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Okanagan Indian Band artist grew up asking 'where is our art?'

David Wilson stands in front of his work displayed at the Kelowna airport.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED: David Wilson

When Okanagan Indian Band member David Wilson was growing up he didn't see Indigenous art around him.

"I was always looking for our art," he said. "I also remember asking, 'where is our art?'"

With the exception of the odd anthropology book sitting on a dusty shelf in the library, as a child growing up in the late sixties, Wilson saw no representation of Indigenous art from the Interior.

Now, decades later, the 60-year-old artist's paintings are hanging in roughly a dozen schools in the Okanagan.

Anyone who took a flight from Kelowna Airport in 2019 will have seen his bright and vivid paintings adorning the walls as they headed through security. He also has multiple paintings hanging in the Vernon Jubilee Hospital as well as one at the Vernon and District Performing Arts Centre and the Kelowna Community Theatre.

Wilson's work is also displayed at UBCO, and the university is using a part of his work in an Indigenous studies class at the school.

It's all quite the achievement, especially considering that Wilson didn't pick up a paintbrush until he was 27.

'An eye into Indigenous connections to the land.' David Wilson
'An eye into Indigenous connections to the land.' David Wilson
Image Credit: FACEBOOK/David Wilson

When he heads to local schools to teach art classes he sees his works on the walls.

"It makes me feel like I've kind of come full circle. When I was a kid I was looking for art, our art, and now after 50 years almost I can go into these schools and I can see our art," he said. "What I wanted actually came true."

Wilson, who lives in Vernon and paints under the pseudonym Sookinakin, describes his work as "contemporary versions of ancient pictographs."

He said people have described it as "native pop art" and he'll take the compliment, but his work seems more unique and sophisticated than that.

Image Credit: FACEBOOK/David Wilson

While Wilson grew up in a society where Interior Indigenous art wasn't visible, one exception was the Okanagan Indian Band logo – a contemporary interpretation of a pictograph porcupine created by Okanagan Indian Band member Barry Brewer and still used to this day.

"That kind of gave me a... confidence, a belief that our art was there," he said. "I'd found it."

Wilson said he was always interested in finding culture through art which led him to find a book about pictographs at the Greater Vernon Museum and Archives sometime in the 1970s.

"I saw the artwork, I went back numerous times just to have a look at it but at that time I didn't know what to do, I had no artistic skills," Wilson said.

So in his early 20s, he headed to Vancouver to study at the Native Education Centre.

'Spirit of moose lake' David Wilson
'Spirit of moose lake' David Wilson
Image Credit: FACEBOOK/David Wilson

He met other Indigenous artists and was mentored by Coast Salish and Haida Gwaii artists. As Wilson became a competent painter and artist, the question always remained.

Where was the Interior Salish art?

"That art form is not complete here," he said.

Wilson said while West Coast art is well-established and has been passed on for generations, the same isn't true for Indigenous art in the Interior. Without that historical connection, Wilson's art has followed a different path in its development.

"I've had to use my imagination... it took awhile for me to become comfortable," he said. "It's one of a kind, nobody else had done it before, not the way I've done it anyway."

Wilson had been scheduled to display work at the Canadian Consulate in Los Angeles for an exhibit on reconciliation, but the pandemic but the plan on hold.

Image Credit: FACEBOOK/David Wilson

He admits he doesn't sell a lot, "being an artist is a struggle" he says.

But he has achieved a lot with his art.

"It means a lot to be in terms of being a Salish person, our art is now here, it informs everybody of who we are, it allows us to tell our story," he said. "There was a time not long ago when I was a kid and I was 10 years old and there was no art, now there is, so we're making headway. We may not get what we want right now, but we're being allowed to tell our story now... specifically from our point of view."

For more information about David Wilson's artwork go here.

Not all artwork gets hung up on the wall. Denman and Davie Street, Vancouver.
Not all artwork gets hung up on the wall. Denman and Davie Street, Vancouver.
Image Credit: FACEBOOK/David Wilson

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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