Art students at Richmond secondary have left their mark on the school district offices thanks to the recent completion of a collaborative Indigenous mural.
The project’s completion was also a triumph for another reason: the pandemic caused a long delay, and the group of students that started the project wasn’t able to finish it. But the hard work of art teacher Allison Shelling and First Nations artist Christine MacKenzie—who grew up in Richmond—enabled a second group of students to pick up where the first group left off.
“I was interested in bringing the Indigenous perspective alive in an authentic way,” explains Shelling.
What began as a standalone workshop became an ongoing mural project when the school received a district grant to do a commissioned piece for its office. Students started working with MacKenzie and designing the mural in January 2020, and were scheduled to start painting the day after spring break—but didn’t return to school that year.
Shelling and MacKenzie persevered, and the board agreed to continue to fund the project, which resumed at the beginning of this year with a new class of students. As with the first group, MacKenzie began by bringing in Indigenous artifacts and teaching students about their significance.
“When I initially came in, I shared a massive chunk of culture. I brought in items including bear hides, drums and traditional regalia,” says MacKenzie.
Working with a theme of connection and unity, the mural’s design symbolizes the harmony between the First Peoples and settler communities, as well as multicultural and LGBTQ+ inclusion. A combination of painting, pencil, and wood burning makes up the finished piece, which is about five metres long and inspired by the Northwest Coast formline style of art. The style is characterized by its use of ovoids and U-shapes.
“One side (of the mural) is very nature-oriented, it moves into the city landscape of Vancouver and Richmond, then into the Fraser River,” says MacKenzie.
It was a proud moment for MacKenzie to be able to make an impact on the school district she grew up in. And she’s also proud of the students, for what they were able to accomplish.
“Every time I worked with them, they got so much done—they set the bar high for the rest of my classes because of how hard they did work and how motivated they are,” she says.
Shelling adds that the in-class focus on Indigenous culture and art practices helped students become aware of their role in reconciliation and recognized the collective importance of things like land acknowledgements. As a result of the unique project, students also learned how to work together, create connections and build acceptance.
“They said you might forget individual projects you did in a class, or things you covered. (But) this piece was a really different type of project—it felt meaningful,” says Shelling. “They felt proud of themselves that they were able to resolve it.”
Hannah Scott, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Richmond Sentinel