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Forest I, forest person

A contemporary take on colonization, urban sprawl and the concept of trash at the SLCC

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Visitors to the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre have been able to admire the collection of traditional Lil'wat and Squamish canoes, each made from a single old-growth cedar. But a newer, slightly more modern mode of transportation has taken up residence in the SLCC: a 1956 Nash Metropolitan.

This isn't your conventional vintage vehicle, though. The full-sized automobile has been entirely covered in plaited cedar bark, which was salvaged from urban forests that were cut for condo developments. It's adorned with wool-woven motifs, while the interior has been decoupaged and reupholstered. An artistic statement, if you will, that begs observers to reflect on the way we live in our shared environments.

"Everything's always evolving, and different projects start another one and another one: they're all linked," said annie ross, the artist behind the impressive piece, dubbed Forest Person.

ross chooses to spell her name in lowercase: "The short answer is I don't like how people use artificial barriers to create distance between ourselves as human beings. Wealth, or status, or race, or religion, or ethnicity, or degrees, titles: I hate all of that! They're artificial and they're, many times, meaningless, in the grand scheme of things. But people use them and they beat other people over the head with them. I don't like it, and I reject that, and I don't let anyone call me 'Doctor' or 'Professor' - it's just 'annie.'"

She is on faculty at Simon Fraser University's First Nations Studies program, teaching a range of courses, including the General Introduction to First Nations for first-year students, as well as a variety of research, visual arts and discourse classes. These include printmaking and indigenous poetry and poetics, environmental justice with a hands-on bookmaking component, and a technologies course that examines ecosystem viability and crafts.

Originally from South Central Los Angeles, ross's mother was a full-blooded Maya and her paternal genealogical line is Cherokee, unenrolled. She has worked with First Nations across North America since the early '80s, when she began doing oral history work.

"What was interesting to me was how easy it was and is to go into other Aboriginal communities; so many of these things are generally the same."

ross began basket weaving and exploring other traditional art forms as a child.

"Growing up, before I was in kindergarten, my sisters and I were embroidering and weaving and drawing," she recalled. Storytelling was also a huge aspect of her childhood, which has informed her own writing and poetry.

"I just assumed that everyone did that, and maybe there was a time when they did! We were just the so-called 'primitives,' people hanging on to stuff like that.

"It wasn't until I was an adult that I started thinking of it in terms of Mayan cultural forms. But we're weavers, textile weavers," she explained.

"Everyone in the world has twining and twilling - everyone that does weaving ­- in different forms. And there are real fascinating tricks and once you get into it, it's very exciting to see the differences and the similarities," she said, adding that regional variations include design, colour, material, technique and styles.

Her latest project, Forest Person, was born out of a small series that ross started in 2004: she wove "fancy clothes" for found objects - a collection of in-tact and broken knick-knacks that she scavenged from the trash and thrift stores.

"That series is called Happy Birthday Super Cheaper, and it's like 40 different animals," she recalled. "It's named after a gas station in Northern California."

That gas station mini mart was "a wacky place" filled with papier-mâché life-sized elephants, tigers and giraffes wearing party hats. But the Super Cheaper was eventually torn down to make way for a chain gas station, and the animals ended up in the landfill.

"So the Happy Birthday Super Cheaper was about how labour and just one person sitting silently alone takes trash, and now suddenly it's a special item. And that's the lesson for everyone: it's our work that's a transformative act for everything on the planet."

She decided to carry that message forward with Forest Person when she saw that SFU was cutting down cedar trees to make way for condo developments.

"I wanted to reuse the bark and make something out of them," she recalled.

"I was driven, then, to take these beautiful materials that were just lying on the ground, waiting for the haulers to pick them up, and make something out of them!"

She began making woven bottle holders and cracker boxes, but soon the idea of weaving the car came to her in a dream. The car, she explained, symbolizes industrialization and modernization.

"I love the car, I love my car - everyone loves their car - it helps us so much to do so many things. But now the car is disappearing because of fossil fuels, and the price of the car is too high," ross reflected. "...So we have to just use it in a different way, so what comes after the car?"

She selected the sturdy, steel Nash Metropolitan as the canvas for this project, covering it in the salvaged bark and images of the sasquatch, sturgeon, camus root, whale, double-headed wind serpent, frog, owl, butterfly, lightning, rain and a lake ­- objects that have helped sustain people over the years, things that aren't in danger of disappearing.

ross began collecting bark in 2004 and worked with an assistant, graphic design student Jenni Tiles, to complete the piece in her own living room. The salvaged bark was stripped, pounded and measured, then woven, with the woolen motifs integrated onto the surface.

SFU allowed her to focus her energy and attention on this project, while the Government of Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Creation grants have helped cover the cost of materials, shipping and transportation.

"One thing I'm grateful to SFU for is that there's time enough to do research creation," she said. "And they're very generous that way, and I have to thank them for that opportunity."

Forest Person was welcomed to the SLCC during an official blessing ceremony held late last week, with Squamish Chief Janice George. It was also the first time ross had visited the facility.

"It's amazing! I've been to a lot of cultural centres, and it's breathtaking! It's so beautiful and I love how they have their ambassador program with their young adults and that they have the elders involved, because those are two groups of people that often get ignored."

Forest Person will remain on display at the SLCC in Whistler until March. ross hopes people come away from the piece with a renewed feeling of love and connection with the natural world.