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Become a Cultural Navigator

Become a Cultural Navigator

Vancouver artist and future teacher Rachel Smith ~ai̓xcemǧa brings Bright Days Ahead to Granville Island

Rachel Smith
Kwakwaka’wakw-Oweekeno mixed-race artist Rachel Smith ~ai̓xcemǧa includes symbolism in her images.

Many great artists have demonstrated a capacity and willingness to adapt. Vincent Van Gogh, for example, initially created dark and brooding paintings, like The Potato Eaters (1885), filled with earthy hues. Only later in life did his canvases explode in bright, vivid colours.

Meanwhile, visitors to the Guud sans glans Robert Davidson: A Line That Bends But Does Not Break exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery can also witness how the famed Haida painter, printmaker, and carver’s work has evolved over his lifetime. He went from pencil drawings to embracing the traditional red and black Northwest Coast colours in his paintings to incorporating a range of other colours.

In a similar vein, Rachel Smith ~ai̓xcemǧa, a 28-year-old mixed-race Kwakwaka’wakw-Oweekeno artist in Vancouver, also remains open to new ideas. Earlier in her professional career, Smith’s work featured what she calls “muted jewel-tone colours”—such as deep purples and deep blues, as well as various shades of grey.

“I chose those colours because I liked them,” Smith tells Pancouver over Zoom. “They felt like they matched my personality and temperament.”

To her, these calmer colours felt serene and almost royal.

But over time, Smith has added more vibrant colours to some of her works of art. This is on display in Bright Days Ahead, which is on a large LunarFest Vancouver lantern at Ocean Artworks on Granville Island.

This design includes playful representations of salmon eggs and salmon heads. According to The Lantern City website, it’s “symbolizing the vibrancy and strength of each generation”.

“They told me the theme of this year’s collection of work, which was ‘Year to Imagine’,” Smith says. “I think it’s quite a hopeful piece.”

Rachel Smith lantern
Rachel Smith ~ai̓xcemǧa designed this lantern at Ocean Artworks on Granville Island.

Smith reflects diversity through colours

She likes including symbolism in her art, noting that the salmon egg represents regeneration, continuation, perseverance, and determination through hardships. Her lantern is among others at Granville Island designed by artists Richard Hunt and Jessie Sohpaul, and Arts Umbrella students.

This “lantern gallery” is part of the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association’s The Lantern City exhibition, which includes artistic lanterns at Jack Poole Plaza and šxwƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square (formerly known as the Vancouver Art Gallery North Plaza). These galleries are all intended to celebrate the Lunar New Year to bring in the Year of the Rabbit.

In the meantime, Smith says that she still includes jewel tones in her art. Coincidentally, her paintings took a more colourful turn several years after her father, well-known Indigenous artist Steve Smith ~Dla’kwagila, had done the same thing. In the case of her father, this occurred before she had even begun painting professionally.

“Me and my dad work often side-by-side in the studio together,” Smith says. “His colour palette has influenced me. And mine, he says, has influenced him, too.”

Moreover, Smith feels that her use of vibrant colours reflects her appreciation for the diversity within herself and other people. Her mother, Jenny (Sunyata) Calogeros-Smith, is of Greek ancestry.

“The colours did represent me—and still do—but there are multiple angles and sides to everybody,” Smith notes.

As an artist, Smith says that she learned most of what she knows about formline from her father. She points out that the foundation of his designs are based in traditional rules.

However, she adds that he also adheres to his own rules and principles, always thinking out of the box and “lightly challenging conventions” in Northwest Coast art.

“That’s a trait that I feel I have picked up from him—just trying to see things slightly differently,” Smith says.

Together Rachel Smith Acrylic on birch 14" x 11"
Rachel Smith ~ai̓xcemǧa painted Together with acrylic on birch (14″ x 11″).

Mom and daughter are knowledge seekers

Her paternal grandfather, Harris Smith, was also a great Northwest Coast artist. Smith was encouraged to follow in the family tradition after her now-deceased grandfather spoke to her in a dream.

In addition to her father and grandfather, Smith has been inspired by other Indigenous artists. They include multidisciplinary Tlingit artist Mark Preston (Tenna-Ta-Teh), who died in October. In particular, Smith is drawn to his minimalist formline designs.

Smith also emphasizes that her mother has had a tremendous impact on her life. Her mom has created her own perfume brand and also worked as a jeweller and trauma therapist, among other occupations.

“She has always been a very inquisitive and knowledge-seeking person—and is kind of always transforming who she is and what she does,” Smith says. “And she does everything really, really well that she’s interested in.”

Like her mother, Smith is also a knowledge seeker. She learned a great deal about the history of Indigenous people and Canada while enrolled at Native Education College in Vancouver.

This coincided with the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada into the brutal history of the Indian residential school system. Lasting more than a century, the federal government created this system in partnership with churches to erase Indigenous culture and assimilate First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people into Christian, white society.

The TRC’s work furthered Smith’s understanding of the intertwined history of Indigenous people and Canada. “All of that was going on at that time,” she says.

Training to become a teacher

Smith later went on to earn an associate of arts degree in peace and conflict studies at Langara College.

Now, Smith is enrolled in NITEP, the Indigenous Teacher Education Program offered by UBC’s Faculty of Education.

She’s looking forward to becoming a teacher and sharing her knowledge of Northwest Coast art with students. She also hopes to convey to students the shared history of Indigenous people and Canada.

Smith believes that this will benefit them because they’ll gain a deeper understanding of the background behind many current issues facing society.

“It’s often-times framed as Indigenous history and, then, Canadian history,” Smith says. “I like to overlap those two things and give a full view of what’s gone on because I think a lot of people don’t know.”

Here is where you can visit the website of Rachel Smith ~ai̓xcemǧa. Find her on Instagram @rachel.smith.artist. For more information on the LunarFest Lantern City exhibitions, visit the website. Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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Pancouver aims to build a more equal and empathetic society by advancing appreciation of visual and performing arts—and cultural communities—through education. Our goal is to elevate awareness about underrepresented artists and their organizations.

The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam Indian Band), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish Nation), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh Nation). With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.

Support us

Pancouver strives to build a more equal and empathetic society by advancing appreciation of visual and performing arts—and cultural communities—through education. Our goal is to elevate awareness about underrepresented artists and the organizations that support them. 

The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.