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'Restless souls.'

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Artistic mosaic guides spirits home

By Robin Buda -- Today staff

CANASTOTA, N.Y. - When one finds his calling, it doesn't matter where he is. Such is the case with Wayne Ashley, Cree, of Edmonton, Alberta.

At his uncle's funeral two years ago, Ashley discovered something unsettling. Looking around, he saw several graves without headstones, distinguished from one another only by numbers. He didn't feel that was right.

''It was very upsetting to me. Many people are poor or just haven't planned well for funerals and expenses. In either case, if there's no money, they can't even get a name on the gravestone. Think of how many restless souls there are out there.

''There are many anonymous graves of aboriginals throughout the country. And a lot of the time, some people don't even know about deceased members of their family. Whether it's smallpox or other diseases, drugs, or simply losing track of family, it doesn't change the fact that they deserve respect.''

He made a promise to his Creator that he would do something to memorialize these forgotten souls.

Ashley spoke with the Rev. Jim Holland, of Sacred Heart Parish, and received permission to build the mosaic for Holy Cross Cemetery, where his uncle and several other Natives are buried. Determined to complete the mosaic, he quit his job as a contractor to focus all of his time and energy on this project.

''I didn't want to let them down, and I wanted to keep my promise,'' Ashley said. ''I'm just upset it took two years. I would have liked to finish it sooner.''

''Ascending'' was completed May 23. The image shows the link between mortal and eternal life, mixing Native and Christian images of life and death. Ashley blended both belief systems to show the similarities between the two.

''We've all been praying to the same Creator. We may have different beliefs, but this is one thing we shouldn't disagree on. We all pray to something.''

Ashley described the symbolism behind the monument.

''It starts with the central figure of the tree of life. The background shows dark and light, the difference between good and evil. At the lowest point of the tree trunk is the turtle, representing the beginning of life. The contrast of the light and dark symbolizes the balance in life and the balance of humanity with nature.

''The turtle anchors the tipi, which represents home and family, the lessons we learn along the way, and what we leave behind. The branches contain the eternal circle that symbolizes the body, spirit, mind and heart. It's the life cycle. Coming out of the tipi are two spirits who are being taken back to the Creator by angels. It's meant to help guide the spirits into the afterlife.''

The other side features a Christian cross etched in porcelain. The materials came from leftover pieces used to build prospective Edmonton Oilers owner and billionaire Daryl Katz's house, Ashley said. He worked on Katz's house when it was being built and held on to the porcelain.

''No one even notices the back,'' Ashley said. ''It's quite spectacular.''

The mosaic stands 10 feet tall and 14 feet wide. Since completing it, he's continued making other mosaic monuments.

He's currently working on a few and would like to continue making symbolic mosaics to donate them to deserving organizations or communities.

''It would be great if there could be donation boxes attached to the mosaics,'' Ashley said. ''That way, wherever they are, the donations can be collected and used for programs for the community.''

Ashley said he wasn't always great at keeping promises to his Creator. Growing up, he had dyslexia that went unrecognized, so he had a tough time in school. At the age of 15, he went to jail. When he got out at 16, he knew he had to turn his life around.

''That's why it was so important to keep this promise; to even the score, so to speak. It might be far from even, but maybe after doing this, at least I'll have a few friends on the other side,'' he laughed.

Since Ashley makes a full-time job of this without receiving monetary compensation, he's opened to donations of funds or supplies.

For more information, or to make donations, e-mail socialdev@hotmail.com.