Artists Skil Jaadee White and Meghann O’Brien plan to learn and create new works in the Haida tradition after winning scholarships from the YVR Art Foundation.
White, 22, won a youth award, and will study formline with mentor Kelli Clifton, a Tsimshian artist in Prince Rupert who she first met four years ago while paddling and sailing on Qatuwas — a canoe journey from Haida Gwaii to Bella Bella.
“Ever since I’ve known her, she’s been such a huge inspiration to me,” said White, speaking from Old Massett.
“Also, being a female native artist on the northwest coast, I think it’s really incredible to see someone pursuing that career.”
Recently, White has focused mainly on painting, and a series of works showing Haida cultural objects such as headdresses.
But she also gets several commissions, many from people on Haida Gwaii or from fans who find her via social media.
“I’ve been surrounded by Haida art for my whole life,” White said, adding that she feels lucky to live in such a supportive community.
White previously won a YVR Art Foundation award in 2014, and studied for a time at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. Then she decided to return home and focus on traditional Haida art.
After apprenticing with Clifton this summer, White will exhibit her work at the Vancouver Airport next spring.
“It’s incredible to think about all the people that go through there and get to be exposed to all this art from the west coast.”
Meghann O’Brien, Jaad Kuujus, is a Northwest Coast weaver in the middle of her second striking career.
A pro snowboarder until 2010, O’Brien is now an accomplished weaver of basketry as well as Yeil Koowu/Raven’s Tail and Naaxiin/ Chilkat textiles.
At the Kay Centre this January, she finished and danced a Naaxiin apron together with Sherri and Kerri Dick, master weavers who mentored her along with William White.
Finishing the three-year work there among a small group of Haida people who know Naaxiin weaving well gave it a special power, O’Brien said.
“I feel like the way we see things as people changes what they are,” she said.
“The way we look at the land — the way we look at a tree or the grass or each other — there’s this kind of dialogue that happens between things.”
Right now O’Brien is equally interested in the unique forest green found in early Naaxiin weaving and on finding her way in what Dene designer Sage Paul calls “Ancient Couture.”
“I’m interested in creating more refined and elaborate pendants — pieces that can be worn in everyday life, and also in ceremony,” she said.
Last fall, O’Brien paired her Naaxiin pendants with hand-stitched linen and canvas dresses for a runway show at the Western Canada Fashion Week.
Even in the contemporary fashions she used, such as a pair of Wolford polka-dot tights, there were links with tradition — the rowed dots referenced her Haida clan, Kowaas, or “sea eggs.”
High fashion is often seen as frivolous, O’Brien said, but she likes that is something in and of the modern world.
Looking forward to the first Toronto Indigenous Fashion Week that just wrapped up, not to mention her keynote speech at the Textiles Society of America symposium in September, O’Brien said she and several others hope to find a way for Indigenous traditions to thrive in the fashion world so they are not only relegated to the past.
“I contributed a robe into our culture to be used ceremonially, and I think that is the most important thing — contributing to the rebuilding of our societies and communities,” she said.
“But the fact is, our culture is embedded within a capitalist world,” she added.
“You have to find the way to make it through that as well. It’s a work in progress to figure it all out.”
To see more of Meghann O’Brien’s work and upcoming exhibitions, visit meghannobrien.com.