Absoriginal arts take centre stage 

Artists from Lil’wat Nation to design permanent pieces for two of Whistler’s 2010 venues


Under a blazing early summer sun, cedar wood chips fly into the air at the Mount Currie reserve, releasing a rich, clean scent into a warm breeze. The chips aren't flying fast and furious, but at a steady pace at the hands of carver Jonathan Joe and under the watchful gaze of artist Johnnie Abraham.

The two members of the Lil'wat Nation are hard at work crafting pieces for the Whistler Olympic Park and the new athletic centre at Cheakamus Crossing.

They're just two of the artists who have been selected to participate in the $2-million Aboriginal Art at Venue project for VANOC - a far-reaching program that includes unique, cross-disciplined welcome pieces from the Four Host First Nations groups to be placed at each of the 15 Paralympic and Olympic venues, plus plans for textile pieces, established and emerging artists' works and youth mentorship opportunities. Collectively, the project is designed to showcase the diversity of Canadian Aboriginal artwork.

Connie Watts, a B.C.-based mixed-media artist of Nuu-chah-nulth, Gitxsan and Kwakwaka'wakw ancestry, is managing the program.

"It's a dream, it's a real dream to be able to be part of a process that is so inclusive to Canada," she said.

VANOC issued a call for artists last spring, which garnered a wealth of applications from across the country. Now, officials are still in the midst of the artist selection process.

"We're still moving forward," Watts explained, "We're still responding and processing the (requests for proposals) and adjudicating a lot of the works."

The program is a both chance for individual artists like Joe and Abraham to raise their profiles and gain international exposure, while simultaneously uniting the country's Aboriginal community.

"They'll represent Canadian history as it is," Watts said. "It's remarkable to be part of something that has a huge world lens on it and that Canadian history as a whole is Aboriginal history, and I think we're embracing that fact.

"The process is exciting and I think the number of artists that will be affected across Canada will be just remarkable."

The pieces will also be left in place at each of the venues after the Games.

"Its part of the venue build - the venues are legacy, these art pieces will also be legacy so they're all targeted to be permanent works," said Watts.

An added side-benefit of this project - another less tangible legacy - has been an updated, comprehensive national database of Aboriginal artists.

For Joe and Abraham, their involvement in the Aboriginal Art at Venue program is truly a matter of pride. Their decision to apply was motivated by a desire to restore a sense of pride in their culture and tradition, and to give the thousands of international Games visitors inspiration and a sense of understanding of the Lil'wat culture and heritage.

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