Haida artist Shoshannah Greene (SGidGang.Xaal) knows what it’s like to make the transition between her traditional territory and B.C.’s biggest city. The 30-year-old Emily Carr University grad grew up in Skidegate on Haida Gwaii, but she’s also spent a great deal of time in Vancouver.
This theme underscores Greene’s new painting, Raven in the City, that’s part of the Bright Futures exhibition at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art (639 Hornby Street). Running until January 14, 2024, it includes works by Reid, a mixed-race Haida master, along with new creations by emerging and established Northwest Coast artists.
“One quote that always stuck with me was how Bill transformed himself between the non-Native world and the Native world,” Greene tells Pancouver over Zoom. “I think a lot of us go through this experience. I’m mixed ancestry myself.”
Raven in the City shows a young Indigenous man standing in an urban alley, staring at a raven emblazoned on the wall of a building.
The Raven, sometimes referred to as Nankil’slas, is revered in Haida mythology as a benevolent trickster and transformer. Greene leaned on this story in creating her work for the Bright Futures show.
“It’s this idea of transforming yourself to be presentable in other worlds that aren’t home,” she says. “So, it’s Nankil’slas wearing more contemporary clothing.”
The Indigenous man’s streetwear in the painting demonstrates his ability to adapt.
Greene shows flicker of Raven
There’s a reason for the image of the raven—Greene says that she loves all the graffiti in Vancouver, including drawings by Northwest Coast artists. In fact, the message of Raven in the City is “we’re here, this is home too”.
“It’s painted with wash and then there are some iridescent water colours,” Greene says. “So depending on the angle that you’re looking at, it’s supposed to be a flicker of Raven having his true form—a call to home.”
As an artist, Greene explores old Haida stories through her art to navigate how she’s feeling. It’s helped her cope with a very difficult period in her life.
“I lost several of my friends through the pandemic,” she says. “And just recently, last New Year’s Eve, I lost my dad tragically. So it’s really hard processing that.”
Despite this heartbreak, Greene still manages to present a cheerful face to the world. During the Zoom call, she holds up another piece of art that’s inspired by a traditional story about a young berry picker stolen by the moon.
“What would it feel like to be separated from your whole community and be stuck on a moon and live your every day on it?” she asks.
In answering her own question, Greene states that there would obviously be a feeling of loss and grief through separation. But at the same time, this berry picker would have to accept that he’s away and can’t connect back. She’s felt that way herself when she’s been away from home.
Finding refuge in the art room
As a child and teenager, Greene loved art. However she was far more attracted to Disney animation than the work of Haida masters.
She constantly created animated characters with her cousin, artist Raven Pearson, copying art from The Lion King and other shows.
“Both of us really wanted to be animators,” Greene recalls.
When Pearson’s family moved to Fort St. John, she could attend classes in animation in her high school. Greene couldn’t do this in Skidegate, prompting pangs of jealousy. But it turns out that Pearson didn’t actually enjoy animation, and moved into other areas.
Greene, on the other hand, believed that this was all she ever wanted.
“So many people would always tell me that I should learn Haida art,” she says.
She credits her high school art teacher, Katie Borserio for offering her a refuge in the art room. Upon graduation Greene enrolled in Emily Carr University of Art + Design, planning a career in animation.
However, her views evolved while working at the Haida Gwaii Museum and Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art. She discovered that in responding to questions from museum visitors, she needed to learn more about her culture.
“You grow up in it; you just live the life. And you don’t realize how much you don’t know,” Greene says.
At the same time, she maintained her interest in animation, even visiting Beverly Hills on a field trip in her second year of university. There, Greene toured Disney and Dreamworks studios, as well as the Cartoon Network.
“We had dinner in Beverly Hills, which was really crazy for me, being from small, little Skidegate,” she states.
But it dawned upon her that nobody in California cared that she was from Haida Gwaii. And Greene loves being Haida.
Dreams of the Haida Child
Moreover, she says that she loves the Northwest Coast more than hustling for work in Los Angeles and spending hours in traffic. So she had an epiphany—the world of animation wasn’t for her. That’s when the young artist focused even more attention on the museum work.
But Greene was still determined to graduate from Emily Carr. And she was able to marry her love of animation and Haida culture in 2014 when she secured an animation job with the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. She was appointed visual development artist leader for an augmented-reality project called “Dreams of the Haida Child”.
“High school students in Harlem would do this after-school project at the museum,” Greene says. “And they focused specifically on Haida pieces.”
Greene was only in New York for a week and then returned home to Haida Gwaii to work on her drawings remotely.
This ignited her interest in formline, which is a critical element of two-dimensional Northwest Coast art. Then in 2016, she took a course on formline with artist Ben Davidson. Greene describes this as a pivotal event in her development.
Back at home, she also immersed herself in research for a year for an art show about the relationship of churches coming to Indigenous reserves. In Skidegate, it was the Methodist Church, whereas the Anglicans went to Masset. She was particularly interested in the story of Rev. Charles Harrison. He was a missionary for 40 years on what was then known as the Queen Charlotte Islands.
Harrison achieved notoriety for taking remains of a Haida ancestor back to England, where they were held for a century at Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum.
Greene visits archives in Oxford
As part of her research, Greene travelled to the Pitt Rivers Museum. This trip was facilitated by Bill Reid Gallery curator Beth Carter but the exhibition was never held.
“I got to go through their archives,” Greene says. “I got to see Harrison’s original journal; I have PDFs of it and stuff like that.”
But it was also very sad for her to learn this history. Her father was one of many Haida who attended church-run day schools in Haida Gwaii.
On the flight back, she started drawing and was feeling even more comfortable with her grasp of formline.
By 2017, people were starting to buy her paintings. So she took a big leap and moved back to Vancouver with a bag of art supplies, a bag of frozen fish, and a bag of clothing.
“I just kind of winged it,” Greene says. “I moved into an artist house.”
It was on the Capilano Reserve on the North Shore and included Tahltan, Cowichan, Haida, and Mount Currie artists.
“I was broke but I was making it work,” she reveals. “I was selling little pieces here and there.”
She’s a two-time winner of the YVR Art Foundation Emerging Artist Scholarship (2015 and 2020) ad served as the artist in residence at Skwáchay’s Lodge in Downtown Vancouver.
“I really focused hard on being realistic about my goals and what I could achieve,” Greene says. “And from there, I just continued working on art and formline.”
But when the pandemic hit, her life was turned upside down. She was also working as an intern at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, but she didn’t feel safe being in Vancouver at that time.
Raising awareness about COVID
So she packed her back and went home to Skidegate.
“I got to do my first mural,” she says. “I worked on some children’s books for the Skidegate Haida immersion program. And people just wanted art—they wanted paintings, they wanted designs.”
One of her clients in the pandemic has been the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. It was eager to convey information about COVID-19 to Indigenous communities across the province, some of which don’t have access to high-speed Internet.
It was a crisis. For example, several elders had passed away in Canim Lake. In other communities, according to Greene, some residents believed that you had to have every symptom to contract COVID.
“It became this weekly group where we were producing work—different things—to address different concerns in the community,” Greene says. “It was using the resources that already exist but making it Indigenized so the characters looked Native.”
In this period, continued to work on formline because there was also increased demand for tattoos. For her formline is not just simply fitting shapes together. She thinks of it more like a language.
“There’s a harmony and there’s a push and pull,” she says. “There’s an overall esthetic to it. It’s a very personal experience.”
The Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art presents Bright Futures until January 14, 2024. For more information, visit the website. Follow Shoshannah Greene on Instagram. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.