Reg Davidson, working on a carving in his shop

BC Indigenous Artists: From Cowichan Sweaters to Modern Art

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For Indigenous peoples in British Columbia, even the humblest utensil or material offers inspiration for art. Grasses are woven into intricately patterned baskets. Tufts of animal hair become a soft blanket. Cedar is carved gracefully into boxes, totems, or paddles. Seashells and feathers adorn fearsome masks.

Since time immemorial, West Coast Indigenous art captured the mysteries of the world in visual form, while adding beauty and grace to everyday chores. But the influx of Europeans in the 19th century massively disrupted First Nations cultures: communities were wiped out by disease, languages lost, families torn asunder, artistic traditions disrupted. Today that culture is undergoing a renaissance. Thanks to dozens of artists working to restore their creative heritage through wood, glass, silver, paint, and textiles, West Coast Indigenous art is as vibrant, alive, and exciting as it has ever been.

Here are just a few of British Columbia’s Indigenous artists and their works to discover.

Strolling in a Cowichan sweater | Tourism Cowichan

The Cowichan Knitters

One of the coziest of all art forms is the Cowichan sweater. A thick, bulky, but relatively lightweight garment with distinctive patterns knit from natural-coloured yarn, it evolved from the centuries-old textile traditions of Coast Salish weavers. Over time, those traditions merged with European knitting tools and techniques to create something beautifully unique to the Cowichan people of southeastern Vancouver Island.

Historically, Cowichan weavers used dog or mountain goat hair to make blankets and garments, but turned to wool once Europeans introduced sheep to the Island in the 1850s. From the newcomers, Indigenous women—almost all Cowichan knitters are women—also learned techniques such as using multiple needles to knit “in the round” so sweaters could be made without seams, as well as incorporating raised stitches and Fair Isle-type patterns. Today, the classic Cowichan sweater is a shawl-collared coat style with Indigenous or sports-themed motifs in natural cream, grey, brown, and/or black.

Find it:

Look for authentic Cowichan sweaters at the Judy Hill Gallery; beware that knockoffs abound, so make sure you’re buying the real deal.

Work of Haida designer Dorothy Grant displayed at Haida Heritage Centre | Ian Quinn

Dorothy Grant

Dorothy Grant was the first designer to incorporate traditional Haida motifs into high-end contemporary mainstream fashion. Born in Alaska and raised in Ketchikan, the Haida raven clan member showed her first fashion collection in 1989. Today she is recognized around the world for pieces that feature Indigenous myth and formline imagery in cashmere, silk, wool, and leather, often decorated with meticulous embroidery or beadwork.

Early on, Grant opened her own boutiques and expanded from couture to ready-to-wear garments and branded accessories such as eyewear, scarves, and handbags. She has earned numerous awards and honours, including membership in the Order of Canada and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. Dignitaries, celebrities, and regular folks alike adore her designs, making her the most famous Indigenous designer in Canada.

Find it:

Dorothy Grant’s most distinctive pieces can be found at more than a dozen museums across North America and the UK, including Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology. To purchase her designs, go to her website.

Crab with Sea Eagle Pendant by Gus Cook | Coastal Peoples Gallery

The Jewellery Makers

Long before Europeans rushed across British Columbia in search of silver and gold, Indigenous peoples were using precious metals to make and trade things of beauty. Today, the art of jewellery-making is alive and well, with dozens of talented artists carving formline images of traditional West Coast Aboriginal motifs into pendants, earrings, rings, and bracelets.

Among them is Carmen Goertzen, from Haida Gwaii, who was heavily influenced by his artist cousins Robert and Reg Davidson; his distinctive, deeply carved style is much prized by collectors. Also much admired is the work of Joe Wilson, of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation of northern Vancouver Island. Inspired by master carver Willie Seaweed, he is known for highly detailed and elaborate works in silver, copper, and gold. Meanwhile, taking an innovative approach to tradition is Gus Cook, also of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, who trained with a renowned Bulgarian silversmith in the metal art form of repoussé, which he combines with First Nations techniques to create something excitingly new.

Find it:

Quality galleries, museums gift shops and boutiques such as Coastal Peoples Fine Arts Gallery, Eagle Spirit Gallery, Inuit Gallery of Vancouver, and the Museum of Anthropology carry fine Indigenous jewellery.

