Indigenous artist Daniel R. Elliott wants to take people on a healing journey. But first, he is asking people to confront the history and impact of residential schools head on and not look away.
His paintings will be displayed in the Malaspina Theatre lobby on Vancouver Island University’s (VIU) Nanaimo campus from Oct. 1–13. They take viewers through a curve of emotions — from beautiful, pre-contact scenes, to the impacts of colonization, to the artist’s vision of how reconciliation can happen.
“My art is about helping people forge a new relationship,” said Elliott. “I’ve tempered all this pain and sorrow with hope. That was hard to do. I want to explore how this healing can happen, how we can bridge Canadian educational structures with Indigenous knowledge, how we can find a way to put that together in a good way.”
The name of the exhibit, Winds of Change, comes from childhood memories of commercial clam digging on Cortes Island with his family on long, hot summer days. Reprieve came in the form of the breeze that signalled the tide change, which meant that soon they would be done for the day.
“It’s a change of direction,” he said. “I want to help people to not look away, help people understand. Winds of Change is saying this with a loud voice through colour and texture.”
Dr. Sharon Hobenshield, director of VIU’s Office of Indigenous Education and Engagement, which is spearheading this initiative, said hosting the exhibit is a way to engage the wider community in the truth and reconciliation process.
“The horrific discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential school sites were revelations to many who now feel the imperative to educate themselves further on the realities of residential schools and the impact of systemic racism in this country,” she said. “This exhibit is a powerful medium for people to learn and, more importantly, feel. Engaging with the emotional and uncomfortable is necessary to action reconciliation and I am grateful to Dan for being willing to share his journey in this process through his art to inspire change.”
Elliott started painting at a young age, encouraged by his mother. After winning top prize for his artwork at the Vancouver Island Exhibition one year, he attracted the attention of Michael B. Gergley, an internationally known artist who taught at the Royal Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest. His family traded landscaping for formal instruction.
Living around Nanaimo and Ladysmith his whole life, Elliott has had several rewarding careers, while painting and selling his artwork on the side. He was a commercial fisherman for 25 years, working with Indigenous youth in the public school system during the off-season, before he was trained through Tillicum Lelum Aboriginal Friendship Centre to become a counsellor.
He is now a National Native Alcohol and Drug Prevention Worker at Stz’uminus First Nation, through which he focuses on cultural healing and one-on-one work with his clients. Each of these careers has helped shape his artwork.
Elliott, whose father is from Stz’uminus First Nation and whose mother is Scottish, has always felt like he was straddling two worlds. In the 1990s, he went through a spiritually transcendent experience in a sweat lodge that allowed him to feel, for the first time, at home with who he is as an Indigenous person of mixed ancestry.
“I came face-to-face with a collision of cultures in the Spiritual realm,” he said. “All the negative messages that I heard throughout my life about Indigenous people were cleansed and dissolved from my being. This was my truth and reconciliation of my own being.”
The exhibit can be viewed in the lobby of the Malaspina Theatre (Building 310) October 1, 4-8 and 11-13 from 1-4 p.m. During these times, the artist will be available to talk about his work and answer questions.