Vancouver Mural Fest’s Kelly Cannell hopes to give a new generation something to think about

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      If there’s been one constant in the life of Kelly Cannell, it’s that she’s always been exposed to the power of art. The Coast Salish artist—who this year returns to the Vancouver Mural Festival (VMF)—notes that her immersion started in childhood.

      “It’s funny— just last week, I was literally asked whether there was ever a time when art wasn’t around me,” Cannell says in an interview with the Straight. “A family member is writing a book on my family, and he was like, ‘Can you pinpoint the moment that your interest in art happened?’ I actually can’t. It’s just a part of my life, and always has been. I grew up in a household of art. From a super young age, I remember sitting alongside my mom, helping her paint.”

      Cannell’s mother is Coast Salish icon Susan Point, whose multidisciplinary work can be found all over the Lower Mainland—from high-profile spots in the Museum of Anthropology and Vancouver International Airport, to public spaces like Brockton Point and the streets of Vancouver (which feature her cast-iron-relief storm-drain covers). Along with her siblings, Cannell was always encouraged to create.

      “I remember the first time I did my own Indigenous art—my parents were so excited my mom ended up putting it in one of her silkscreen prints,” Cannon recalls. “I drew a double salmon—I think I was 12.”

      Today, Cannell is in-demand to the point where carving out time to keep on the steady stream of high-profile projects she’s juggling has become a welcome challenge. Major works have included large-scale installations like the one just completed at the new leləm̓ development at UBC.

      “I paired with my brother, Brent Sparrow, on the project,” Cannell says. “There are massive, stainless steel spheres that have been laser-cut to represent an egg sitting on the side of the water. They are installed in a wetland, and there are three of them—one salmon, one salamander, and one frog­—lit internally so you get a glow of these quite intricate designs. I initially had no idea how we would do it—the idea was in my head and I was so excited, but then it was like, ‘Oh, man, how are we going to make this?’ ”

      Bringing the project across the line was about accepting the reality that, like countless artists before them, sometimes you just have to figure it out. And although Cannell’s highly sought-after today, she acknowledges there was a period when she wasn’t sure that she wanted to commit to being an artist.

      “It took until I was in my mid-20s to realize, ‘Oh my God, my mom is Susan Point,’” she says with a laugh. “I had a few moments in my life where I felt like I was in her shadow, and that was discouraging. But then you grow up and you’re wiser and you evolve. A contributing factor in me wanting to go for it­—to be like, ‘I’m going to push myself to be better’—was when my mom had done an artist-in-residence at Pilchuck Glass School [in Washington State]. I went down to visit her and was completely mindblown.”

      “I’d never really experienced the wider culture of art—it was always just me and my family making art,” she continues. “Witnessing all of these different artists in a small space, creating as a team, was really incredible, so I signed myself up and went back for a few summers, doing glassblowing, stained glass, sandblasting, and more, and it was completely inspiring.”

      Just as transformative was the undeniable power of travel. Whether hunkering down in magical Istanbul or immersing herself in the breathtaking and pristine wilderness of Alaska, Cannell learned to appreciate that art is, at every turn, all around us. That finally sent her down a path of making her own art, working in multiple disciplines from painting and sculpture to glassblowing and large-scale installations.

      “When you travel, it’s hard not to be drawn into things—you find yourself in a gallery that maybe you would normally never go to,” Cannell opines. “I think that’s what the Mural Festival is doing for Vancouver—making it so you don’t have to go seek art out. I really like that, and I think it’s one of the best things that’s evolving from this festival. It’s bringing so much unity and culture and vibrancy to the city.”

      Sabrina Miso Creative.

      Previously contributing a 2017 VMF Sea to Sky lightbox at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Cannell has this year done a work, titled “Keepers of the Land”, for the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Created for the school’s Burnaby campus, the mural depicts the land, sea, and sky of the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, portraying the nations as proud keepers of the land and its surroundings.

      One of the things that Cannell loved about the process of turning a blank space into art was being reminded of the way the process brings artists together.

      “Mural Fest has a huge production team—I would never be able to take this on on my own,” Cannell says with a laugh. “The whole team has come together a bit like a hive—it was very intense. But I’m pretty amazed at how it turned out. I’m grateful for the experience that VMF has given me—I’ve worked in teams before, but it’s pretty cool to all be hanging out while we’ve seen it come together.”

      Cannell hopes that—like all great art—her 2023 mural will give those who take it in something bigger to think about.

      “For me, of course I’m proud to represent Indigenous culture with my artwork,” she says. “But really, in the last few years, I’m undeniably focused on the environment and provoking thought, awareness, and our responsibilities to the environment while representing Coast Salish presence. Coast Salish really, really, idenitfy themselves by the environment where they come from, especially through art, which is why you see local animals and creatures, like salmon, in the art.”

      No less important to Cannell is the hope that everyone who walks away from her mural, and the dozens of others at VMF, finds themselves moved to create something important to them. Not everyone is blessed to be surrounded by art the moment they pop into the world. But sometimes, if we’re lucky, we come across something—whether it’s a song, movie, sculpture, book, painting, or mural—that unlocks something creative inside.

      “I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and the first thing that comes to mind is that I really want the younger generation to take something from it,” she relates. “My daughter has been working out there on the mural with me, and working on it all summer, much like I grew up working with my mom. My daughter is now a third-generation artist. I want to inspire. So hopefully that inspires, and enlightens, in a really positive way.” GS

      The Vancouver Mural Fest runs from August 4-13 across Greater Vancouver. For more info, go to