Vancouver's Thunderbird Arena Hosts New Aboriginal Artworks


Vancouver Sun


September 16, 2009

Artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas' installation of Take Off at UBC in Vancouver

Artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas' installation of Take Off at UBC in Vancouver.
Photograph by: Glenn Baglo, Vancouver Sun

VANCOUVER — Two new but very different public art works by First Nations artists are now in prominent positions outside the Thunderbird Arena at the University of B.C.

Both Thunder by Thomas Cannell and Take Off by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas were created and installed as part of Vanoc’s aboriginal art program. Thunderbird will be the site for men’s, women’s and sledge hockey during the Winter Olympics.

The two art works are among 45 that will be installed by the end of the year at the 15 Olympic sports venues in Richmond, Vancouver and Whistler. Altogether, 90 aboriginal artists from across the country will be represented in the indoor and outdoor art works in a variety of new and traditional mediums including multimedia, sculpture and textiles. A final figure hasn’t been tallied but the total budget is more than $2 million.

All the art works at the sports venues will be included in a book called O Siyam, a Coast Salish phrase that means respect, said Connie Watts, the project manager for the program. She expects it be published later this year.

"It was relatively a tiny budget and the artists have created an incredible display of current aboriginal art," she said. "It’s remarkable their desire to show the world where the communities are coming from."

Last week Cannell unveiled his five-metre tall Thunder. It was the first time he’d seen the cedar sculpture upright: he’d been working on it flat since May in the Musqueam studio of his mother, artist Susan Point. Thunderbird Arena is on the traditional lands of the Musqueam.

Facing east by the main entrance to the arena, Thunder is meant to welcome fans and hockey players. On the lower portion of the sculpture are two Thunderbirds facing each other. They’re flying upwards and carrying three salmon and three round salmon eggs. The main part of Thunder is a oval sun figure with six rays painted in brown, blue and white. It’s not in the traditional yellow usually associated with the sun because it’s obscured by thunder and lightning which refers both to the name of the arena and UBC’s varsity hockey team which will be playing in the arena long after the 2010 Winter Olympics are finished. For the Musqueam, Thunderbirds are good luck symbols.

Cannell picked the old growth cedar last fall in Port McNeil. After letting it dry out through the winter, he started roughing it out with chain saws and then planers and sanders. When it was to the shape he wanted, he finished the carving by hand and then applied paint using three shades of blue — a colour not traditionally used on Coast Salish wooden sculptures.

At the installation, Cannell was accompanied by his wife Jessica and his new-born son Calder.

Cannell said Thunder is the biggest carving of his own he’s worked on. And having been so preoccupied with finishing the work, he still had to carve his initials in it. But he still has marked Thunder as his own in another way.

"I’ll let you in on a little secret: in that little red dot," he said, pointing to a sliver of red on the right lower side of the round sun face, "is my wife’s hair, my son’s hair and my daughter’s hair, tucked inside the wood. It’s the only red there."

Over on the north side of Thunderbird Arena is a more contemporary installation by Yahgulanaas, a Haida artist. He’s created a body of work during the past several years called Haida Manga which combines stories about the people of Haida Gwaii in Japanese manga-style comic-book stories — often with a humorous twist.

Last year at the Museum of Anthropology, he exhibited Pedal to the Meddle, a Bill Reid canoe on top of a Pontiac Firefly covered with black paint and argillite dust. The Pontiac brand is named after Chief Pontiac, the 18th-century Ottawa first nations leader who fought against the British occupation of the land around the Great Lakes.

Take Off is the first time Haida manga has been turned into public, outdoor art.

It is anchored to the ground by three steel pipes that arc to the west. They’re meant to mimic the motion of a mallard duck that quickly lifts up from the water as it takes flight. The birdlike part of the sculpture is made from recycled Volvo fenders and door with the profile of a hockey player painted in black acrylic in Haida-manga style. The striking copper colour comes from actual copper leaf. In the depression where the handle would have rested, Yahgulanaas has applied gold leaf.

"The Volvo front fenders have a very elegant little sweep to it and notch at the end which really attracted my sensibility," he said.