The Davidsons and Edenshaws

The Davidsons and Edenshaws are well known in the art world, their creative traditions passed from generation to generation. In the 19th century, Charles Edenshaw (1839 – 1920) was a famous Haida Gwaii artist known for his wood and argillite carvings, jewellery making, and paintings. He married the highly regarded basket weaver Isabella Edenshaw; their daughter Florence, an artist and memoirist, became matriarch of the Davidson family. Their descendants include dozens of artists whose works feature in galleries and museums around the world.

Perhaps the most famous are their great-grandsons, the internationally renowned Robert Davidson, a printmaker, painter, jeweller, and carver best known for his totem poles and masks, and his brother Reg Davidson, who works in argillite, wood, and silkscreens. The two are often credited for leading the contemporary renaissance of Haida art and culture.

Find it:

You can find works by many members of the Davidson and Edenshaw families at museums and galleries all over North America.

"Flight," at the International Arrivals Terminal, is the world's largest Coast Salish Spindle Whorl | Vancouver Airport Authority

Susan Point

Born in Alert Bay on northern Vancouver Island, Susan Point is a Musqueam Coast Salish artist recognized for her wooden spindle whorls and abstract prints, and for helping revive Salish art and culture. Because so much of it had been lost to decades of cultural disruption, she studied museum collections to teach herself Salish techniques and styles, which are quite different from the formline approach of most West Coast Indigenous art.

In her intricately carved cedar spindle whorls, Point combines Salish figurative wood sculpture—work traditionally done by men—with the abstract patterns of women’s textile and basket weaving. She also works with contemporary media including glass, concrete, and bronze, and has received numerous honours, including being named an Officer of the Order of Canada, as well as the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal and the 2018 Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts.

Find it:

Susan Point’s works include public pieces at the Vancouver International Airport, Stanley Park, National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, the UBC Museum of Anthropology and the city of Seattle. For recent shows and works for sale, visit the artist’s website.

Vancouver’s Skwachàys Lodge is home to liveable works of art | Craig Minielly at Aura Photographics

Rooms Full of Art

The most important thing to note about Indigenous art is that it is living. Organic. It is not meant to be locked in a glass museum case. That’s why Bill Reid’s Jade Canoe is in an airport where the touch of little hands can wear away its patina and why the priceless totems in SGang Gwaay are allowed to decompose back to the land from which they came. So it should be no surprise that one of the province’s most remarkable Aboriginal art galleries isn’t a gallery at all, but a hotel.

In fact, Skwachàys (pronounced skwatch-eyes) Lodge and Residence in Vancouver is more than a hotel. Created by the Vancouver Native Housing Society it combines an Indigenous art gallery, boutique hotel, and artist residence with a sweat lodge, studio space, commercial kitchen, and apartments for Indigenous people at risk of homelessness. Each of its 18 guest rooms has been beautifully transformed into a themed space featuring the work of an Indigenous artist—the Hummingbird Suite, for instance, by Richard Shorty; Water Suite by Corinne Hunt; Drum Circle Suite by Jerry Whitehead; and Longhouse Suite by Sabina Hill. After all, what better way to truly experience art than to surround yourself with it, allowing it to fill your dreams?

Find it:

Skwachàys Lodge is located at 31 West Pender St. in Vancouver.

Brian Jungen's golf bag totem on display at Audain Art Museum | Tourism Whistler / Justa Jeskova

Brian Jungen

Is that totem made of golf bags? A mask assembled from sneakers? It is indeed. Brian Jungen’s work is unlike anything else out there. Consider him the leader of the next generation of Indigenous artists. He was born in Fort St. John of Dane-Zaa and Swiss background, and now lives and works in the North Okanagan Valley. He studied art in Vancouver and Montreal before moving to New York; upon returning to Vancouver he began exploring stereotyped representations of Indigenous peoples, trying to understand what people thought Indigenous art was.

His “Prototypes for New Understanding” sculptures involved dismantling Nike Air Jordan sneakers and re-assembling them to resemble West Coast Indigenous masks and totems; they evoked themes of materialism and fetishism of the “other.” They also grabbed the world’s attention. He has since built whale skeletons out of plastic lawn chairs, made a basketball court out of sweatshop sewing machine tables, and has stretched animal hides over car parts. He is without question one of the most exciting and provocative artists working in any medium today.

Find it:

Jungen was the first living Indigenous artist to exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. His public art can be seen at the Banff Centre, and other works are in the collections of the National Gallery of Canada, Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Audain Art Museum in Whistler and elsewhere.

Feature video: Carver Reg Davidson


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