landed in advanced placement art classes and began experimenting with different mediums. But she also started trading drawings for cigarettes.
“Teenager things,” she says with a laugh. “And then I got really good at forging signatures.”
Dunbar’s skills came in handy when friends needed forms signed by parents. She also starting sewing her own clothes and patches and even got into graffiti.
“When I got out of high school I wanted to clean up my act,” Dunbar says. “And so I steered in a different direction than everyone else was going into.”
She opened an accessory shop with one of her sisters. Together, they got into selling fascinators (a type of formal headpiece) as well as veils and bouquets on the wedding circuit.
At the same time, she sold paintings and photography out of the store. When it closed down in 2010, she didn’t really now where to go from there.
“I know that I didn’t want to work nine to five and I had so much pressure,” she says. “I don’t know how many times I heard, ‘Go get a trade. Go be a carpenter. Go be a welder.’ I hear that all that time and I’m like, ‘that’s not me whatsoever.’ ”
A self-taught artist, Dunbar saw little opportunity in galleries and exhibits unless you were formally trained. So she started hosting her own events, mixing different genres of music with art, and then inviting other artists to come and sell their work. They’d do live painting and the events eventually turned into fundraisers for Adopt-A-Family.
Then, businesses starting reaching out to her for commissions. Dunbar did chalk art for places like at Fresh and Sweet, Bonzzini’s, and local dispensaries in addition to the annual Christmas design on the front windows of Vintage Vinyl. From there, she got into body modification — working in various shops in the city doing piercings and tattoos — and ended up on the board of the Sunday Art Market.
Dunbar has done some training in Las Vegas and San Francisco, which led to body branding. It connected with the roots of piercing and tattooing and eventually helped her become an apprentice with local Indigenous tattooer and artist Stacey Fayant.
“Then I left traditional shops and I got off on my own in the last few years and I was able to control my own life and my own schedule and the doors flew wide open,” Dunbar says. “It’s just been go, go, go, go, go for the last three, four years and I’m not complaining. I love it.”
As she grew to make a living with her art, Dunbar has also been able make her mark on a city she once longed to leave, but eventually grew to truly love. Beyond the chalk boards and holiday windows, she does spoken-word pieces, mixed-media collages, sculptures, acrylic paintings, and street art.
Dunbar joined the first round of the Albert Street Bridge foot tunnel project, where she painted murals themed around the history of Wascana Lake. She also helped bring life to the corner of Elphinstone St. and Saskatchewan Dr. with a mural on a vacant building. The piece — titled Tapwe (the Truth) and Kinepikosak — is part of the City of Regina’s civic art collection.
Most recently, she painted a large mural inside a local daycare.
“It’s just weird to see places in your city growing up that never changed and then all of a sudden you’re the reason why it’s changing,” she says with awe and pride.
With more projects on the horizon — some of which she can’t yet discuss — Dunbar finds herself reflecting on all the time and hard work it took to get where she is today.
“The art world is great, but it’s also filled with a lot of narcissistic and judgemental people, so it can be really rough,” she says. “And also growing up as an Indigenous person, there’s always that stigma of not being good enough … so in my older years I have to be more gentle with myself. I have to know that I do deserve what I have. I do work hard. I am good enough.”
Dunbar’s path to a career in art has twisted and turned alongside a journey of self-discovery. Cree on her dad’s side, Dunbar has struggled at times to understand and connect with her Indigenous heritage. As a child of divorce — and with a family that became very transient as a result of intergenerational trauma — she felt cut off from much of her roots.
In her mid-20s, she learned that Dunbar wasn’t even her real last name.
“That kind of spiralled into, ‘Who am I? What’s the backstory?’” she recalls. “It’s hard to get answers from family when they’re not around or they passed away or you don’t even know them.
“I remember growing up and having a knock at the door and then all of a sudden my dad had two long-lost brothers show up. So it’s just really hard to navigate.”
In the last four or five years, she’s been working with her sisters and cousins to piece together their heritage. It hasn’t been easy, especially as they hunted for their grandmother’s birth certificate. The closest they could find was a baptism certificate which they had to get through her residential school.
“I’m hoping one day I fully know who I am as a person, but … every time we find new information … it definitely inspires me in my work and what I’m doing with tattooing,” says Dunbar, who feels like she’s found herself as an artist even though her background is a bit of a mystery.
“Everything’s come together and I’m more comfortable with who I am and I’m able to express it and really take it all in. It’s nice to give back to a city that’s given me so much. Even … where it’s given me so much resistance, it’s really fulfilling.
“It’s nice to make my mark.”
Dunbar also has a message for fellow artists who long to make a career of doing what they love: Don’t give up.
“If you’re an artist and that’s what you want to do, do it. Don’t stop,” she says. “Even if you gotta work a coffee shop for a few years, don’t stop. It’s going to be hard for the first while. It’s definitely a grind but, if it’s your passion, if it’s what you want to do, keep going. Pieces will fall together .. and it’s worth the work.”
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