Artist Danii Kehler Shares The Story Behind "Lady in Red"

I had the pleasure of sitting down recently to chat with the lovely Danii Kehler. I asked her a few questions to find out more about her and the story behind her painting Lady in Red, which has been getting lots of attention this year. She has had an exciting year; you don't want to miss hearing about it!
Q:  So, can you tell me what you’ve been up to since you presented atA Youth Explosion 2018 and how you came to make Lady in Red?

Well, after my 1st AYE, I didn’t make any pieces for a while. I had a bunch of ideas in my head and I knew I wanted to do something to commemorate Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) but it just didn’t come to me.  I knew I couldn’t force it. So the summer went on and I went back to school in Saskatoon. That fall, I was asked to emcee and bring my artwork to an event called ‘A Night of Healing.’ It was part of a 3-day conference about MMIW.  I knew this was the time to create a piece of art inspired by MMIW.

Q: What it was like to make the Lady in Red?  

Well, I had one week until the event.  So I looked at my schedule and figured out how I could balance my school work and also get this art piece done. From Monday-Friday I worked on the painting part while I balanced my schoolwork.   As I started painting, the vision took shape-  to create a piece that someone could auction off. I didn’t know who or how but I knew I wanted the highest bidder to get her and then all the proceeds would go to the families who were affected by MMIWG.

As for my process when I’m painting- I’d say it’s spiritual. I kind of get lost when I paint. I don’t really see anything. I have a picture in front of me for reference but I don’t even really see it, I just get lost in the shapes and the colors and just go for it.  I’m not really present for it, I’m almost out of body. It’s like I’m meditating and the painting gets it out of me.

Then, when the weekend came, I put everything aside and it was time to bead- I didn’t do homework, I didn’t do anything except beading. I beaded for 3 days straight.  My thumb was peeling and scabbing, my fingers were numb, my back was aching, my neck hurt so bad, but I just felt “I have to get this done.”  

With every bead that I tack down, I pray.  And that’s what I did with my Lady in Red - I prayed for all the women that are missing, I prayed for the families, I prayed for healing, I prayed for strength, I just prayed. I got lost in the beading the same way I got lost in the painting.  It was very spiritual and it took a lot out of me emotionally, because the thought of the loss of those women, it’s really heavy.  I broke down many times painting and beading because it just got to be so much. But, I knew I had to persevere, that I had to get it done, that I wanted to do it for these women and for this cause.  

I finally finished her on Sunday morning at 2:30am.  She is my most meaningful work because of   what I invested in her and how I created her.  People recognize it when they see her - she is everyone’s favorite.  Anybody who knows me, sees that painting and she instantly becomes their favourite.  

Q: How did the conference go and what has happened since?

So, after I finished her, I took her to the MMIWG conference. It was really, really heartbreaking and hard to hear peoples’ stories, but I feel like we have a duty to hear them so that they are not forgotten, so we can spread awareness and share their stories with others.  I was very honored to be there.  At the end of the conference, the painting went viral. Photos of her were being shared to Facebook in Brazil, Australia, all over Canada.  I had multiple offers to buy her but something told me that I couldn’t sell her, not yet.

I put her in multiple art contests but didn’t win, she didn’t even place or anything.  I was feeling really discouraged and telling myself ‘I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing, it just feels like I’m getting nowhere.’ I completely forgot about the vision that I had for her because I was focusing more on my art career and getting my name out there. I kind of lost myself for a bit.  

Then in October, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) contacted me from Saskatoon.  They asked me if they could buy her. I hesitated at first but when they told me I was going to have to be ok for her to become an icon, I became more curious. They want to use her image to become a symbol for MMIWG in Saskatchewan.  “She is going to be everywhere- on scarves, t-shirts, bags,”  they told me.

“We are going to hold a powwow and have a red dress special and we are going to put her image onto a scarf and gift it to all the dancers and family members affected by MMIWG.  But that’s not it.  After the powwow, we are going to print more scarves to fundraise - we are going to sell them left and right.  You will get a very small percentage of the proceeds but the rest of the proceeds will go to the families.” So it’s going to go back to the people, just like my vision.  I was over the moon!

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, they said, “wait there is more- we want to auction off Lady in Red at a conference for MMIW in June 2020 in Saskatoon.” I guess there will be some really big names in attendance and they plan to fundraise for the MMIW organizations and affected family members.  I was so blown away that they are actually going to auction her off. My dream is coming true. I can’t believe it!

Women at the recent Red Dress Special in Saskatchewan. Women were gifted scarves with Danii's Lady in Red.
The scarves that women were given at the Red Dress Special. The image based on Lady in Red  will be used as an icon for MMIWG.

Q: Wow, what an amazing journey! What have you learned that you would like to share with other youth?  

Yeah, all the tough lessons over the past years have taught me that I have to believe in myself and eventually things will manifest themselves.  Everyone thought I was so strange to not sell her and take the money for myself. But I held onto her with a vision and waited. People told me I was living in the clouds. But now my vision is all coming true.  My message to other youth: you just have to put the work in and believe in yourself.

A big thank you from us at Canada Bridges to Danii for sharing her art and her words with us this year.  We are thrilled to have her generous heart and creative mind on the AYE youth committee.  Want to see more of Danii’s amazing artwork- check her out on Facebook @kehlervisions

Want to get more involved at Canada Bridges? All youth and supportive adults are welcome to join us in the New Year as Danii and the team will be helping other youth share their stories and uncover their artistic talents at our new initiative we are calling ‘Story Jams.’ Finally, if you are hoping for your own  Lady In Red scarf- no date has been set for their release yet. Stay tuned with us on Social Media and we will be sure to let you know!