Susan Point's huge Coast Salish portals pay rich tribute

Susan Point: People Amongst the People

Permanently installed at Brockton Point, Stanley Park

It’s hard to imagine what contemporary Coast Salish art would look like without Susan Point. Dedicated, prolific, and successful, she has almost single-handedly recovered her people’s graphic and sculptural traditions from obscurity.

She has also directed her strong sense of design toward innovations in forms and materials. A member of the Musqueam First Nation, Point has won numerous public commissions and has proven herself across multiple disciplines. These include painting, printmaking, and monumental sculpture in wood, bronze, glass, stainless steel, and polymer resin.

Point’s three carved cedar gateways, erected on the periphery of the totem-pole site near Brockton Point in Stanley Park, are the latest addition to her astonishing résumé. Collectively titled People Amongst the People, they are intended to welcome visitors to the place.

They are also the first Coast Salish works erected among a cluster of poles that represent almost all the Northwest Coast nations except those whose traditional lands they occupy.

The notion of “welcome” itself is both generous and ironic, since the creation of Stanley Park in the 1880s meant the eviction of Coast Salish people from the long-standing villages of Chaythoos and Xwayxway. It also meant banishing indigenous people from their traditional fishing grounds and digging up, paving, or planting over ancient middens, burial sites, and abandoned villages.

Point’s monumental portals, each consisting of two upright posts supporting a horizontal beam, all solemnly carved and painted in subdued earth tones, are a tribute to the site’s past. Their mood is not angry but quietly commemorative: elements of hope are entwined with cultural and environmental messages.

The figures and design elements make explicit reference to historical Coast Salish art and life. These include male and female welcome figures, a pod of killer whales, and a Salish dancer holding a sacred mask in front of him.

Large and small details allude to traditional textile and basketry designs, matrilineal social structures, and creatures bound into Coast Salish existence, such as herring and salmon. All signify the site’s cultural richness and natural bounty before the arrival of the park we know as Stanley.