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Students embrace Indigenous-based mural project

Study and refinement leads to the production of a masterpiece
Art teacher Rhona Kane with the finished Indigenous mural done by her art class at Chemainus Secondary School behind her. (Photo by Don Bodger)

Art students in a mural town don’t have to look far for inspiration.

Somehow, small projects on paper don’t seem to measure up, either. But having a wall for a final backdrop is the piece de resistance.

Chemainus Secondary School students in Rhona Kane’s senior art class recently completed a mural that now covers a large section of a school wall in the back courtyard. And it’s not just any mural, but a newly-designed Indigenous-themed mural.

The location was chosen first and foremost to provide a more eye-pleasing look to the building.

“We wanted to beautify this courtyard, right outside my classroom,” said Kane of how the project started. “We were throwing some ideas around.”

She thought it would be nice to have an Indigenous focus and first spoke to Rita George about it.

“I asked her to put me in touch with elder Florence James if she’d be willing to come to speak to our art class,” added Kane.

“My students were drawing away and sketching to get ideas while she was talking.”

The class had two sessions with her, the first one being mainly a listening and learning opportunity.

“She told us about some of the big celebrations they have and all the different stages of them growing up,” Kane indicated.

Eventually, Kane and the students came up with the main design in consultation with James to bring all the elements together. They even incorporated James into the final product. She’s the person in the front of the canoe with a lightning bolt crest.

James’ granddaughter Maddi James, who’s in Grade 7, designed the baby’s face.

“It’s brought the whole family together,” said Kane.

Coast Salish artist Charlene Johnny was then hired “to make it more pristine,” Kane indicated.

“Once we had Florence’s blessing, we had Charlene come over and show us how to do the stencils to get the work up on the wall.”

Johnny said she and Kane first started emailing back and forth about her getting involved with the students in the winter of 2021. A lot of planning obviously went into it before Johnny arrived on the scene.

“I helped them design the mural and I helped them to create the stencils,” Johnny, 31, pointed out. “I was just there to answer their questions.”

She was also busy painting a mural at Khowhemun Elementary School in Duncan at the time. Johnny has family within the Cowichan Tribes and currently lives in Musqueam territory.

She has become a renowned artist following her graduation from Native Education College in Vancouver in 2017, including a solo mural in the downtown eastside in August of 2018 and another mural in November of 2019. “I’m learning from my mentor’s mentors,” said Johnny.

She’s happy to offer her expertise and the Chemainus Secondary project was most satisfying.

“I love it, it’s great,” said Johnny. “I’m impressed they were able to do it. It’s pretty accurate and close to my designs. I’m proud of them.

“It fills my heart I have a lasting mark on young people, Indigenous people especially. I never had anyone growing up saying I could pursue art as a career.”

“It was a real community project,” summed up Kane. “We came out here a couple of drizzling days.”

It all got finalized on June 23, with additional work done on adjacent planters and benches.

“I’m delighted how it came out,” said Kane.

Students involved in the project included: Hannah Southern, Koen Tyson, Brooklyn Stobbe, Ashley Loeffen, Sydney Lyderick, Nyla Nankya, Tobin Meyer, Sienna Miller, Gwen Connolly, Amelia Halbot, Bianca Elias, Sarah Ladot, Kim Dietz, Kassidy Rankin, Maria Febrez-Duque, Cody Shiell and Vivian McNeely.

The mural has been brought to the attention of the Chemainus Festival of Murals executive to consider adding it to the collection.

Johnny is also participating in the Vancouver Mural Festival this year and will be back in Chemainus later this month to assist Maynard Johnny with his pending mural earmarked for downtown beside Sandy Clark’s Arrival of the Reindeer in Horseshoe Bay mural.


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Decorated tables and a new mural done by Rhona Kane’s art class provide an improved courtyard at Chemainus Secondary School. (Photo by Don Bodger)
The finished Indigenous mural project of art students, with expertise from Charlene Johnny, greatly enhances the courtyard of Chemainus Secondary School. (Photo by Don Bodger)

Don Bodger

About the Author: Don Bodger

I've been a part of the newspaper industry since 1980 when I began on a part-time basis covering sports for the Ladysmith-Chemainus Chronicle.
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