An Interview with Susan Point

Photo: Courtesy of Coast Salish Arts / Kenji Nagai

Musqueam artist Susan Point’s work is deeply rooted in her Coast Salish roots. But she is equally dedicated to a contemporary practice using traditional methods, symbols and iconology. The spindle whorl is particularly prominent in her work. This traditional tool, used by Indigenous women around the world to spin wool, is a small, usually wooden disc or weight, often intricately carved and decorated, and placed onto a long rod or spindle to keep the wool from slipping off.

An exhibition of her work, Susan Point: Spindle Whorl, is now on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG). This is her first solo museum exhibition in Canada since 1986, and includes more than a hundred works spanning a career of more than three decades, along with a number of new works created specifically for the exhibition.

Point was born in 1952 in Alert Bay, B.C., where her parents were salmon fishers. She later lived with her family on the Musqueam Reserve, near the mouth of the Fraser River. In the early 1980s, she joined a group of other Indigenous artists — including Floyd Joseph, Stan Greene and Rod Modeste — who sought to revitalize traditional Coast Salish art.

Point is internationally acclaimed for her artistic abilities in a broad range of materials, including glass, resin, concrete, wood and paper. Her practice is equally diverse in screen and woodblock printing, woodcarving, paper casting, sculpture, and steel casting. She produces intricate pieces of jewellery, as well as monumental public sculptures. Her red cedar installation in the international terminal of the Vancouver airport, Flight (Spindle Whorl) 1995 — measuring 4.8 metres (15 feet) in diameter — is the world’s largest Coast Salish spindle whorl.

Her work is owned by numerous other museums, galleries, and public institutions, including the National Gallery of Canada, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. and the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology.

Point is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a recipient of the Indspire Achievement Award, and a lifetime member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. She has honorary doctorates from the University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia, and Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

In this interview, Susan Point talks about why she feels it is important to continue pushing her personal artistic, emotional and creative boundaries.


Susan Point, Circle of Life (2007), serigraph, 55.9 x 55.9 cm. Photo: Courtesy of Coast Salish Arts / Kenji Nagai

NGC Magazine: Why does the spindle whorl feature so prominently in your work? How did that start, and why does it resonate with you, personally and creatively?

Susan Point: The circle is a natural inspiration for me. It represents the circle of life, the Moon, the ripples in a pond, salmon eggs, and so on. This triggers my inspiration, as I am sure it did for my ancestors and mankind, kindling invention and harmony.

My first published silkscreen in 1981 was an attempt at originality in creating an image within a circular format. In my research, there was very little to be found on Coast Salish art. I have always known that the number four has great significance, not only to many First Nations but to all cultures on Mother Earth, as it represents the four peoples, the four winds, the four elements, the four directions, the four moons, the four cycles of the salmon, the four seasons, and so on.

In my first silkscreen, I used the circular spindle whorl format of the Coast Salish and created imagery consisting of four salmon in a contemporary Coast Salish style, swimming within a circle. I also incorporated stylized design elements found on the few traditional Coast Salish artifacts that I had found in slides and photographs. Over the years, I have created numerous designs that incorporate the use of four, using Salish faces as well as animal and plant motifs.

NGCM: Your solo exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery spans more than three decades, and features over a hundred of your works. How does it feel to see such a comprehensive collection of your work in one venue?

SP: I will need a little time to digest this particular collection of my expressions. This exhibition has some new and some old pieces. For me, the imagery is most important. I see this exhibition not only as a comprehensive collection of my works, but also as a gathering of accomplishments over time.

NGCM: How did this show come about?

SP: In February of 2016, Ian Thom and Grant Arnold [of the VAG] contacted me and came by my studio, and asked if I would consider doing a solo exhibition of my works from the past 35 years on the theme of the spindle whorl. It is an honour to show a selection of my work in various mediums in such a prestigious gallery, so I accepted.

NGCM: What does this show represent to you?

SP: This exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery is a milestone. I am returning to where I started. In doing this show, I am truly grateful, honoured, and humbled by this recognition.

Susan Point, Within the Circle (2007), serigraph, 66 x 66 cm. Photo: Courtesy of Coast Salish Arts / Kenji Nagai

NGCM: You are well-known for your skillful execution of methods such as low-relief carving. One example of that is your sculpture, The Circle Within (2007). Can you talk about the inspiration behind that work, and how you approached its execution?

SP: Every day is a new day, and I am still learning. The Circle Within is part of a triptych which began with two silkscreens that I produced in 2007 — Within the Circle and Broken Circle — both of which are in the VAG exhibition.

