Q&A: Charlene Johnny in Conversation

Posted by Jackson Delaney on

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your journey as an artist?

My name is Charlene, I am an artist from the Quw’ut- sun Valley, known as Duncan, BC. I was adopted and given a Kwatkwiutl name, Ga̱na’dzi from my Kwakwa ka’wakw family. When I was 10 I moved from the Quw’utsun Valley and was raised in Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish Territory, also known as Vancouver. I continue to travel back and forth between the mainland and Vancou- ver Island. I maintain my connections to the surrounding communities. My kinships reach far and wide between Musqueam and Squamish (Vancouver), Stz’umi- nus (Chemainus), Snuneymuxw (Nanaimo), Penelakut, Kwakwaka’wakw and even down in Washington, USA.

I started creating art as a child, and apprenticed under other various First Nations artists, before focusing on my own journey in 2013. I won a couple of art grants from the YVR art foundation. From there I attended Native Education College in 2018 for a jewellery making program. I started painting murals at the same time, volunteering my time to peers in order to learn the process. Since then, I have painted a couple dozen murals across Metro Vancouver and in Duncan.

How would you describe the style of your artwork and where does it come from?

Being a Quw’utsun Slheni’ (woman) I use my inherent ancestral right to practice Coast Salish art. This is one of many styles of Indigenous art along the Pacific North- west Coast. Quw’utsun territory is within Hul’qumi’num speaking peoples territory on the south west coast of BC. When settlers arrived, they began calling those of us on the south coast, “Coast Salish.” Our style of art primarily uses circles, crescents and trigons, which is distinctively different from our northern relatives.

What mediums do you typically work with?

I paint murals mostly, though I carve silver and copper jewellery in addition to using technology to create graphic art using Coast Salish design techniques.

What were your initial thoughts when you were asked to work with Fjällräven?

I was very surprised when I first connected with Fjällräven. A store manager had gotten in touch with me via instagram to come into the Kitsalano store location to paint back- packs and donate the proceeds to charity. My relationship grew from there when I was invited to be a store guide. As I got to know the brand, I had a dream and a vision to become a Kånken artist, little did I know that dream would come to reality.

And how did you approach the Kånken Art project? What inspired the design elements?

I wanted to honour my ancestors and community with my art practice by bringing a design back to life that was initially carved into a spindle whorl over 100 years ago by my ancestors. We always used natural materials of the land to create everyday practical objects, with cedar being a primary resource for items such as hats, paddles, canoes, regalia, spindle whorls, masks, poles, baskets and combs. I love seeing the art that my ancestors chose to adorn these everyday objects with. This was the inspiration. The design featured on the backpacks is based on a very old Quw’utsun spindle whorl design. Spindle whorls were carved out of cedar and used to spin wool to weave and knit into blankets and clothing. In the pre-contact era, we used the wool from the now extinct Salish Wooly dog. Post-contact our people started using wool from sheep, an introduced species. The colours from the grey scale bag are inspired by various shades of wool, with brown paying homage to cedar, blue mirroring the colour of trade beads, and red representing the colour of one of our medicines. Even the straps feature a weaving pattern.

Does your indigenous heritage influence all your artistic expressions?

As an Indigenous person, my whole identity and what I create is in honour of my Quw’utsun Heritage. I am learning our language through titling my works of art in our language. It is important for me to spend time in my community learning from our Sulhween (elders) in order to share our history and keep our culture alive for our Musimhw (people), but more importantly for our ‘xe ‘xe smuneem. (sacred children.)

Nature plays a significant role in all your work. Can you explain why?

All of our art and everyday objects are created with gifts from nature. The artwork we adorn these objects with are inspired by living beings out on the land. Everything in nature has a shhwuli (life/spirit/soul). Everything I create honours the shhwuli. Whether I am drawing celestial beings like the sun or the moon, or I am painting animals such as eagles or ravens, I honour my ancestors and these spiritual life forces that flow through all of us. We do not see ourselves as separate from the land, we all have a shared living spirit, so we must honour and protect all beings of life as if they are our relatives.

What impact do you hope your artistic contributions will have on the broader community and the causes you support?

My priority is taking care of and respecting the land and our history. I do this through practicing art, sharing our stories and learning to speak the Hul’q’umi’num language. If I can shed some light on our history and inspire others to take care of their surroundings, then I will consider my goal achieved. I always hear our s-ul’hween say “nutsa- maat ‘uy’ skwuluwun.” This phrase is used when we work together with a good heart to obtain a goal. We have more in common than we do differences, so we need to come together and learn from one another and take care of everyone and all living beings as if they are our relatives, because they are.

Kånken Art contributes a percentage of sales to Fjällräven’s Arctic Fox Initiative. This year the Arctic Fox initiative will support The Stqeeye’ Learning Society. What made you choose this organisation?

When it came to selecting the organisation to work along- side with, I was so excited to bring Stqeeye’ Learning Soci- ety in without hesitation. This organisation is based in our traditional village, Xwaaqw’um (Burgoyne Bay, Salt Spring Island.) I am really excited to support the work that they do, not only because we share kinship, but also because I share the same values as Stqeeye’. We need to enable our youth and s-ul’hween to access the land in order to learn from and to preserve nature. Supporting the good work that they do, is supporting our society as a whole.

What do you hope the effect will be of your Kånken Art?

I hope that people learn about Quw’utsun people. I want people to know how diverse Indigenous people of North America are. We all want to work together and use our inherent rights to preserve the land for future generations to come.

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