“Many of us have stood before a painting, listened to a piece of music or watched a piece of choreography and felt a sense of inexplicable, even inexpressible, understanding or revelation. Our emotions or thoughts—what we might even call responses of the spirit—may have no rational source, yet they reverberate within us with a strange conviction.” (Wyman, 3)
These words of Max Wyman have guided my journey in approaching art over the past weeks, as I have made a conscious attempt to remain open to the possibility of being swept away by the works I have experienced.
Last year, in the GLS travel study tour of Italy, I made every attempt to remain open to the magnificent works of art we visited, and hoped to find the pure joy that Wyman describes. It was, however, at the Vancouver Art Gallery in May 2017, that I first experienced the gift of a deep and significant emotional connection with art.
As I engaged with the works of Susan Point’s exhibition, “Spindle Whorl” at the Vancouver Art Gallery, I felt an inexplicable sense of joy and inner understanding. I was connected to the art through the different materials, shapes and colours, and my spirit was touched.
I was also moved by the story of the artist. At the age of 9, by government decree, Susan Point was sent away from her home and family to live at the the Sechelt Residential School, where she stayed for five years. She describes that period of her life as a “heartbreaking time”. Her powerful installation, “Butterfly Grid”, represents her disconnection from the traditional wisdom and teachings of the Salish, and the loss of her Hul‘q’umi’num’ language. (Point)
At age 28, and with three small children, she began her life as an artist. She initially didn’t know that Salish art still existed. The cultural heritage that had existed for thousands of years had been lost after contact with Europeans. Smallpox and other diseases had reduced the Musqueam population, estimated to have been 25,000 before contact, to fewer than 100 people by 1920. What might have been left of the culture at that time, was further destroyed by Canadian government law that forced first nations children to attend residential schools from the 1840’s to the final closures in 1996. (Kew). For 150 years, indigenous children were prevented from learning the languages, customs, teaching and practices of their ancestors. Salish art had almost been lost to the world.
After training in the techniques of the northwest First Nations traditions, Point did some research at the Museum of Anthropology at U.B.C. and discovered some ancient Salish artifacts. These pieces inspired her, and have guided her artistic practice to this day. She resolved to bring back the lost Salish art of her ancestors. (Point, 2007).
In a recent panel discussion at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Jim Kew, Cultural Representative for the Musqueam, described the results of the decimated population and the imposition of residential schools this way. “We were pushed to the edge of eternity by colonial genocide, but our world staggered on.” Speaking of Point’s extensive revival of Salish art over the past 36 years, Kew says, “Susan has breathed new life into our future.”
Wyman has described culture, in part, as “the collective awareness, experience and memory that we share with the people around us”, and that artistic creativity becomes the tangible expression of the culture in which it exists, a living affirmation of the shared hopes and visions of a group of people who have chosen to live together.” (Wyman, 14)
With the loss of that awareness, experience and memory, the Salish people lost their culture, and their suffering was intense. Susan Point has become “a force and a living legend”, (Young), and has motivated and mentored a whole new generation of Salish artists, including her four children.
I knew that through my interaction with Susan Point’s work, I had experienced something exceptional, and wanted to find a way to share this. I felt that by using images of the art, and providing some of the stories narrated by the artist herself, I would be able to express my emotional connection and experience most effectively. Rather than a traditional essay, I decided to produce my first documentary film, “Susan Point—Bringing Salish Art Back to the World” (7 minutes, 40 seconds).
This is a personal interpretation of the beauty of Susan Point’s art, and a story of the artist. It is a story of heartbreak, resilience, strength, creativity and the re-birth of Coast Salish art. It is a story of a woman who has created masterpieces of beauty we can now experience here, in the ancestral lands of the Coast Salish people, and these can be found in galleries, churches, parks, and public spaces. It is an assertion of the cultural presence that was almost destroyed, but is now thriving, due to the artist’s genius and persistence.
Kew, Jim. “The Influence and Legacy of Susan Point.” Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver. 2 May 2017. Panel Discussion. (Unedited video supplied by Vancouver Art Gallery to Linn Teetzel)
Point, Susan. Butterfly Grid (2016). Art Installation. Vancouver Art Gallery. Vancouver, B.C.
—. Susan Point. 2007. Film. BC Achievement Foundation–BC Creative Achievement Awards for First Nations Art.
Thom, Ian, Senior Curator—Historical and Arnold Grant, Audain Curator of British Columbia Art. Spindle Whorl. 2017. Vancouver Art Gallery. https://www.vanartgallery.bc.ca/the_exhibitions/exhibit_point.html
Wyman, Max. Defiant Imagination. 1 edition. Vancouver, B.C: 2004. Print.
Young, India. “The Influence and Legacy of Susan Point.” Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver. 2 May 2017. Panel Discussion. (Unedited video supplied by Vancouver Art Gallery to Linn Teetzel)