I started using this grid system in 1990, designing then carving the original patterns from yellow cedar, then fabricating multiple grids to create a never-ending overall repeat wall mural for architectural projects. Unlike many of my more complex grid works, in which two or more grid patterns were carved to create an overall wall mural, in The Circle Within I carved just one grid in yellow cedar, fabricated a rubber mould, then cast eight grids in polymer. I then inserted the carved and painted original yellow cedar pattern into the very centre of the piece.

Susan Point, The Circle Within (2007), yellow cedar, polymer, 137.2 x 137.2 x 5.7 cm. Photo: Courtesy of Coast Salish Arts / Kenji Nagai

NGCM: While your work is rooted in Coast Salish traditional art, you have also pushed the boundaries to articulate Salish culture in contemporary terms. Why is that important to you? 

SP: Right from the beginning, I pushed the boundaries of Coast Salish imagery in my own personal art style, creating original designs, but always incorporating stylized Salish elements within every piece. While my work is rooted in Coast Salish traditional art, I create my contemporary works so that anyone, at any age, can relate to my imagery and form their own opinions, assumptions or interpretations. We, as Salish people, continue to evolve. We are rooted in our history, yet facing the future. As an artist, I love the challenge of creating art that works in any medium.

NGCM: When you embarked on your career, there were few precedents of First Nations women carving or sculpting, as these were activities traditionally done by men. Why was it important for you add these to your artistic accomplishments?

SP: Over the years, I have worked in many mediums that were unavailable to my ancestral artisans. Medium or means has never been an issue for me, nor do I see woodcarving as a male versus female accomplishment. I love to try new mediums, so I just do what I feel like doing, and wood is a medium I love to work with. I find it calming and meditative. And I have had the privilege of outstanding teachers.

NGCM: You have become particularly known for your ability to turn your hand to new materials and new methods. Why do you want to work in this broad range of materials, and what are some of the difficulties you encounter?

SP: Experimenting with new materials and marrying different mediums is something that is not necessarily traditional in First Nations art. I love to push the boundaries when creating an art piece. Patience, time and experience have taught me to learn the process and stages of working in various mediums on many projects. Working with professional fabricators who have the space to accommodate my large-scale pieces, who understand my artistic vision, and who have the ability to develop a work, is very important to me.

I like to push the boundaries for my fabricators, as well. If they want to make one of my works, everything has to be done specifically to my vision and design. I only farm out what I cannot do in-house. Other than with my four children, I do not like to collaborate with other artists on a project.

Susan Point, Broken Circle, 2007, serigraph, 62.2 x  45.7 cm. Photo: Courtesy of Coast Salish Arts / Kenji Nagai

NGCM: You are largely self-taught in the Coast Salish tradition. How did you go about teaching yourself and learning these methods and techniques?

SP: When I first started producing Coast Salish art, there was no computer or Google to provide information at your fingertips. I did a lot of travelling to libraries, museums, universities, public archives and so on throughout Canada, the U.S. and Europe, researching and collecting written material and examples of pre-contact imagery on Coast Salish peoples, in the form of slides and photographs. At the time, there was very little information on the art of my Coast Salish peoples.

I researched the different processes, and worked with professionals in the various mediums that I now use. The list is long. I am the sole creator of all my designs. They all have personal meanings behind them, based on legends told to me by my aunts, uncles and elders as I was growing up; personal experiences; encounters with nature; environmental concerns, and so on.

NGCM: Who were your influences, guides and/or mentors?

SP: My elders were my main guides and mentors — particularly my uncle, Dominic Point, and my mother, Edna Grant-Point. As well, there was Michael Kew at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, Peter McNair at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, and Bill Holmes at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, all of whom are now retired.

NGCM: Yours has not been an easy artistic path. What were some of the barriers you faced, and what kept you going?

SP: Reviving Coast Salish art was not easy when I started. This was a new art form. The northern style of First Nations art was very prominent and highly recognized, so most galleries and the general public were totally unaware of Coast Salish art. My work was considered “non-Native” especially when I moved into non-traditional mediums such as glass. Regardless of the barriers I encountered, I kept going, because I love to draw and create work in various mediums. I persevered out of true determination and my passion for art.

NGCM: What would you like to tackle next?

SP: Draw, draw, draw! I want to push my artistic direction to drawings and paintings, as well as working with other mediums on paper.

NGCM: What advice do you have for emerging artists?

SP: Nothing, really. Most emerging artists probably know a lot more than I’ll ever know. I just like to draw original art and accurately express and create what’s in my mind’s eye in my own personal contemporary Coast Salish art style — something that all artists should do.

Susan Point: Spindle Whorl is on view at the Vancouver Art gallery until May 28, 2017.

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