Visitors travelling through the Vancouver International Airport are greeted by many stunning sculptures and paintings, and two of Delta’s young Indigenous artists are seeing their works join the collection.
Atheana Picha, 18, and Yvonne Starr, 24, are both recipients of youth art scholarships from the YVR Art Foundation, a program that has been supporting Indigenous art and artists in B.C. since 2005.
Each received a $5,000 to further their studies in art for one year, either through a mentorship or formal art institution. At the end of it, a piece of their artwork will be displayed in the Vancouver International Airport for one year.
Picha received her scholarship in 2017. The Ladner resident and member of the Kwantlen First Nation unveiled her painting at the airport in May of this year.
“This one was sort of whimsical,” she explained over the phone. “I thought, you know, if I wanted it to look realistic I would have just taken a picture or made a collage.”
Picha’s painting, called “Not Enough Daylight” because it was made during her first year of art school at Vancouver’s Langara College, features vivid colours that have been present in her art since she was a toddler. The natural features of the painting have also followed through her art so far — she used skunk cabbages in a mural at her Richmond high school, and has consistently painted trees and sunsets.
“I tried to bounce off what my year was like, and I realized it made me appreciate my environment a lot more,” Picha said about coming up with the idea for the painting. “It made me more mindful of my surroundings. And so I thought, ‘Why not do another nature piece?’”
But the painting is more than just a nature piece. It’s the culmination of a year of study into Picha’s own style and heritage.
In “Not Enough Daylight,” Picha wanted to bring in different kinds of formline, a traditional feature of First Nations art. But she couldn’t figure out how she wanted to approach it.
“It kind of sent me into an identity crisis for a little while, I’m not going to lie,” she said. “That was weird, because I didn’t feel comfortable doing just Coast Salish art because all my mentors and elders were not necessarily Coast Salish all the time.
“I kind of want to figure out my own style, because I’m not just Native,” she continued. “I’m Fijian and I’m Czechoslovakian and I’m British too. And I wanted to really tie that all together.”
The painting, she said, represented “all the things I’ve figured out as of May 2018.” It also hints at what’s to come for the young artist.
Picha has been chosen to participate in the Vancouver Mural Festival this August, an opportunity she attributes to the YVR Art Foundation scholarship. There, she plans to grow as an artist and refine her style.
“I’ve really taken to Native art, and I’ve taken to how bold it is and how we’re trying to reclaim it,” she said. “I really want to reclaim my own little sliver of it and bring that into light.
“So really this past year has been kind of figuring out how I’m going to do that.”
Starr, a 2018 winner of the YVR scholarship, is on a similar quest.
The North Delta-raised Gitxsan woman has been doing art all her life, but was never truly exposed to First Nations art until she moved to Hazelton, a village of 270 people in Northern B.C., with her grandmother.
“I grew up as an urban Native, so I didn’t really now much about it,” Starr said. When she started going to school at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, she was introduced to much more, especially carving.
“It seems like a more advanced level of Native artwork to me,” she explained. Although Starr got a taste of it during her two year program, she didn’t learn enough to feel confident in the art form.
“I don’t think I could teach myself [carving], so I’m really glad I got this scholarship so I could work with a mentor.”
Starr, who has now moved back to North Delta, will be working with fellow Gitxsan artist Trevor Angus to learn how to carve panels over the course of the next year.
“He’s one of the main artists I knew about growing up,” Starr said. “I just took my chance and I asked him … how would you feel about mentoring someone? And he was actually really excited that I asked him. He said nobody’s ever asked him to be a mentor before.
“So it’s kind of like I’m out of my comfort zone, and I’m pushing him out of his comfort zone.”
Over the course of the next year, Starr will be creating a two-dimensional carving out of red cedar depicting a story her grandmother used to tell about an owl who teaches a young boy why he shouldn’t cry for no reason. Next May it will be unveiled at the Vancouver International Airport, where it will be on display for a year.
“I really hope, with this scholarship, that it will build confidence in me,” Starr said. “After school I was like, ‘Okay, I know how to do it. But am I cut out for it?’
“With this scholarship, already just receiving it built my confidence so much,” she continued. “I feel like, from this point on, I could really start focusing on building a career.”