This Coast Salish artist combines traditional training with self-directed studies in mathematics, Buddhism and Islamic art.
INDIGENOUS ARTIST DYLAN THOMAS is flying high this summer. Fluttering in the breeze above Victoria’s busy streets are his prize-winning banner series. These four unique images tell traditional stories about the Lekwungen People, including about the salmon cycle and Thomas’ great grandmother, who was one of the last Lekwungen People born in the Old Songhees Village. At Victoria City Hall, his spectacular black-and-white geometric abstraction, “Net Work,” wraps around the circular staircase. And, later this summer, at Alcheringa Gallery and Brentwood Bay Resort, his work will be shown in a group exhibition of 20 Northwest Coast artists. “Surfers Paradise: Northwest Coast Surfboards” will run from August 10 to September 21.
Anyone watching the kitesurfers twirl and dance in the air at Dallas Road can attest to the thrill of riding the waves. “Surfers Paradise” is a dramatic extension of boarding’s daring and competitive culture. Each artist has the same canvas to work on: a surfboard made from Vancouver Island western red cedar. On this canvas, each artist defines their relationship to surfing—or more generally, moving across the water. First Nation territories on Canada’s west coast have intimate connections with the ocean.
Thomas works on a piece for “Surfers Paradise: Northwest Coast Surfboards” (Photo by Kate Cino)
Alcheringa’s new owner and director Mark Loria says: “I believe the artists in this exhibition will bring their own understandings of important cultural, historical, and personal connections with our coastline.” The exhibit will also, he says, likely shed “a light on the colonization of contemporary surfing culture—full of competition, bravado, and corporate branding…[it will] remind us of the cultural, meditative, and practical significance of the indigenous invention of ‘riding and travelling the waves.’”
Dylan Thomas looks forward to the group show at Alcheringa. “It’s a chance to enjoy the camaraderie,” he says, “and interact with my peers.” The concept of the show is interesting, explains Thomas, because it uses a traditional medium in new ways. While respecting his heritage, he can explore a contemporary sport. Red cedar is sacred to Indigenous peoples. Made into vessels, cedar forges a conduit between water and traveller. For example, when making a functional paddle, areas touched by the paddler’s hands are left unpainted. Gripping the raw wood gives a stronger connection. Thomas received this teaching from one of his mentors, Delmore Johnny.
Qwul’thilum (Dylan Thomas) is a Coast Salish artist from the Lyackson First Nation of Valdes Island. Born in Victoria in 1986, he learned his traditional culture from many sources. Thomas also studied creative writing at the University of Victoria. An avid researcher, he views historic Salish treasures in museum databases all around the world. His detailed examination of Coast Salish iconography includes the study of pre-history and other cultures. Thomas reveres Coast Salish artists like Stan Greene (b. 1952) and Susan Point (b. 1953) who revived the tradition in many mediums. Peer mentors like lessLIE and Rande Cook have been invaluable to the artist as well.
As an even younger, emerging artist, Thomas believed that each new artwork required a grand creative vision. Rande Cook brought him back to Earth, saying, “Don’t think too big, it’s all in the details.” Cook advised his apprentice to learn and apply the nuances of the Northwest Coast aesthetics. Simple rules, like, when creating a composition, it's important to keep the weight balanced. If a line turns one way, then add another for counterbalance. “Good designs develop in a natural and organic way,” says the artist.
Thomas is grateful to Elaine Monds, the original owner of Alcheringa, who purchased his prints and jewellery in the early days. “You get so much rejection as a young artist,” he says. “Small successes help keep you going.”
The artist’s first big break came in 2013. He was included in “Urban Thunderbirds: Ravens in a Material World” which opened at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria that November. Thomas shared exhibition space with Fran Dick, Rande Cook, and LessLIE.
In 2016, Thomas had a solo exhibition at Alcheringa titled “Sacred Geometry.” These artworks moved beyond the well-known motifs of Coast Salish art: trigons, crescents, ovals and circles. To build the images, Thomas used mathematical principles instead of traditional symbols. He used only straight lines and circles.
“I decided to let my intuitions about geometric beauty guide every creative decision,” he says. Instead of arranging animals in a puzzle-like formation, his new patterns built themselves. He was surprised and delighted to see the remarkable formations taking shape. Within a month of starting his experiments, a range of unique designs emerged. He called his new creative venture “Sacred Geometry.”
