Wednesday, July 3, 2019

People Among the People: The Public Art of Susan Point

Artist Susan Point. (Photo:: MonteCristo)

It’s all a question of scale. Recently on the West Coast we had the great opportunity to experience two sides of the widely accomplished and acclaimed Coast Salish (Musqueam) artist Susan Point. Her intimately scaled gallery works were showcased at the first solo show featuring her in the Okanagan Spindle Whorl, at the Kelowna Gallery, while her large-scale public artworks were celebrated in a remarkable new book, People Among the People, released by Vancouver-based Figure 1 Publishing, with insightful texts by Robert D. Watt and Michael Kew.

Both the interior gallery drawings, paintings and sculptures and the large exterior public space commissions by this gifted artist share an attention to indigenous motifs and an interactive spirituality for which she has been rightly recognized over the last thirty years or so. Ironically, the gallery exhibit has a bigness of heart while the public works featured in Watt’s book have a gripping intimacy which often belies their grander size.

Point’s trajectory is equally gripping. Born in 1952, she first began making limited-edition prints at her own kitchen table while still working as a legal secretary. In the course of her art-making practice, she rediscovered the rich heritage of her people: “It wasn’t until I was in my late 20’s, when I took a jewelry course at Vancouver Community College in 1981 that I discovered that we, as Coast Salish people, have our own unique art style. The discovery marked the beginning of my career, and for the past 37 years I have truly dedicated myself to reviving Coast Salish Art.”

Point is an Officer of the Order of Canada and was also presented with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for her overall contribution to this country. She has also been recognized with an Inspire Achievement Award, a YMCA Woman of Distinction Award, and a B.C. Creative Achievement Award, and is listed among the 100 most influential women in British Columbia. Many of her works, both large public pieces and gallery-installed works, employ the motif of the spindle whorl, a design which also serves as a metaphor for the Coast Salish peoples, a disparate group of indigenous cultures settled in the Pacific Northwest. In the U.S. they reside in Washington State and Oregon, while in Canada they live in what is now British Columbia.

The “spindle whorl” refers to a carved, circular plate attached to the end of a wooden spindle which acts to lend weight during the wool-spinning fabrication process. In Salish traditions, the whorls are carved with powerful symmetrical designs which blur and merge as the spindle rotates. In Point’s works, the whorl is also often used as a metaphor in two-dimensional works including paper screen prints, as well as three-dimensional media such as glass, wood carving, rawhide drum forms and wool. Point is often credited with introducing this ancient design form into contemporary art practices.

Vancouver Airport Authority.

Meanwhile, in a large public art scale, Figure 1 Publishing's publication People Among the People is a superb and welcome celebration of one of Canada’s most accomplished artists and designers, authored by Robert Watt in collaboration with the Museum of Anthropology. It is also a major contribution to Point’s important artistic mission: “I feel it is important to re-establish our Salish footprint upon our lands, to create a visual expression of the link between the past and the present that is both accessible and people-friendly. I create unique original artworks that honour my own people as well as the diverse groups of people from around the world who have come to live upon our lands in the Northwest Coast. My hope is that my art leaves a lasting impression on locals, visitors and surrounding communities.”

One such work, Interaction, installed at the Port of Friday Harbour’s Fairweather Park on San Juan Island, does exactly that, with its profound gateway motif both welcoming visitors and projecting a strong image outward through a monumentally carved and painted cedar-house-post sculpture. It is also the first public acknowledgment of the island’s native heritage and thus represents a healing chapter in local history.

Spindle Whorl exhibition. (Image: Kelowna Gallery)

The new book on Susan Point’s public art has been accurately lauded by the Vancouver Sun, among others: “An engaging read and a beautiful book to look at, Watt’s People Among the People ensures that Point’s works not only can’t be forgotten but that they’re even more readily accessible. Unlike most art books, Point’s works aren’t presented chronologically they are grouped by geographical location, making them even easier to find.” Such an orientation also, of course, emphasizes the importance of location, land and place which is at the very heart of almost all indigenous traditions.

Once nearly lost to the overall effects of colonization, the crescents, wedges, whorls, human and animal forms characteristic of traditional Coast Salish art can now be seen around the world having been reinvigorated with modern materials and contemporary fabrication techniques. In her serigraphs and public art installations, Point has also insured that her culture’s traditions will live on through the new generation of artists that she has deeply inspired.

This book beautifully illustrates the depth and breadth of her public art, from cast bronze faces in Whistler to massive carved cedar portals in Stanley Park to molded polymer murals in Seattle. Through interviews and archival access, Watt gathers the story of each piece, often in Point’s own poignant words, to illustrate the vital role she has played in revealing and re-establishing her people’s footprint in the Pacific Northwest. An artist statement by Point and a critical essay by Dr. Michael Kew complete this portrait of a profoundly moving collection of artworks.

People Among the People, 2008. (Photo: Kenji Nagai)

As Watt explains, “Arguably the most important public art in Vancouver is Susan’s masterpiece at Brockton Point, 'People Among the People,' the first artwork in Stanley Park by a Coast Salish artist. This opportunity to place in such a visible setting art that reflected the pre-contact culture of the area, art that used Salish aesthetics and spoke about Salish beliefs, was supremely important. The thematic richness of the three portals and the symbols and figures they show, carved with such vigour and painted with such an appropriate and distinctive palette, is simply breathtaking.”

Indeed, for me, so is the whole rest of the book as well.

Much of the culture of indigenous communities is relayed through time by stories which focus their and our attention on the importance of the place where we stand. Figure 1 Publishing and author Robert Watt have done us all a great service by sharing the stories and dreams of artist Susan Point in People Among the People.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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