Their canvas may be utilitarian, but for local First Nation artists, the art pieces wrapping four utility boxes in downtown Sidney are part and parcel of a broader resurgence in Coast Salish art and culture.
“Our art system was in grave danger for a long time,” said Charles Elliot of Tsartlip First Nation last week, while standing next to the BC Hydro box at 2464 Beacon Ave. wrapped up in his piece titled “Seals.”
“I noticed that we didn’t have our system out there to see. I actually had to go into the museums [and] private collections to look [for it],” he said.
Elliot, a master carver whose work has appeared across the world, said he chose his subject, because seals are common in the area, very playful and friendly. “An orca would be a little bit too aggressive, but seals are just friendly,” he said. He also hopes that the public will learn more Coast Salish art.
“There are quite a number of First Nations art disciplines and each discipline belongs to a certain area, and this is the Coast Salish style,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that I had good display of Coast Salish art. It was easy to do that with the seals.”
The piece “Otters & Blue Heron” by Doug LaFortune of the Tsawout First Nation stands just down the street from Elliot’s piece at 2488 Beacon Ave. “The otter is a very important piece of our culture,” said LaFortune, when asked about his choice of subject.
“It’s very spiritual. Plus I was down at the bandstand [in Beacon Park] and I saw an otter running around the lawn. I have seen him quite often, so I really like the playfulness. [Otters] are real tricky characters and I enjoy watching them all the time.”
Otters, he added, would often appear on traditional house posts. “They brought messages of good tidings and things like that,” he said.
LaFortune hopes that his art will give residents a good feeling, but also inspire them to learn more the culture of local First Nations.
“Our culture is a lot deeper than people think it is,” he said. “It’s an old, old culture. I just want the public to get a touch of it, a little taste of it.”
Two other artists — James Jimmy of Tseycum First Nation and Doug Horne of Tsawout First Nation — have also contributed respective pieces to this tableau, the “Sqto (Raven)” art on the hydro box at the corner of Fourth Street and Beacon Avenue and the “Hummingbird” near 2297 Beacon Ave, as part of Sidney’s utility box beautification program.
It started in 2006 and has since wrapped 40 utility boxes in art from established and emerging artists from across the Saanich Peninsula.
Coun. Barbara Fallot said last week the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of art in thanking the artists.
“I’m so pleased that we are able to have more public art work,” she said.
Primary funding for the project comes from the municipality, along with participation and sponsorship from local businesses and a BC Hydro grant program. Van Isle Marina has sponsored Doug Horne’s “Hummingbird” piece this year.
Earlier this year, Sidney held a ceremony in council chambers to unveil a Coast Salish spindle whorl carving by Chazz Elliot, the son of Charles Elliot, in recognition of the W̱SÁNEĆpeople, their customs and traditions.
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