Gwaii Haanas: Where Art Blooms

By Myriah Saulnier

The sometimes serene, sometimes stormy and always inspiring Gwaii Haanas is located in the southern half of Haida Gwaii*, an archipelago that lays parallel to the northwest coast of mainland British Columbia, with glimpses of the Alaskan panhandle to the north on a clear day. Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site is a globally recognized treasure that is home to many ancient Haida village sites and many iconic land and sea based species.

Credit: © Parks Canada. Charlie Easton examines the past, present and future of the place in “Gwaii Haanas Afternoon”

The sometimes serene, sometimes stormy and always inspiring Gwaii Haanas is located in the southern half of Haida Gwaii*, an archipelago that lays parallel to the northwest coast of mainland British Columbia, with glimpses of the Alaskan panhandle to the north on a clear day. Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site is a globally recognized treasure that is home to many ancient Haida village sites and many iconic land and sea based species.

© Rosa Quintana Lillo. Amazing anemones and jellies if you just peak under the dock

Haida Gwaii boasts more than 138 islands of varying sizes, and incomparable natural beauty. It offers gorgeous views of deep fjords and toothed mountains, dense forest leading its way into streams or sub-alpine tundra. Western red cedars cover the area, along with Western hemlock and Sitka spruce, and the national park reserve is home to black bears, bald eagles and several seabirds such as the colourful Tufted Puffin and tiny, tenacious Ancient Murrelet. In 2015, Haida Gwaii was chosen as one of National Geographic’s 20 Best Trips, thanks in part to the prolific ecological and cultural uniqueness of Gwaii Haanas.

Credit: © Matt Miles. A driftwood log makes a great easel in the Gwaii Haanas backcountry

Active adventurers and sports enthusiasts will love to kayak, fish or camp in and around Gwaii Haanas, while tourists seeking out a cultural experience will enjoy the visits to the five Haida Heritage Sites and Haida Gwaii Watchmen who act as both protectors and animateurs. Another top reason travellers visit the verdant Gwaii Haanas is for visual inspiration.

Since 2011, a unique program has been developed between the Haida Gwaii Museum and Gwaii Haanas where local and regional artists are offered the chance to connect with the natural history, archaeology and environment of Gwaii Haanas through the Artists in Gwaii Haanas Residency Program.

Credit: © Parks Canada. Haida weaver Ariane Medley processes spruce roots at Windy Bay

The program, held every June, immerses three artists into the isolated land, forests and seascapes of Gwaii Haanas during a five-10 day period where they can explore creative possibilities of visual art and carry out their personal artistic research, while visiting the many islands, beaches, inlets and streams and Haida villages of Gwaii Haanas.

Based at a field-camp in Gwaii Haanas, the visual artists take in their natural surroundings and explore the‘Islands of Beauty’: photographing, sketching, creating, painting, writing and observing wildlife, Gwaii Haanas team members, and Haida Gwaii Watchmen.

© Parks Canada. Jayne observes a relic at Skedans through her camera lens

Throughout the residency, artists develop a greater understanding of the ecosystem, resulting in diverse, artistic points of view turned into visual artwork.

When they return home, the Gwaii Haanas artists in residence create artwork to be exhibited at the Haida Gwaii Museum, in Skidegate and in galleries that represent the artists.

The participating artists for 2016 include Haida storyteller and performance artist Roberta Kennedy (also known by her Haida name Kung Jaadee), Kelowna painter Joice M. Hall and Toronto installation artist Yaël Brotman.

Credit: © Parks Canada. Charlie captures the motion of the tides, the abundance of life within the water and the atmospheric conditions that contribute to Gwaii Haanas feeling like it is a place that goes on forever.

About a dozen artists have participated in the program over the years and have come from all over Canada including Montreal, Gaauu Llnagaay (Old Massett), Toronto, Abbotsford, Victoria and Queen Charlotte.

Previous years have seen artists develop some highly innovative creations such as traditional Haida spruce root weavings by Ariane Medley from Gaauu (Old Massett, 2014) and natural art pieces with found objects by Kathy Pick from Queen Charlotte (2015).

© Parks Canada. Jayne Patrick’s “Into the Light of Optimism,” symbolising her great hope for the future of the Haida culture.

At least one third of Haida Gwaii’s population is Haida, and their arts and culture scene is proudly displayed in the communities and most notably in the Haida Heritage Centre which is located at Kay Llnagaay, an ancient village site, north of Gwaii Haanas on Graham Island. The centre, which houses the Haida Gwaii Museum, was designed to resemble the traditional oceanside Haida village that once stood in its place and is the perfect place for the artists to host workshops with the local community and visitors, and spend a week in residence once they return from their immersive Gwaii Haanas experience.

© Parks Canada. Two woven pouches, one a traditional Naaxiin ghostface design, and one a newly created Raven’s tail cloud design by Ariane Medley

The artists in Gwaii Haanas bring new meaning to protecting, experiencing and celebrating Canada’s natural and cultural treasures.

*Formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands

© Parks Canada. Opening night at the Haida Gwaii Museum was well attended for the third exhibition of the artists residency program

Are you interested in visiting Gwaii Haanas
for your own artistic journey?

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Christine Ly

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