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People Among the People: The Public Art of Susan Point

Susan Point at her Celtic Shipyard studio, working in red cedar to create the original pattern for her piece, Salmon People (1998). Photo courtesy of Archives of Coast Salish Arts, by unknown photographer.

People Among the People is a book that celebrates the public art of one of Canada’s most accomplished artists and designers. ʔəy̓xwatiyə, Susan Point is endlessly creative and astonishingly prolific. Her work is meticulous and detailed. She’s also adventurous: she shows great artistic courage in exploring and mastering new mediums like fused and hot glass, copper, aluminium, bronze, concrete, and synthetic polymers, and new skills like drafting, wood carving, print making, and engraving. She is a generous artist, a lifelong learner, a quick study, and a cultural ambassador.

She has honoured the art of her ancestors and the sniw̓ (teachings) of her parents, relations and xwməθkwəyə̓m (Musqueam) Elders, while at the same time developing a personal style rooted in her research into surviving early Salish artworks. This has ensured that she is recognized not as a copyist, but as a transformer: a female artistic Raven, with her own contemporary tool kit of elegant designs and bright colour palettes, which she’s able to deploy in diverse mediums with her varied skill set.

Susan Point has played perhaps a larger role than any other artist in reinvigorating traditional Coast Salish art, which for years had languished in the collections of a limited number of museums. Her expressions and explorations of the Salish aesthetic have given it new life. And by serving as a mentor to her artistic colleagues and partners, she has helped ensure the next generation of artists will be creating works in a Salish idiom.

Welcome Figure, 1997. Located at the entrance of MOA. MOA Collection: Nbz836. Photo courtesy of Archives of Coast Salish Arts, by unknown photographer.

For Susan, art is at the centre of her being. As she told me several years ago, “I’ve always been interested in art. Throughout my schooling, art was my best subject—always straight As. I always helped other people along with their artwork, right from the time I can remember, Grade 1. But not necessarily Salish native art—I love drawing life, animals… So right from childhood I did enjoy drawing and creating things.” To explore the arc of Susan Point’s public art is to engage with every phase of her development as an artist, which allows us to highlight a number of themes that have grown increasingly important to her: her curiosity and respect for Musqueam practices and early Salish art; her eagerness to try new mediums; and her mission to ensure there is a prominent “Salish footprint” in the traditional territories of the Salish Peoples, and that their message of environmental stewardship is embraced by all who now share this land.

The River—Giver of Life, 1998. Located at Langara College, Vancouver, BC. Photo by Kenji Nagai.

She has been determined to apply what she has learned about Salish art from closely studying historic Salish art pieces in museum collections and drawing on the sχwəye̓m̓ (Oral Traditions) and syəθ (Traditional Knowledge) of the Musqueam, learned from parents and relatives. She integrates this understanding into her new art at every opportunity. Rather than reproduce the traditional pieces, she has deftly balanced her respect for Traditional Knowledge with a constant desire to try new things, to develop new skills. “I didn’t think of myself as an artist at the beginning. First of all, I was a jewellery maker. Then I tried prints and I was a printmaker. Then a painter, not necessarily an artist. Experimenting—enjoying everything I tried.”

Her Salish roots are clear and never far from her mind, but it is the challenge of creating something new and lasting that is the ultimate driving force behind her work. As she told me recently, “I do not like the separation between ‘Non-Native Art Galleries (fine art) v. Indian Art Galleries (ethnic/craft).’ There’s a point where the art speaks for itself and is accepted as thus.”

A Timeless Circle, 2016. Located at Maury Young Arts Centre, Whistler, BC. Photo by Kenji Nagai.

When we look at the public and monumental art of Susan Point, certain works stand out. Some dramatize the breadth of her vision: they show the marriage of an idea to a place using a particular material, or they synthesize important truths about the land, sea, air, and the creatures we share them with, or they fascinate us by reshaping forms Susan has seen on historic ʔeləw̓k̓w (belongings) into a contemporary work of art. Others mark an important stage in the development of her ability to work to a large scale. Still others dazzle us with their sheer beauty. All of the works included in People Among the People speak to one or more of these facets.

Robert D. Watt studied at UBC and Carleton University and worked as the City Archivist for the City of Vancouver. He joined the Centennial Museum (now the Museum of Vancouver) in 1973 and served as the Director from 1980 to 1988. His new book, People Among the People: The Public Art of Susan Point, was the recipient of the 2019 City of Vancouver Book Award and is available at the MOA Shop ($50).
Excerpted from People Among the People: The Public Art of Susan Point by Robert D. Watt. Copyright 2018 by Museum of Anthropology at UBC. Text copyright by Robert D. Watt. Excerpted with permission from Figure 1 Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.