There is a timely new art exhibit on display in VIU’s Malaspina Theatre lobby. Stz’uminus First Nation artist Daniel Elliott’s Winds of Change was unveiled last Wednesday evening, the night before Canada’s first Truth and Reconciliation Day, and runs until October 8, then again from October 12-13.
The exhibit turns a deliberate eye to themes such as reconciliation and residential schools in Canada.
“I want to temper this work, all the pain…with hope and love and culture and direction so that I could have it go in a way that is healing,” Elliott said. “This is more than just somebody making nice paintings…[it’s] spiritual intention…that I can take pride in.”
Elliott credits a conversation with Snuneymuxw Elder Steven David as a “turning point” in his artistic expression that led to Winds of Change. David is represented in a painting in the exhibit titled “Transparent Soul.”
When Elliott was a commercial fisherman, he used to bring David fish. David felt he was “invisible in society” as an Indigenous man, reads the information card beside the painting of David. He “felt like a transparent soul.” Elliott was inspired to take photos of David on the Vancouver streets and sketch them.
David’s response to Elliott’s sketches was powerful: “I’m here.” These sketches eventually turned into “Transparent Soul,” a poignant representation of a literally see-through David on a busy Vancouver street.
Elliott said he used to make “romantic, kind of beautiful, glossy [paintings] that people may want to hang up in their house.” But after his exchange with David, he realized “there’s something underneath that society is missing. The pain, all the stuff that’s happened…around residential institutions.” While acknowledging his friends in the art community’s beautiful work, this missing piece left him feeling frustrated.
“I was tired of what I was hearing. Yeah, it’s embarrassing. Yeah, it’s an ugly part of our Canadian history,” Elliott said. He observed simply repeating that Indigenous treatment in this country was wrong is not enough. “We don’t have a way of growing from that.” He wanted his art to address it in a way these common reactions were not. “I felt a calling as an Indigenous counsellor that I got to do something,” he said.
He received a grant for thirteen paintings in 2019. He proceeded to paint the Winds of Change collection over 2020-21. With topics ranging from his grandmother, Matilda (Harris) Elliott, withstood at Kuper Island Residential School in “Smoke of Torment” to Steven Harper’s 2008 apology to residential school students in “Shores of Indifference,” Elliott described Winds of Change as a “visceral response to what was actually happening.”
A self-described “incognito artist” that usually paints on commission, Elliott is stepping out of his comfort zone with Winds of Change. He said he “never wanted accolades,” and described the opening event on September 29 as “surreal.” He’s honoured for his exhibit to debut at VIU, and hopes to tour Winds of Change across the country.
Like his art, Elliott leads a life that revolves around helping others. He has worked with children, and in prisons. He and his wife are a host family for international students at VIU, and he is a full-time National Native Alcohol and Drug Prevention Worker at Stz’uminus First Nation.
Elliott says he tries to look for “what’s right with the world,” saying, “it’s not that I ignore [the bad things] …I try to bring out the best in people and try to do that through my artwork.”
The first thing Elliott did onstage on the opening night was to acknowledge and thank his mother for the sacrifices she had made for him to pursue his passion. He went into the audience to give both her and a good family friend/therapist a bouquet of flowers.
Elliott also invited his grandchildren onstage. He enjoys “painting Sundays” with his daughter and his granddaughter, Sophia. He tries to pass on to Sophia “some of that ability to calm herself” through art.
Sophia was the model for “The Kelp Doll,” one of the paintings in Winds of Change. Elliott had the idea for the painting since 2006, but couldn’t find the right model until Sophia was born a few years later.
Elliott said he told his granddaughter that she looked serious in the painting and asked what she had been thinking while she sat for it. “I was thinking of COVID-19,” Sophia replied.
Elliott thought her answer was a terribly sad, but powerful full-circle moment. “A few hundred years ago, Indigenous children were feeling the same way about colonization and residential schools,” he said.
If people can only take one thing away from Elliott’s Winds of Change exhibit, he hopes it would be “that through all of [the] painful memories…that we have to work through, there is hope, and there is life, and there is culture, and there is a way out of this.” He adds that he hopes people can “be okay with being uncomfortable and be okay with being uncomfortable [about] things you don’t agree with, but have happened…For a lot of Indigenous people, that is the support they’re looking for.”
“Because I have so many great teachers and mentors…I can go into these depths and say it in a way that I can leave it on paper and move on.”
When asked if he had a favourite piece in the collection, Elliott smiled and asked, “How do you not make your granddaughter your favourite piece?”
Daniel Elliott’s Winds of Change art exhibit will be open to viewing in Malaspina Theatre’s lobby until October 8 and again October 12-13 from 1-4 PM. Elliott will be present during these times to engage with viewers.
Isabella Ranallo is a third-year Creative Writing student at VIU. She's loved storytelling ever since she stole a sheet of her mother's office paper at age four to write the first page of a story about ten kids stranded on a desert island. Her short story, "The Journal," was published in VIRL and Rebel Mountain Press' In Our Own Teen Voice 2019. These days, she spends her free time scribbling away in Moleskine notebooks or searching for cat-inspired stationery.View all articles