Jennifer Kramer, MOA Curator, Pacific Northwest, shared a lively conversation with Nuxalk and shíshálh artist Dionne Paul (Ximiq) about her Nuxalk woven headdress with fibre optics (MOA Collection 3214/1). Acquired by MOA in 2014, the piece is set to be exhibited in MOA’s Multiversity Galleries in the near future. They discuss how Paul created this piece after a fruitful visit with a Nuxalk robe in MOA’s collection, and how Paul’s connection to lightning inspired her innovative use of fibre optics.
Listen to their conversation below:
Dionne Paul (Ximiq) is a proud member of the Nuxalk Nation and shíshálh Nation. She is a member of the Eagle Clan and her ancestral name is Ximiq, which translates to “the first eyelash of sunlight that comes over the mountain to greet everyone in the morning.” A multidisciplinary artist, traditional knowledge keeper and teacher, Paul grew up on the Sunshine Coast within the shíshálh Nation (Sechelt, BC). She was adopted from the Nuxalk Nation (Bella Coola, BC) and holds both close to her heart. Since childhood, she has immersed herself in many Northwest Coast art forms and techniques, including 2D art, weaving cedar bark and wool, and working with stained glass. She holds a Masters of Applied Arts from Emily Carr University of Art + Design.
Paul’s work intends to raise the status of weaving from craft up into the realm of fine art. She also revels in pushing the boundaries of the notion of traditional form and function of objects. Her work has been commissioned, exhibited and collected internationally, and published in numerous books.
Fibre-optic headdress: Dionne Paul created this woven headdress as part of a directed study for her Masters’ program at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Her thesis research was about traditional special effects in potlatch performances. To create this piece, Paul built her loom, thigh-spun mountain goat wool and wove using a single bar weave. She added fibre optic cables and a sound driver, so that the headdress lights up and blink to the sound of a drum.
Nuxalk blanket: While researching for her Masters’ degree, Dionne Paul visited MOA to look at this robe, and chose it as inspiration for her headdress. She was expecting the robe to be made with raven tail weave, but upon inspection, it turned out to be a Coast Salish weave. Dionne learned to harvest, dye, and spin wool and weave in this style as part of a directed study with Tsimshian weaver William White.
Full audio transcription:
Dionne Paul: Hello.
Jennifer Kramer: Hi, this is Jennifer Kramer calling from the Museum of Anthropology at UBC. Is this Dionne Paul?
DP: Hi Jennifer. Yes it is.
JK: I’m calling to see how you are doing during this pandemic that we’re all experiencing.
DP: I’m doing well. I’m an artist and harvest plant medicines. It’s springtime, so I can quarantine or social distance for as long as they need me to. I have tons of artist materials that are keeping me busy.
JK: I actually asked if I could contact you during this time because I was so excited to be able to acquire for MOA your Nuxalk fibre optic headdress—this was in 2014. We are going to be showing it in exhibition soon, as soon as we are allowed back in the museum. I wonder whether you could share with our listeners—what inspired you to make it? And talk a little bit about the piece at MOA that was your jumping-off point?
DP: When I was studying [for] my Masters’ degree, I started in 2013 and my Masters’ degree thesis was studying traditional special effects in potlatch performances. I was researching my Nuxalk side—my matrilineal side. I currently live and work in the shíshálh territory of the shíshálh Nation [Sechelt, BC], my father’s side.
I was researching strings and pulleys and bladder systems of our traditional performances. We had to do an internship—mine turned into a directed study. I was going to work with this weaver [Willy White] who had gotten injured and couldn’t instruct me, so I switched to a directed study. I was working with Melissa Myers, a Tsimshian weaver and she taught me thigh spinning. I spent three weeks thigh spinning enough wool to make the headdress. So I flew to the [Royal British Columbia Museum] and MOA to look at the Nuxalk robes. And chose the one at MOA for the inspiration for the headdress. The time frame that I had, I think it would have taken me probably a year or two, if I was to weave a full blanket. It would have taken me 6-8 months just to weave enough material for a blanket. So, I could only physically manage a headdress.
I went and researched the blanket at the Museum and got inspired for it and wanted to incorporate some kind of contemporary special effects. I chose a fibre optic light system and it has a driver that is sound activated, so it can blink to the sound of the drum. When someone is drumming and singing, the headdress will light and blink to the sound of the drum.
That is inspired by lightning—like, bringing in bolts of lightning into it. I sat up in a sacred ceremony where the shaman had talked about my connection with lightning and that lightning is directly attracted to me, and that’s where I get my source of energy. He saw me in a house that was hit by lightning. When he first mentioned it, I was kind of, like, looking around and like, “I don’t think he is talking about me,” and then I remembered, “Oh my God.” I was at my parents’ house and I was standing in the living room, and in Nuxalk in Bella Coola, we have thunder beings that come out and dance. When the thunder beings started coming, I rushed out into the living room. At my parents’ house, they have bay windows all the way around. I was looking and waiting for the lightning to come and it struck the house; shattered all the glass; blew out the TV; blew out all our computers. Nobody was injured, but it struck the living room where I was standing. When I was in this ceremony with this shaman, he saw it. He said, that’s a direct example of how lightning is my source of energy. So, I wanted to incorporate that into my work, so I did through the fibre optic lights.
