Say the name “Susan Point” and most Vancouverites will summon up images of the Musqueam artist’s prolific and monumental public art commissions. These include her 17-foot-high Coast Salish house pole and enormous carved cedar spindle whorl at Vancouver International Airport; her three imposing Coast Salish gateways at Brockton Point in Stanley Park; and her 90-foot-long copper wall of human figures at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
Yet there’s an important and decidedly more intimate aspect to Point’s art-making: the prints she has been producing since the early 1980s. “I love making prints,” Point says, showing the Straight around her big, bright studio on the Musqueam reserve. More than any other medium, she suggests, they express who she is. As with all her distinctive, nature-based artworks, they originate with the exploratory act of drawing. “When you’re sitting at the drawing table, you can imagine it could be for a print or, ‘Ah, I could turn that into glass, using the same image,’” she says. “Or ‘I could do it in wood.’” Ultimately, she adds, “the medium doesn’t really matter.” It’s the meaningful image that is important.
Point sits down to go through a new book, Susan Point: Works on Paper (Figure 1 Publishing), and to answer questions about her forthcoming exhibition of the same title.
Organized by the Spirit Wrestler Gallery, the show is the most comprehensive survey yet of the serigraphs, etchings, and chine-collé prints that Point has produced over her 34-year career. In the early days, she pulled her own silkscreen prints at her kitchen table; now she collaborates with a master printer in Victoria. “He’s very familiar with my work,” she says. “He knows exactly what I want.”
Point’s distinctive style has evolved from her close study of traditional Coast Salish art, architecture, and artifacts, especially spindle whorls (carved wooden or stone disks with holes at their centre, used for spinning wool). Her prints address historical, social, and environmental issues, often speaking through the creatures that have always been important to her people: salmon, orcas, eagles, ravens, black bears, even the endangered frogs that sing the changing of the seasons. “All animals have a certain meaning and they all are here to tell us something,” Point says. “You think about frogs and the environment—they’re the canary in the coal mine.”
On this sunny midsummer afternoon, Point’s studio is busy and crowded. She is working with her sons Brent Sparrow and Thomas Cannell on an ambitious public art commission for a new condominium and retail development at West 70th Avenue and Southwest Marine Drive. And she is also putting the final touches on a proposal for another public artwork that she and Thomas are hoping to undertake in Ottawa. Kelly Cannell, the younger of Point’s two daughters, is in the studio, too; she’s been working with Thomas on still another commission, a couple of immense light boxes for the exterior walls of two new condominiums in South Vancouver.
When asked if executing so many monumental commissions interferes with her ability to produce prints, Point and her daughter both laugh at what should be obvious. “We work very hard,” Point says simply. Kelly, who makes prints, too, and who has also collaborated with her mother in the creation of four serigraphs over the years, says, “With the prints, you’re given free rein, unlike public or private commissions, with somebody telling you something specific that they want….That’s one of the most enjoyable things about printmaking. It’s all you.”
Point agrees, then adds with a smile, “In fact, I print just about every day—in my mind.”
Susan Point: Works on Paper runs from Saturday (June 28) to July 19 at Spirit Wrestler Gallery.