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Damian John

Artist: Damian John
Photographer: Electrify

There’s Something Underneath All of This

Damian John is a Tl’azt’en artist highly influenced by his Indigenous heritage who uses his art to explore.  He is self-taught and continues to grow as he explores his passion for creation, trying to find a voice for the various spaces his mind and emotion inhabit.  We took the chance to learn more about Damian’s art practice while he painted at NIMF 2022. 

What did the journey to becoming an artist look like for you?

As a young person, I always did some version of art, but I never gave it a lot of time as an adult. Then eight or nine years ago I was finishing up my massage therapy career and I decided that giving my creative self the space to explore “that” was kind of necessary; so I dove into it full-on. I had good support from my ex-partner, my mom, and my stepdad. I wasn’t really making any money, but eventually, I found spaces to show it. I think it’s a problem if you can’t show your art, at least to a few people.

Tell us about the piece you created for the festival!

It’s not my “norm,” I usually do a lot of color. This only has four colors, the background color and then a teal, a yellow, and a green. I wanted to explore a smaller palette, but I also really wanted to focus on line work. I like doing solid and heavy lines. And I wanted to do something with birds. I really like putting birds on walls.

So, I started with the birds, and then the face showed up. And I thought “Oh, that’s cool!” I usually have spirits or entities or ancestors in a lot of my art, and this face kind of represented that. In the first design, it was more of a 2D face that was coming out from the side of the wall and speaking or blowing the birds into being. I wanted to include the idea that there’s a spirit or an essence in everything, and that essence, I believe, often adds a layer of beauty to the world. I wanted to have the piece bring that beauty alive in this place where it’s kind of dark and used by people who are homeless or having trouble. I wanted to bring this idea of a spirit of beauty but also not cover up all of the wall, I kept parts of it bare to say “There’s something underneath all this”. We can add beauty without covering everything up. A lot of people like that the layer is showing through; I’ve had a few comments on that. It felt like a good move to allow that to show through and it also gives it a bit of visual depth. It’s also very influenced by my Indigenous thought processes of spirits, beings, and a lot of things that I interact with.

Once I got here it was strange, because the art started speaking to me, like we were having a conversation the whole time: “Oh, this is what you want to do!” or “Oh, this is where you want to go?” For example, the owl was oriented to face the other way in my original drawing, and I drew it that way on the wall but it ended up orienting itself this other way. It’s super weird and I can’t figure out how that happened. It wanted to do what it wanted to do.

What are the other birds in the piece?

I have an owl in there, a raven, a hummingbird, and a swallow. Actually, I have a couple of swallows, but one of them is kind of hidden away. I have a few little hidden items in there, I like to put easter eggs in my work.

What advice would you give to an artist looking to scale up their work?

Try it. Take a piece of plywood or a wall on a barn. Go and practice, because walls are a very different beast than canvas. You can be very skilled artistically but scaling it up is a whole skill set onto itself. You have to be able to work with textures and be able to deal with the physicality because it’s very physical work. It’s exhausting to do a mural.

What are some of your inspirations?

I’ve been finding lots of inspiration in the artists I’ve been working with. I just did a carving symposium in Rossland with Trevor Angus and Lars Baggenstos who are both really great people, and really great carvers. It was really fun, kind of “Oh yeah, you’re a creative who has put your life into doing this thing too,” and you can talk about those things and reflect. I’m really inspired by people I can connect with on a personal level.

Of late, I’ve also really been inspired by my language. My dad has been teaching me Dakelh, which is our Indigenous language. We’ve been learning it by using myths, which are very strange and the language is very different and it’s been pushing my brain in different directions and adding layers to my art. I didn’t think learning the language would affect me artistically but I’ve been seeing things differently. To put it another way, my dad has been an inspiration, as have my people and my language.

I’m also inspired by anybody who creates. I love creative people. I think it’s one of the best things humans do. I celebrate all people who decide to create because one of the best human qualities is creating things, if it’s dancing, singing, art, just being kind to one another creatively, anything, I’m a big fan.

Anything else to share about your experience at Nelson International Mural Fest this year?

I’m glad to be able to share my artistic vision with people more broadly, it feels useful to connect to people this way; there are real conversation starters and it feels like art is language that bridges gaps between people. I feel honored and humbled to be able to do that on a larger scale. It feels meaningful. I love that Nelson is doing a mural fest, that it’s been successful, and that there’s been lots of good and big art put into this city because it has changed this town in lots of ways. It made it more interesting and beautiful. To all the people involved, I’m super thankful.

You can find Damian’s mural nenadneke babayoh on the retaining wall behind 523 Vernon Street (down the stairs next to Salvation Army). 

Interviewer: Ingrid Love – 2022

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