David Wilson at the Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art


David Wilson holds a ceremonial deer-skin drum with a painting called Rocky Mountain Buffalo Pass.

Okanagan Nation artist David Wilson holds up a ceremonial deer-hide drum painted with an image of a stylized buffalo that pays homage to the early history of his people.
“It’s about our buffalo,” says Wilson, whose work is showing this month at the Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art. “We hunted buffalo.”
While buffalo never lived in the Okanagan, Wilson is quick to explain that indigenous people used to travel through mountain passes to hunt on the eastern foothills of the Rockies.
“There are mountains here, but they’re not unpassable,” says Wilson, a member of the Okanagan Indian Band. “Rogers Pass – Rogers didn’t discover it. Rogers had a native guide who showed him how to get there. We knew numerous ways to get across the mountains.”
He says Okanagan hunters had to stay close to the Rockies because the Blackfoot on the Prairies were not friendly, but still had no trouble finding game on grassy slopes.
“There were so many buffalo at the time, 60 million buffalo they say, so a lot of them spilled off from the Prairies and moved up to the mountains because there was lots of grass for them. So we’d harvest those buffalo and then come back over the mountains.”
Wilson says an elder told him the story years ago when he wanted to paint a buffalo but didn’t think it was related to the Okanagan history he tries to portray.
“He told me that we not only have buffalo songs, but we have buffalo ceremonies. It was quite a prominent thing.”
After hearing the story, Wilson painted two eagles in the buffalo’s body to symbolize the animal’s high-altitude spirit.
Wilson, who lives in Vernon, has been making art seriously for the last 20 years. He trained with Coastal Salish and Haida artists after moving to Vancouver in the late 1980s, learning traditional techniques.
“When I started, my artwork wasn’t very good,” he says. “It was only stuff your mother would buy.”
Eventually, he began exhibiting his work in galleries. But he never felt right about painting in a style that was not part of his own tradition.
When he returned to the Okanagan in the late 1990s, he looked for a way to develop an Okanagan painting style.
He began working with imagery from local pictographs – ochre rock paintings made before the arrival of Europeans.
His style evolved as a blend of elements adapted from pictographs along with techniques from West Coast native art.
He says coastal art was more developed than in the Okanagan because food was plentiful and people had more leisure time. People here had to spend more time travelling around the Valley to hunt, fish and gather traditional foods.
Wilson says he bases his style on images in books by early anthropologists in the region as pictographs are often on cliffs and other places that are hard to access. They are also fading with the passage of time.
“They’re not so easy to find,” he says.
Like many indigenous people, Wilson sees art as a positive force that fosters a sense of history and accomplishment in the community.
“There’s a lot of pride in the artwork,” he says. “It gives people not only an identity but a pathway to make a living, open up their creativity and revive their culture.”
Much of his early work was painted on drums, but he typically uses canvas now because he is not sure how long acrylic paintings will last on animal hide.
But circles remain a common motif.
“Everything in the world revolves around circles,” he says. “The definition of a circle is no beginning, no end … things seem to go easier when you follow the circle. There’s less resistance.”
Wilson’s work is on display in Vernon at city hall, the performing arts centre and the new hospital tower. He has also shown his work at art galleries in Vernon, Armstrong and Salmon Arm. This is his first solo show in Kelowna.
Wilson says he’s less interested in selling his paintings to private collectors than in exhibiting them in public places where they are accessible to everyone.
“It’s really important that people can see them and pass them on to the next generation.”
To see more of Wilson’s work, check out his website at sookinakinart.ca.

Who: David Wilson
What: Power Comes in a Form of a Circle exhibition
When: Exhibit opens Friday and runs to May 20
Where: Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art, 421 Cawston Ave.
Info: 250-868-2298

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