A decade ago, Ovi Mailhot never imagined he would become a much-in-demand Coast Salish artist. In those days, the Seabird Island Band member had a good job as an industrial painter. It paid well and the hours suited him.
“I thought that was what I would be doing for the rest of my life,” Mailhot tells Pancouver over Zoom. “I’ve always been good with labour work. You go in, punch the clock, and do your job.”
But seven years ago, he was laid off—one of the last to be let go, in fact. Fortunately, Mailhot qualified for employment insurance, so he could plan his next career steps.
“I knew that I had a lot of creative energy to vent,” the artist recalls. “I just didn’t know where to direct that energy.”
Initially, he tried his hand at culinary arts because of his keen interest in traditional foods. Then he bought himself an electric guitar, before realizing how difficult it was to learn.
Mailhot eventually found his salvation in a sketch pad and some pencils. He started doodling. And he discovered how much he liked it. Next, Mailhot began sharing images on social media.
“At that time, I probably got only a few ‘likes’, but that was cool to me that there were people out there that kind of liked my drawing,” he says.
Then he received a message from a Seattle apparel company. It asked if Mailhot would be interested in doing designs. And over time, more offers flowed in as he honed his skills. However, he also felt that it might not be possible to make a living as a full-time artist.
Mailhot sharpens skills in Indiana
Fortunately, his sister, bestselling author Terese Marie Mailhot, provided the pathway. Purdue University had hired her to teach creative writing. Shee invited Mailhot to stay with her for a while in Lafayette, Indiana, to work on his art.
“So, I did that,” he says. “I was, like, ‘You know what? I’m kind of tired of the Fraser Valley right now. I want to see what else is out there.’ ”
What was supposed to be a temporary arrangement lasted much longer, thanks to the pandemic.
“I was kind of locked down living with my sister for a year,” Mailhot notes. “Honestly, that was the best thing that could have happened to me because I was just focused on work. There were no distractions.”
And the offers kept rolling in to the point where he now works with multiple apparel companies. Mailhot recently talked to an Indigenous fashion designer about possibly creating dresses. He also built his own brand and does logo designs for Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses.
One of his recent contracts was to design a logo for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
“They flew me out to Vancouver in October,” Mailhot says. “I got to meet so many cool people.”
Designing a Lunar New Year lantern
From Friday (January 20) until February 7, the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association will present one of Mailhot’s designs on a large lantern at Jack Poole Plaza. It’s part of LunarFest Vancouver’s Coastal Lunar Lanterns gallery. And it features the work of three other Indigenous artists from Canada and Taiwan.
Mailhot says that his image is inspired by his Coast Salish ancestors. It’s rooted in the old spindle whorls. Meanwhile, the sun in the centre represents the growth of his career.
“I’ve come such a long way from seven years ago, when I really didn’t know what I was doing,” Mailhot says. “Now, I get to do these amazing projects and share the beauty of Coast Salish art with the people of Vancouver. That really blows my mind.”
Mailhot comes across as friendly, open, and humble, notwithstanding his meteoric career rise. On his website, he says that his work must carry some level of simplicity and “not obscure itself”.
“That’s the tradition I’ve inherited,” Mailhot writes. “My work is meant to add to a continuum within a culture so rich and expansive that it still hasn’t been fully actualized or received by mainstream culture.”
Mailhot finds his own voice
He concedes that he initially had difficulties as an artist. That’s because he kept going back to what a non-Indigenous person taught in school about formline. It just didn’t feel right to him.
“I was having a real hard time developing my style,” Mailhot states. “And I started to realize that’s because it wasn’t who I am.”
Only after conducting more research did he fully comprehend the artistic style from his own territory. The Seabird Island Band is part of the Sto:lo Tribal Council. Once he began practising this, everything started to flow.
Red and black have been traditional colours for many First Nations artists. Mailhot will use them too, but he also likes to express himself in brighter colours, depending on his disposition.
“I did a thunderbird design during the summer,” he says. “It was so colourful because I was feeling in such a good mood.”
Mailhot comes from a creative family. Two of his sisters are writers, as was his mother. His father, who left the home when he was young, was a painter. Despite loving his dad’s work, Mailhot never planned on becoming an artist.
Finding meaning as a mentor
When Mailhot began as artist, he was keen to have his art shown in galleries. He had his first solo exhibition at the Stonington Gallery in Seattle. And work that Mailhot did with lessLIE was presented in the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
“It was right beside a Susan Point design,” Mailhot says. “I was so excited and happy about that.”
But in recent years, his goals have changed dramatically. Nowadays, he’s more interested in finding ways to give back to the community than achieving global fame.
He’s found the perfect vehicle—Connected North—which enables him to do this as a content creator for its interactive virtual-learning programs. Mailhot teaches Coast Salish art to young people.
“I have sessions with graphic art, logo design, and business entrepreneurship,” he reveals. “I even do story time and art sessions for kindergarten students.”
In the past couple of years, he estimates that he’s offered 400 sessions through Connected North. Mailhot finds that he can better engage with students by linking art to topics that they can relate to, such as anime and comic books.
This is where he wants to take his career now—inspiring young people.
““I could still go an art gallery way and do something like that,” Mailhot says. “But I know there’s so much more beyond that, too.”