Giant mural depicts resilience of Indigenous women in B.C. artist's life
Mural part of larger project to beautify Kelowna’s downtown with Indigenous artwork
Sylix artist Sheldon Louis stands next to the Kelowna Gospel Mission shelter, admiring a giant, brightly coloured mural he's painted on the building's side wall.
"It's like I'm planting a flag and saying hey this is our territory, we're still here," he said, referencing the five Indigenous women he's painted in a mix of vibrant orange, pink, and blue.
Louis was selected by a panel to showcase his talent, as part of a project by the Okanagan Indigenous Music and Arts Society to beautify downtown Kelowna, B.C., through a series of public artworks by First Nations artists.
Louis said his mural is meant to convey a "theme around resilience" in depicting three strong women in his life, including two of his relatives, and a prominent member of his Okanagan Indian Band community, all guarded on either end by two bright blue "grandmother spirits."
One of the women wears an orange shirt that says "every child matters," standing just below the phrase "we are medicine." Another kneels and prays as she releases a salmon fry into the water.
Carmen Remple, executive director of the Kelowna Gospel Mission, said she finds the mural "beautiful."
"I was speaking to some of our shelter residents who are Indigenous," she recalled, "[and] they started to share their stories and experiences and what the art means to them."
Remple said the Gospel Mission enthusiastically agreed to being part of the society's project, in part because it aligned well with internal work the mission is doing around truth and reconciliation.
Painting through the threats of wildfire
Louis said painting the mural was a difficult process in the midst of the large wildfires threatening the Okanagan Valley this summer.
While painting another mural downtown in early August, he was notified that the southern part of the Okanagan Indian Band reserve had been put on evacuation order, due to the encroaching White Rock Lake fire.
He said he rushed home, packed his things, and went to join his family who were visiting other family on the coast. It was then that Remple called and asked when he'd be painting the mural, so he agreed to drive back and put himself up in a hotel while he "hammered out" the mural in two weeks.
"[I was] trying to manage emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual parts of myself," he said. "I had to bottle up some of the emotional stuff that I was going through because of the fire, [and] the separation anxiety from family.
Louis said his leadership role on his community's chief and council led him to attend emergency wildfire Zoom meetings while painting the mural.
Now that it's finished, he hopes the mural will show audiences that while "communities from the Okanagan Indian Band to the Westbank First Nation … have been displaced over the years because of government systems ... we're all still here, surviving and alive."
LISTEN | Indigenous artist Sheldon Louis describes his mural:
With files from Dominika Lirette and Daybreak South