The Vancouver Island University Library has become a home away from home for generations of students throughout their educational journey. It is the go-to place for researching topics ranging from ancient history to modern medicine, using the library’s printer to shoot out dozens of essays, or to lay on the floor and stare at the ceiling to unwind after a midterm.
After spending the past year and a half tucked away inside dark bedrooms taking online classes, students will finally be able to continue with these traditions, though they may notice something new in the otherwise familiar environment. VIU alumni Eliot White-Hill, Kwulasultun, has created two new murals to highlight the traditional journey of education.
His project titled ‘Lhuxw ’u tu Snuw’uyulh (Flow of the Teachings)’ features two beautiful murals: one in the new family room in the library titled ‘Lhuxw (To Flow),’ and one in the 24-hour library commons titled ‘Matriarch Moon.’
Before he graduated from VIU in 2018 with a degree in Liberal Studies, the Snuneymuxw artist had never thought about pursuing art for a living.
“I’ve always really loved storytelling, and similarly [I’ve felt] very inspired by my late great-grandmother with her books and her stories. I feel like I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember, but I never felt very confident at all with my visual art,” he said.
It wasn’t until White-Hill started his journey at VIU and his program required him to practice his art skills more regularly that he started to find confidence in his visual arts skills.
“It’s funny because in Liberal Studies, art projects are a big part of the semester. For each class just about, you do an art project. I was always really stressed about that part. I would do a pencil sketch on printer paper, or wouldn’t even do one at all.”
That was until he started to learn about Coast Salish culture and history. He then became obsessed with art.
“[Coast Salish artwork] is so strict, you know, the rules are so tight about the way that things have to be and the way that the images are represented,” he said. “It’s really more like a visual language in a sense, and as I learned more about that, I became confident—well, maybe not confident right off the bat—but just felt compelled to start doodling and scribbling and then started drawing more and more from that. I became more confident with the Salish shapes and form and flow, you know, and just kind of took off from there.”
With a bit more knowledge and a lot more confidence, White-Hill took the leap to start making his own art. Shortly after, he began to receive opportunities to create artwork for his community. White-Hill has been commissioned by the City of Nanaimo to create an installation at Beban Park Pool that will be unveiled later this fall, and was commissioned to redesign the VIU Student Housing logo. His artwork is also featured in former judge and provincial representative for children and youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s report, “In Plain Sight,” which addressed the Indigenous-specific racism and discrimination in the BC health care system.
“The opportunities that I got, as an artist, have just blown me away,” he said. These opportunities that never would have existed for the Coast Salish and Indigenous artists in Nanaimo even just 20 years ago … the community support and the support from everybody with my art [has] just been really remarkable, so that’s really what’s driven me to think about taking a serious run at it and seeing what happens, and just continuing to do the work.”
White-Hill says he makes art to educate others and build his own voice.
“Really what it’s all about is continuing to do the work of educating people about who we are as Coast Salish and Snuneymuxw, and being able to tell our stories, and to make sure that those teachings that have been passed down to me and passed down in our community will still be there for future generations. And, you know, that’s the most important thing to me, beyond having a career in art or anything like that, and visual art really is just a new way to do that work and a new way to use my voice.”
He says he gets most of his inspiration for much of his art from older Coast Salish pieces in museums, as well as the work his late great-grandmother has done in her storytelling.
Now White-Hill has two more works showcased in the Nanaimo community with the new murals he designed for the VIU Library.
Interim University Liberian Lara Wright says students were consistently expressing the desire for more artwork in the library. Wright says that they chose the murals to bring colour and recognition of the land to both the library and the students as a part of the effort to decolonize library services and promote Indigenous knowledge.
“The initial theme that we discussed was the artwork that would sort of describe or refer to the traditional transfer of knowledge and education within the Snuneymuxw community, and so when thinking about that, and the role that the Snuneymuxw had in the community, I really thought of my late great-grandma,” White-Hill said.
White-Hill wanted to theme his murals around the night sky and space. The mural in the family room features a river scene that represents the river flowing but the starry Milky Way, as well. The mural also has serpents that were inspired by his Liberal Studies education that juxtaposes the different symbols of how serpents are represented in Western and Coast Salish traditions.
In Western religious teachings, the serpent tempted humans to take from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, causing them to be cast from the Garden of Eden. In Coast Salish traditions, the serpents are powerful helpers that can benefit or harm others but are not seen as malevolent or benign; they exist outside of morality.
White-Hill uses a lot of blues in his murals to illustrate water, comparing the connection between the teaching flow from generation to generation to the flow of the rivers and oceans in Snuneymuxw.
“We kind of go about our lives, but that next generation is going to come and flow along the same path. The flow of the river will change over time, just as our teachings will change over time, and I just thought it to be a really beautiful metaphor for the way that our teachings are and that transfer of knowledge.”
His murals feature bright white stars to honour his late great-grandma.
“One of the things that my great-grandma would always talk about [being] fundamental to our snawayalth—our teachings—is that we should always be striving … to learn more so that we can work and look after our community, and be better people.”
White-Hill’s great-grandmother, Dr. Ellen White, Kwulasulwut, also known across VIU as “Auntie Ellen,” was an Indigenous Elder, author, educator, and Knowledge Keeper. She spent 13 years at VIU as an Elder-in-Residence. In 2006, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Law by VIU, and in 2016, she was inducted to the Order of Canada for her work as an Elder and community leader, as well as her efforts to preserve the Hul’qumi’num language.
The Kwulasulwut Garden located at VIU is dedicated to White, using her Coast Salish name Kwulasulwut, meaning “Many Stars.” White-Hill shares the male version of this name.
“I also thought of my grandma, Joyce White, Sa’lay’wi’ah, who was instrumental in creating the Indigenous Studies program, which was the first program of its kind in Western Canada. So just thinking about the role that Snuneymuxw women have had in educating at VIU and the community here and continuing the really sacred work of educating ourselves and learning,” he said.
Now White-Hill is starting his first year of his Master of Fine Arts Degree at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. In the future, he may even continue his studies and earn a law degree to work in Indigenous Law. But for now, White-Hill says these are exciting times for him and that he will be taking everything day-by-day.
On advice he has for young artists wanting to pursue art, he says:
“The most important thing is to tell your story, and to use your voice and [know] that your stories matter and they’re worth telling. Tell them in any way imaginable. That doesn’t have to be contained by one medium or one practice. It’s about telling stories and sharing with people. Celebrate that and honour that.”
You can learn more about White-Hill and his art by visiting his website or finding him on Instagram: @kwulasultun.