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Percy Sacobie

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“Highways” acrylic on canvas by Percy Sacobie

The great escape to the positive 

Art means different things to different people. For Percy Sacobie, it’s an escape.

But Sacobie, 47, a painter, carver and bead worker from St. Mary’s First Nation—a Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) community on the north side of Fredericton—resists the title of artist and the trappings it carries.

“I do artwork,” says Sacobie, whose full-time job is in advanced support for St. Mary’s. “If you call yourself an artist, people expect you to do artwork all the time. I’d rather have a steady job and do art on the side. It makes it more enjoyable.” 

Despite Sacobie’s reluctance to be labelled, people are taking notice of his work. After taking part in a couple of group shows, he had his first solo exhibition, Wolastoqiyik Storyteller, at Fredericton’s Beaverbrook Art Gallery in 2019. 

Sacobie’s paintings are an escape of their own—bright, graphic, cheerful and wild with colour. Birds and flowers feature prominently, as do traditional Indigenous practices and stories. 

Sacobie’s focus on the positive is deliberate.

“My artwork is my time alone,” says Sacobie, who works out of a small room in his basement. “The last thing I want to do is put depression into my painting. I try to focus on imagery that’s different than loss.”

Sacobie knows loss better than most. He lost a brother in 1992 to suicide, and another in 1993 to murder. A few years later, his sister died from an overdose, and in 2015 he lost his last sibling, once again to suicide. 

“I quit drinking when I was 20 after my first brother passed away. So when I quit drinking, I had to stay home a lot,” says Sacobie. “I started focusing more on my artwork then.”

Although it was loss which pushed him to focus on art after dabbling in it for ‘as long as I can remember,’ and eventually back to school (for graphic design, native art studies and a bachelor of education), he doesn’t let the pain seep into his work.

“Art is escapism for me. It’s my escape. There are enough people that do political artwork, realistic artwork. I try to do something not realistic and not political,” says Sacobie, who studied under celebrated Indigenous sculptor, Ned Bear. “I could focus on all the bad stuff, or I could focus on some good.” 

Sacobie chooses to highlight that good. And he offers others an escape of their own via the Take a Break Lodge, a retreat he built for those struggling with mental health, addictions—even those just having a tough time. And he was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada in 2017 for his efforts.

Constructed in 2015, after his brother’s suicide, the simple cedar cabin is available to anyone who needs it.

“If it saves one life,” says Sacobie, it’s done its job.” 

Robyn McNeil

East Coast Living