JK: Wow. So, you were both looking back and being inspired by your ancestors’ hands and looking forward into whatever is happening in the future?
DP: But, also incorporating what’s happening for my spiritual practice.
JK: Right then and there.
DP: Mm hm. A lot of my work weaves back and forth through contemporary modalities or materials. Always looking back for teachings and inspirations from my ancestors, but then also: Where am I at spiritually, and what do I want to manifest into my current life?
JK: That sounds amazing! And you get it from both sides, right? shíshálh and Nuxalk are both Coast Salish weaving, even though they are such a far geographic distance, somewhat, from each other.
DP: Yes! I actually was hoping that it was going to be a Raven tail weave, and then when I got to the Museum of Anthropology and got my little microscope and was looking down, I was like, “This is a Coast Salish weave!” I was a little bit excited and a little bit disappointed because I did want to learn some Raven tail.
The instructor Willy White, who was going to instruct me, had injured his wrist, so we moved to directed study and because it was a Coast Salish weave—I’ve been weaving for twenty-five years, so [in that time] I learned to harvest, dye, process, spin, build my own looms and tools. I hope he still has it.
JK: Do you think you’d ever ask to wear your fibre optic headdress, you know, to return it for ceremony back home, or do you see it as doing the work it needs to do in the Museum? Because we do loan back to community for use.
DP: Yeah! I definitely would.
JK: And we love the idea of an object, a treasure, or a belonging continuing its life in having an ongoing service back home.
DP: I would, but in ceremony I’m quite modest, and almost shy… and that [fibre optic headdress] is the opposite. Yeah. Maybe have someone else dance it.
JK: Well didn’t it used to be, traditionally, that the artist was never the owner of what was made, but the artist or the family made what was needed.
DP: Mmhm. I think if I were to keep it, I would dance it once and burn it, and then it would have to be remade.
JK: Really? But they wouldn’t have done that with woven blankets, would they?
DP: Not sure about blankets, I know for sure about masks.
DP: For the artists to keep it they would have to burn it, and it would be sent up to the ancestors and spirits in Nusmata as a gift, and then recreate one here. Kind of as an honour.
DP: So that headdress took me about six to eight weeks to thigh spin enough wool for it, and it’s only like, 2 inches by, maybe 24 inches, I can’t remember the dimensions, but it’s not a lot. And then the weaving itself—because it’s a single bar weave as opposed to a dual bar; a dual bar creates tension and the weaving can go a lot faster, but this was a single bar, which felt more delicate and took a lot more time.
JK: Do you hang weights off of that bar to keep the tension?
DP: No. I didn’t, it’s such a small [piece]. I think maybe with a larger blanket you could. I can definitely see the benefit of that.
JK: It had very beautiful—we will show a photograph of it with this conversation, but incredibly intricate designs. There was a purplish red, and black.
DP: Mm hm. I actually wanted the fibre optic to bend into a lightning bolt, but that was the thinnest that I could get and for this purpose it wouldn’t.
JK: Well, you learn something about your materials, I imagine, every time you do something new, you’re pushing the boundaries.
DP: Yes. And it was so exciting to see it light up, because I put so much time and energy researching it and preparing for it, building the loom, thigh spinning the wool, and then to see it light up—oh my goodness.
JK: It came alive.
DP: Yes. Definitely came alive.
JK: Well, thank you for sharing the creation of that. We are truly honoured and humbled to have it being stewarded within our walls, and I am really excited that it is going to be on display.
DP: Is there going to be a drum next to it so participants can play the drum to activate it?
JK: That’s an excellent idea. I am not sure whether the curators—because I wasn’t involved directly with that group of three curators—know whether it beats to a drum, because we had not activated it yet.
DP: So that’s one option. You could do that. If they don’t want to do that, I think there’s different settings for pre-programmed flickering, and/or stable light.
JK: It’s going to go into the Multiversity Ways of Knowing Gallery, so it’s got its own interpretive node. It’s not a huge exhibit, but I think it will be quite incredible. I will definitely make sure they know about it’s, it’s…
JK: Its heartbeat!
DP: [laughs] Yes!
JK: It’s lightning and energy. Just like you, I wish people could see your smile right now because, Dionne Paul, just, I don’t know any artists like you that just light up the room you’re in and do so many different things in such positive ways. And not just for yourself, but for your entire multiple communities. Well, thank you so much. Is there anything else you want to add or share with our public?
DP: Umm, no, not at this time. Sending everyone prayers during this time that they find peace and happiness in their daily life as we slowly start to bloom open as communities, and I hope everyone is safe.
JK: Thank you. It’s been wonderful talking with you, Dionne. Take care.
JK: Bye for now.