Artist Susan Point has pushed boundaries for women and Coast Salish design.
SINCE LAST AUGUST, anyone passing the 700 block of Johnson Street will likely have seen “Woven Together,” a public artwork installed on the façade of the Johnson Street Parkade. It is made of powder-coated aluminum forms in colours ranging from golden yellows and oranges to cool blues to muted browns and blacks. The forms fit together to describe circles, either in total or by suggestion using negative space. The effect, should you pause in your daily rush (and shouldn’t we all, now and then?), is of several circles advancing and receding with your eye’s movement, making a private communication to the viewer in this very public realm. Look a little longer and you will see eyes, butterfly wings, or just a collection of intriguing concave and convex shapes fitted together to make a whole. As is typical of contemporary Coast Salish artwork, it is at once engagingly complex and poetically simple.
The artwork is by Susan Point and one of her four children, Thomas Cannell. It is one of many of her public artworks that, like a silent story, punctuate Coast Salish territory (the lower mainland, southern Vancouver Island, and northern coast of Washington State). With these and private works, Susan Point has been credited for bringing the intricate flow of Coast Salish visual style back into practice, leading by example and inspiring many more young artists to spark a renaissance in Coast Salish art (she has the awards and accolades to prove it, including the Order of Canada). Perhaps one of the most bold declarations of Coast Salish style is her giant red cedar spindle whorl and welcome figures installed at the Vancouver International Airport in 1995 and ’96.
The spindle whorl, a round weaving implement, is an important item in Coast Salish culture. Usually made of wood, the discs are traditionally about eight inches in diameter and carved with shapes of humans and animals using distinctive design elements such as crescents, trigons and ovals. As part of their great spinning and weaving tradition, Coast Salish women have been using them for centuries.
Susan Point’s own mother, Edna Grant-Point, is among those women. She and other family members had a great influence on Point’s future career as an artist. Born in Alert Bay while the family was salmon fishing in 1952, Point was raised on the Musqueam Reserve near Vancouver. Point recalls, “We, my brothers and sisters, watched our mother wash, card and spin wool endlessly as we grew up…she was an excellent knitter.”
Her mother’s methods left a great impression on Point: “In creating her designs for knitting, my mother would design her images on graph paper—in an old ragged graph book that she had for years—using dots to create an overall design. To me, this was amazing!”
Along with aunts and an uncle, her mother also instilled a great awareness of her culture in Point, which, combined with her natural environs, she uses as inspiration in her artwork today. Despite having spent five years as a child in residential school, Point, now 64, says, “I will never forget the cultural teachings I was taught as a young child and I will forever cherish the stories and legends I was told.”
While she had the stories, the visual culture of the Northwest Coast First Nations had been only associated with northern groups like the Haida and the Kwakwaka’wakw. “It was not until January of 1981 that I first became aware of our unique art form while taking a jewellery course at Vancouver Community College,” she relates. She was on maternity leave from a legal secretary job at the time. Intrigued, she set out to learn more. Over time she travelled to museums and public archives in Canada, the US and Europe to do research. “The imagery upon the various utilitarian tools and houseposts were definitely one of-a-kind and unique to what we call Coast Salish art today,” she says.
Soon after her jewellery class, Point was making her own jewellery designs. And later that same year, at her kitchen table, Point created her first original print titled “Salmon,” a one-colour image of four salmon swimming toward a central point.
It is clearly suggestive of a spindle whorl, and the implement continues to be of particular inspiration to Point. Several of her prints have an explicit or implied circle at the centre of a spherical design to represent the middle of the spindle whorl. But even those that are rectangular in format evoke a circular flow, with the distinct undulations of her form of Coast Salish design. “The circle is a natural inspiration for me,” she explains. “It represents the circle of life, the Sun, the Moon, the ripples in a pond, salmon eggs, and so on. This triggers my inspiration, as I am sure it did for my ancestors and mankind, kindling invention and harmony, our connection to the land.”
Point has conveyed that continuity and connection in media ranging from cedar to paper to glass, steel to metal and stone, often working in areas that, at least when she plunged in, had traditionally been the preserve of men. But she admits that while she loves the challenge of a new medium, she enjoys the freedom of printmaking “simply because I love to draw and go beyond what I know…to explore and experiment.”
Her newest print, being done as this is written, is titled Robins. It comes during a flurry of activity, as she prepares for a retrospective of her work at the Vancouver Art Gallery, February 18-May 28. Aptly titled Spindle Whorl, it will feature over 100 of her works. Curated by Senior Curator-Historical Ian Thom and Audain Curator of British Columbia Art Grant Arnold, a 160-page hardcover book has been published to accompany it.
Though the exhibition will provide her with an opportunity to reflect on a career full of accomplishment, she seems most gratified by the work she has been able to do in collaboration with her children. “Over the past 35 years, since childhood, all of my four children have watched me create art,” she shares, “and each one of them are true artists within themselves.”
Along with the Johnson Street installation, son Thomas Cannell has collaborated multiple times with Point and also done his own public commissions, sometimes in collaboration with siblings. Recently he was one of three Coast Salish artists whose designs adorn one of the new Coastal Class BC Ferries; his is Salish Raven. And Point adds proudly, “My oldest son, Brent Sparrow, has been assisting me with carving on large-scale projects and at the same time working on his own public art commissions. And there’s my daughter, Rhea Guerin, who has produced her own works on paper and has collaborated with me on a limited-edition lino-cut print. Then there’s my youngest daughter, Kelly Cannell, who has also collaborated with me on a few public art commissions as well, and who has also been working very closely with me for the past few years, assisting me with carving and painting. At the same time, Kelly also works on her own public and private commissions producing works on paper, in wood, metal, and in glass. It’s a family affair!”
Nowadays, Susan Point also particularly loves “drawing and learning from my grandchildren.” With thirteen and counting (one’s on the way), Point’s circle continues to get fuller.
Susan Point’s retrospective exhibit “Spindle Whorl” is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until May 28. In Victoria you can see “Robins” and other serigraph prints by Point and her children, Thomas Cannell and Kelly Cannell, at Alcheringa Gallery, 621 Fort Street, 250-383-8224, www.alcheringa-gallery.com.
As her own children grow, writer Aaren Madden is increasingly aware that she will learn more from them than she will ever be able to teach them.
Edited by Aaren Madden