Sacred geometry emerged from the artist’s study of Coast Salish practices. However, while researching those, he became interested in other art forms, including the Tibetan mandala and Islamic tessellations. Mandalas represent the cosmos in Buddhist and Hindu cultures, and are tools for meditation. The symmetrical mandala design often includes a circle enclosed by a square, with four “gates.” Tessellations are repeatable patterns consisting of a series of identical shapes. Muslim artists excel at decorating rugs, ceramics and architecture with these intricate arrangements.
That Thomas thinks deeply about art is evident in his artist's statement for the Sacred Geometry exhibit. “As I continue my studies of visual art, it seems as though the more I learn about aesthetics (i.e. the nuanced details create and emphasize beauty), the less I intellectually understand the concept; this is likely because beauty doesn’t operate on the intellect and is, by nature, not rational. But it wouldn’t be appropriate to call beauty irrational either. A far more accurate term, one used by the philosopher Ken Wilber, is trans-rational, because it seems to operate on something much deeper than the intellect, what some might call the heart or soul or spirit.”
A visit to Alcheringa Gallery reveals a number of works by Thomas (besides the surfboard to be on exhibit in August), each demonstrating his unique philosophical approach. “Sun and Stone,” for instance, is sand-blasted yellow cedar painted with acrylic using shapes and patterns from both Tibetan and Coast Salish styles. The palette is warm, using pigments found in nature, traditional red and black, along with pastel blue augmenting the woodgrain background. The basic shape is similar to a mandala, being a circle surrounded by a square, with four “gates” touching the edges. The interconnected spirals suggest a five-petal flower shape, or five-pointed star like a pentagram. The number five is believed to have regenerative and transformative power. Spirals carved in stone are found on some historic spindle whorls. The artist says he liked the juxtaposition of warm sunlight illuminating cold stone.
“Sun and Stone” by Dylan Thomas, 24 x 24 inches, yellow cedar, acrylic paint
“Colours of Spring” introduces a new palette, using pastel tones of blue, purple and pink. Thomas appreciates how the softer shades augment the shapes in his new geometric paintings. The artist wanted a change from using saturated tones of red and black. He experimented with gouache, an opaque medium which is thicker than watercolour. But is was acrylics that delivered the warm complementary tones in “Colours of Spring.” The patterns in this work come from intertwining circles of various sizes and form a tessellation. This came as a revelation to the artist, referencing his favourite Islamic art form. It’s also interesting to see how the trigon shape has reappeared in the new paintings.
"Colours of Spring" by Dylan Thomas, 48 x 24 inches, acrylic on canvas
A dramatic acrylic painting called “Serpent Circle” on a 36-inch circular canvas echoes a drum shape. Imagery for “Serpent Circle” comes from rattles and spindle whorls found in museum databases. Thomas made subtle alterations to the iconography, changing, for instance, the central humanoid face to a moon motif. A double-headed serpent connects at the top of the drum. The serpent legend comes from the Cowichan area, and the teaching encourages bravery in the face of great danger.
Serpent Circle (Wolf and Moon), by Dylan Thomas 36-inch diameter x 2.5-inch depth, acrylic on canvas
Finally, the acrylic painting “Whale Spirits” has a carved silver pendant in the centre. Two whales are breaching, but pinned between a boundary, perhaps feeling the stress of life in our changing oceans. The carved silver pendant reminds the artist of his early days designing jewellery with mentor Delmore Johnny. It adds a sense of circular completion to his artistic journey so far. His path continues in new directions as he pursues the wonders of sacred geometry. “I have discovered a new creative world space,” he says, “that I can return to over the years.” And that will, no doubt, be a rich and rewarding road to travel for this talented and inquisitive artist.
“Whale Spirits” by Dylan Thomas, 24 x 24 inches, acrylic on canvas
Surfers Paradise: Northwest Coast Surfboards runs from August 10 to September 21, Alcheringa Gallery, 621 Fort Street, 250-383-8224, www.alcheringa-gallery.com. Other artists exhibiting include Coast Salish artists Maynard Johnny, Margaret August, Chris Paul, Chazz Elliott, Andrew Dexel, Bear Horne; Kwakwaka’wakw artists Chris Lines, Francis Dick, Jason Hunt, Trevor Hunt; Haida artists Ernest Swanson, Corey Bulpitt, Roger Smith; Heiltsuk artist KC Hall; Wulkinuxv artist Wuuhlu (Bracken Corlett); Nuxalk artist Nusmata (Jarrod Saunders); Gitxsan/Cree artist Trevor Husband; and Tlingit artist Dean Heron.
Kate Cino holds a History of Art degree from the University of Victoria. Her writing about the arts can also be found at www.artopenings.ca.