Indigenous weavers bring Blue Cabin Floating Artist Residency to life

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      Thar she be, afloat on the grey waters of False Creek. The legendary Blue Cabin is now a “vessel”, moored together with a newly built “deck house” at Dock 7 behind the Plaza of Nations. After three intense years, during which grunt gallery and two artists’ collectives, Other Sights for Artists’ Projects and Creative Cultural Collaborations (C3), worked together with public and private funders to save the 92-year-old cabin from demolition and to restore it, the structure is about to be reincarnated into its new creative existence. This Sunday (August 25) will see the public launch of the Blue Cabin Floating Artist Residency.

      The yearlong inaugural program, titled Skeins: Weaving on the Foreshore, will spotlight the resurgence of Salish weaving practices, says Barbara Cole. Artist, curator, educator, public-art consultant, and founder of Other Sights for Artists’ Projects, she is guiding the Straight around the cottagey-looking Blue Cabin (restored by artists Jeremy and Sus Borsos, and intended to be used as a studio) and its elegantly simple companion structure (created by artist Germaine Koh and architect Marko Simcic as loftlike accommodation for visiting artists). The structure and residency program will be operating, she estimates, for 20 years. During this time, the cabin will be towed to various coastal locations and the programming will adapt to different places and communities.

      Cole is a Blue Cabin Committee lead along with grunt gallery’s Glenn Alteen and C3’s Esther Rausenberg, who initiated the project of saving and repurposing the cabin. While pointing out some of the features of its interior (the well-worn look faithfully intact), she talks a little about the structure’s history. Built in 1927, it was a floating home in Coal Harbour until it was barged, in the 1930s, to a beach near Cates Park in North Vancouver. There, it functioned as a somewhat marginal habitation for a number of unnamed folk and, from 1966 to 2015, as a studio for interdisciplinary artists Al Neil and Carole Itter. “The cabin was always on the waterfront, always on the foreshore, always in this grey zone between low and high tides and also of jurisdiction,” Cole says.

      She talks about Other Sights’ long-standing interest in who “owns” public space, a meaningful segue to the Blue Cabin’s new role as a place for Indigenous artists to work and interact with the public. The committee wanted to flag the history of the people who were here long before the cabin was built, she says, adding that in thinking through programming for the structure, “It was clear that there was a need for an Indigenous focus, and from there it went to this idea of resurgent practices.”

      Artists in residence for the coming year are weavers Angela George (Squamish/Tsleil-Waututh), Janice George and Buddy Joseph (Squamish), and Debra Sparrow (Musqueam). In concert with the Australia Council for the Arts, the Blue Cabin residency program will also host Australian Indigenous artist Vicki Couzens (Gunditjmara), who has revived the culturally significant possum-cloak tradition of her people.

      With her older sisters Wendy Grant-John and Robyn Sparrow, Debra Sparrow is closely identified with reigniting Musqueam weaving practices and symbolism. An acclaimed designer, jeweller, and muralist, as well as a leading weaver, she speaks to the Straight by phone from her home while she splits wool. “I wanted to know who the people were here, before contact,” she says. “I wanted to know why and what inspired them to create the things they did.

      “We actually didn’t know about the blankets prior to 1984 or ’5,” she continues. “We didn’t grow up seeing them, we didn’t identify with them, because they were dormant for 80, 85 years.”

      The three sisters pored over Paula Gustafson’s landmark book Salish Weaving, spoke to community elders, and looked at examples of blankets in museum collections. “We had no teachers, we really relied on our instinct,” Sparrow says. Of precontact Musqueam weavers, she exclaims, “I’m forever in awe and holding my hands up to them for the intelligence they showed in these blankets—the geometric patterning, the mathematical genius behind them, the dyes they were making and the medicines that went with that.” Then she adds, “This was not just about making a pretty blanket. It was about reconnecting with our history.”

      Sparrow acknowledges the rich education she acquired from her late grandfather, Ed Sparrow. “He drove me around the city of Vancouver as we know it and showed me where the [Indigenous] villages were,” she says. “There were named villages all through this whole territory.” Historically resonant is the site where the Blue Cabin is now moored, because it was where the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh used to congregate, she says. “Having our residencies there, in the very place that our ancestors were—and the spirit of them is—will be very significant to us in coming together as weavers.”

      The public launch of the Blue Cabin Floating Artist Residency program will take place from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday (August 25), at the Plaza of Nations Aquabus stop. Click here for information.