Quw’utsun artist Charlene Johnny says she wasn’t mentored as a young person to pursue art. That’s why when she’s commissioned to create a public art piece, she always encourages Indigenous youth to participate.
“I always knew that I would pass down my knowledge — in terms of art — to the next generation,” says Johnny. “I just didn’t think it would come so soon.”
Johnny is a multidisciplinary artist based on the unceded territory of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) nations, in Vancouver, B.C.
While she aspired to become a full-time artist by the time she was 30, she says the onset of COVID-19 prompted her to take the leap sooner than planned.
“[Art] was my side hustle, and then the pandemic hit and I lost my job.”
Johnny has since completed seven public art installations, including a mural at Britannia Elementary in Vancouver — painted with the graduating Grade 7 class of 2021 — and a mural at the Salt Spring Island Public Library. Both murals were supported by the hands of Indigenous youth, she says.
Her latest project brightened a basketball court at the Spectrum Community School, on unceded lək̓ʷəŋən territory. She was commissioned to take part in the Outside the Lines: A Court Mural Project, as part of the We the West Festival.
The Spectrum Community School is part of the Greater Victoria School District #61.
“When I met the staff there … my first question was about the Indigenous population in the school,” she says. “I made it a point to just ask for involvement from Indigenous students.”
Johnny says a number of Indigenous student volunteers supported her to design and paint the mural.
Johnny says she’s always been interested in art, experimenting first with practicing the artistic style of her uncles. She has worked in photography and is a graduate of the Northwest Coast Jewellery Arts program at the Native Education College, where she focused on silver and copper-carving and mural art.
For the court mural at the Spectrum Community School, she says it was the first time she had to paint on the ground. This required her to map out the design mathematically, which inspired her to draw inspiration from the geometric patterns found in Salish wool blankets.
“[The mural] is a blanket design that honors the four directions and the Ancestors,” she says. “Each corner of the court includes one of the four directions.”
She says she also included the moon and stars, which are common features in her work.
“A lot of our creation stores across Turtle Island depict people falling from the sky, including Quw’utsun. I think of [the stars] as our Ancestors,” she says.
With each project, Johnny says she invites Indigenous youth to participate, and once a project is completed, it belongs to community.
“I hope that I’m opening doors and inspiring [youth] into careers in the arts,” she says. “I didn’t really get a lot of encouragement and I feel like this is a great opportunity to share what I know.”
Anna McKenzie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse