SPOTLIGHT: INDIGENOUS ARTIST CALVIN CHARLIE-DAWSON
IATSE 891 commissioned Indigenous artist Calvin Charlie-Dawson to create two designs as part of the Union’s efforts towards reconciliation. The designs include incorporating the traditional Coast Salish artform into the 891 logo, and an Orange Shirt design for National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30th. These designs give a visual presence of Coast Salish culture and remind us of our collective commitment to reconciliation.
This year, the Union is encouraging donations to the Urban Native Youth Association and Spirit of the Children Society in honour of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Make a donation here and bring your receipt to the Union Hall (1640 Boundary Rd.) on Sept. 28th or 29th to pick up an Orange Shirt with the new artwork by Calvin Charlie-Dawson. A donation of $10 or more is required to receive an Orange Shirt.
Below, Calvin shares his story and his inspiration for the designs.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what inspired you to be an artist?
My name is Calvin Charlie-Dawson. My ancestral name is Ts'kanchtn. I am a descendant of the Squamish, the Kwakwaka'wakw, and the Stó:lō people. I grew up in the greater Vancouver area and for past 15 years I've lived in Squamish territory in North Vancouver, close to the Capilano Reserve.
One of my first inspirations to become an artist was my grandfather, who is a renowned carver and artist. Also, a dear relative of mine, someone who I call my godfather and an uncle, is Komkomgalis Jason Taylor. I began singing and dancing with his cultural group at the age of 11. He is a mainstream artist from the Kwakwaka'wakw Nation, and he was one of my first teachers in the Kwakwaka'wakw style art form. In recent years I have taken on a more contemporary art form style, as well as the traditional art form style of the Coast Salish people, as this is my home territory that I live on. My main teacher for the traditional Coast Salish art style and carving is Sesiyam Ray Natraoro. He's been a mentor of mine for about 10 years, not just for art, but language and culture as well.
My art involves a little bit of everything, including graphic design. There's a huge market for Indigenous representation in icons, websites or legal documents, especially in the Lower Mainland, given the reclamation work of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish, since they're the homelands here in the greater Vancouver area. My main focus personally and culturally is canoe carving. It's a practice done by my ancestry since time immemorial. In traditional Squamish teachings there are 12 professions of our people, and canoe carving is one of them. That is a pillar of my Squamish heritage.
What Indigenous elements did you work into the 891 logo and why did you choose them?
One of the main teachings of art that I've been told is that you're not just selling a piece of art, you're also selling a story to a buyer, and that's a big part of what goes into your art. Anyone can pick up a pencil and create these shapes, but if you can create a story behind it, it gives it a bit more meaning and a bit more heart and soul.
When an organization within Coast Salish territory reaches out to me and asks me to do artwork, I take it upon myself to do only Coast Salish style art because the organization itself is on Coast Salish territory. For the past 100 years or so, Northwest Coast style art has taken over a huge chunk of the art scene in the Lower Mainland. People love big totem poles and carvings and the Northwest style, which includes ovoids and many different colors and shapes. But the main art style of the Greater Vancouver area, my home territory, specifically Squamish, is Coast Salish style art, which is a bit more abstract, a bit more two-toned, and uses positive and negative space to fill whatever your canvas is. It’s much different than that of the other Indigenous art styles around BC, and so bringing that back to the reclamation work that goes on in our territory is important.
The beauty of Coast Salish style art is it is really simple and two dimensional. It uses three basic shapes - the circle, a crescent, and a trigon, which is a three-point piece. You could use variations of those three shapes to create our art style and fit them into any canvas to create a piece. I chose for the outside of the 891 logo the traditional form of a bird. The main symbol for the Squamish people is the Thunderbird, and I did a bit of a variation of a Thunderbird to give it a bit more of a Squamish representation, and to give it a kind of signature that I myself am Squamish as a kind of bridge for this new relationship that I now have created with the Union.
Can you tell us about your Orange Shirt Day design and what National Day for Truth and Reconciliation means to you personally?
Children explore the world not just with their eyes or with their feet, but with their hands. When they look at something, they need to touch it and feel it and so the design gives a sense of innocence and play to represent children. Recognizing Orange Shirt Day is one of the biggest ways someone, colonial or not, can reconcile with the First Peoples of whatever territory they're on, and recognize the history of what happened to our people since colonization. Both of my grandparents on my mother's side went to residential school and day school. Almost every one of us in these Nation's territories is a product of a residential school, directly or indirectly. As we all know, it was a way to try and eradicate our traditions and practices, but we are still here trying to move forward as best we can as First Nations people.
What is the meaning or inspiration you get from doing this kind of art and work?
One of the main things is I get to represent my people, the Squamish people. For the past 10 to 15 years, Coast Salish art, specifically to the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish, has really boomed. I get to be fortunate enough to be small piece in the reclamation of the land and territories here in Vancouver through showcasing the art of the host Nations. Another meaningful part of this work is I get to partake in a small way in the work of my ancestors. My heritage has a long line of canoe carvers, which encompasses art styles of our Squamish people. My family were also traditionally longhouse builders, which does encompass carving. I get to honour that heritage of mine. Also, art is a great business to get into. You get to meet a lot of people, not just locally, but outside of your circle. You get to make connections. That is one of the small joys of doing art.
This work is a way to showcase my people and their territory in the simplest way possible. Many territories, and not just in Indian country itself but around the world, have their own art form and have their own kind of signature. It places you on the on the map of the world. It's a way to showcase that we as First Nations people, specifically myself as a Squamish Nation member, that we are still here and still thriving on our territories. Though these lands have been colonized, we are here doing the best we can to connect ourselves to our ancestors, and one of the ways to do that is through our traditional art form. It brings our culture into a modern contemporary relationship with an outside person and outside family and outside organization. Squamish people, we were always great exporters of tools and resources to other communities outside of our own. Today, this is the way that we can do that.
What do you hope Union members reflect on when they see these designs?
I hope Union members recognize where the designs come from and considering the Union’s office is on traditional Coast Salish territory, I hope that they feel a connection to those territories, whether they are from them or not. I hope the designs can create a broader sense of family and community and connection outside of people’s own home and outside of their own work to the shared territories of not just the host Nations, but to the broader sense of Indian country itself.
What’s your connection to film in BC?
I have a funny story. When I was younger, I wanted to try and be a child actor and I went to an audition for pop tarts and they asked me what my favorite pop tart was and I made the mistake of telling them I never tried a pop tart before. So, it didn’t go well. But right now, working with a local film union is just such a great honour. There are countless films that are filmed not just in Vancouver, but all around BC, and to be a small part of the representation of First Nations peoples and culture in these beautiful, beautiful lands we have here on the West Coast, I am glad to be a small part in the representation of my people to your organization.
Donate here to the Urban Native Youth Association and/or the Spirit of the Children Society to get an Orange Shirt designed by Calvin Charlie-Dawson in honour of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30th. 891 members and permittees can pick up Orange Shirts at the Union Hall (1640 Boundary Rd.) on Sept. 28th and Sept. 29th. Please bring proof of donation (mandatory minimum $10 donation).