The paintings and carvings hanging from the walls and resting on podiums at Vancouver Island University’s The View Gallery tell the stories of the artists and those who came before them.
The exhibition, called Identity: Art as Life, brings together artists Curtis Wilson, Richard Thomas and Vince Smith, who hail from Wei Wai Kum First Nation, Snuneymuxw First Nation and Ehattesaht First Nation respectively. The show is part of the inaugural TimberWest First Nation Cultural Art Showcase Program and will remain on display until Nov. 14. A reception was held at in the nearby Malaspina Theatre lobby on Sept. 14.
TimberWest president and CEO Jeff Zweig said his company has been working with First Nations communities for a long time and that learning and understanding the historical and cultural context of Vancouver Island is a part of reconciliation. He said the art showcase is a step towards that.
“We have the privilege of viewing a lot of stunning artwork and interacting with some very talented artists, but the work really comes to life when you hear the stories behind the art. We want to share that experience with you,” he said at the reception.
“We are honoured that the three artists, Vince, Curtis and Richard, representing the three language groups on Vancouver Island, are sharing their art with us here today. You can feel their personal and collective experience expressed in these works. Many of these pieces on display are highly symbolic and spiritual. You can see the pride, hope and passion for cultural identity in these pieces.”
VIU president and vice-chancellor Ralph Nilson said the university’s history has similarly run parallel with that of the nearby First Nations. He said it’s the responsibility of the university to create spaces like The View to allow for continued learning, sharing and understanding between peoples.
“Every time we have a conversation, every time we have an event like this, we learn,” he said.
“The incredible gift that we have with the three artists … is the gift that they’re sharing with us of their knowledge and their experience and their history. Because when we go and look at their art, we’re looking at their families, we’re looking at their culture and we’re looking at everything that they bring to life in terms of what they’re putting into wood, what they’re putting into paper, what they’re putting up in the various pieces that we’re going to see in the gallery.”
Smith, a graduate of VIU, said he’s proud to be showing his work at his alma mater. He said after he left the school he had no idea where his art would take him, and while he’s had many other jobs, he always returned to art. He said his work is made with his ancestors in mind.
“A lot of my art work pertains to what I am taught, all the stories that I’ve heard many elders talk to me about,” he said.
“After I finished [at VIU] I went to many elders conferences in Nuu-chah-nulth territory to learn a lot because I wanted to learn something different than what I learned in college and it brought me to where I am today with my artwork.”
Fellow VIU alumnus Wilson said he felt hesitant to represent his nation in the exhibition, as he still considers himself to be a student. But when he heard the show would occur in the place where his artistic career began, he said it felt right.
“I lived in the dorms a stone’s throw from this place and I was carving in a little bedroom [with] wood chips on my floor. This is where it started for me so it’s really nice to be part of something that’s back on campus,” he said.
“My artistic abilities come from my mother’s uncles and my cousins and I have to acknowledge the things that they gave me. Doing this today is giving me the opportunity to give back, giving me the opportunity to teach other people about what our culture is today and it’s giving me the opportunity to maybe teach my children.”
Thomas is a self-taught artist who first experimented with art by drawing images from books on the walls of his room at his residential school. Eventually he moved to carving and now he makes art his livelihood.
“I don’t know where my life would have ended up if it wasn’t for the native art that I learned,” he said.
As the reception moved from the theatre lobby to the art gallery, Thomas said he’s hoping his works, including a series of totem poles, lead viewers to develop an admiration of First Nations art.
“I just want them to appreciate it … and if they come away happy that they’ve seen it, then I know I’ve accomplished my job.”