Of the many art projects that he has done, Temosen (Charles Eliott) is most proud of the ‘talking stick’ he made for Nelson Mandela when he visited North America. Temosen was very influenced by his work to eradicate apartheid and work for the rights of the First Nations peoples of South Africa. Temosen’s own family has been very active in fighting for their people’s right and Nelson Mandela’s journey is very inspirational to him. His talking stick was headed with a thunderbird, a representation of the spiritual realm and an orca, to honour physical being. This intersectionality is representative of the life of this artist.
2020 VCLA Winner in the category of Arts & Culture – Temosen “Charles Elliott”
Charles uses the art passed down to him by his ancestors to connect people to his indigenous culture. For more than four decades, he has been creating traditional utilitarian, ceremonial and contemporary Coast Salish designs and works of art.
Through his work, Charles expresses an unwavering commitment to the visual language of his own people. He teaches the history of Coast Salish art in schools and post-secondary institutions throughout the Greater Victoria region and mentors established and emerging artists alike. His style of leadership has allowed him to have conversations about reconciliation between Indigenous nations and faith communities, leading in part to St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Victoria commissioning Charles to carve a new altar. Other commissions include carving The Queen’s Baton for the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria and a talking stick presented to the late Nelson Mandela. Charles is a member of the Order of British Columbia and of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.
Recalling Mandela’s influence in ending apartheid in South Africa, Temosen reflects on the recent news of systemic racism in law enforcement and also Canada’s history with discrimination against its indigenous people. He feels that much of this systemic racism in Canada can be tackled by educating the general public about First Nations people through all levels of schooling. Keeping an open mind and be willing to share in others’ cultures and teachings also go a long way to facilitate lifelong learning.
Temosen has a name steeped in ancient history and culture of the First Nations. It is a name that connects him to his roots. He is deeply connected to his large family with whom he lives in the First Nations village in Saanich territory. This has been his source of constant support, especially during the pandemic. He is the third of eleven children and currently the elder of the family and its chief. Growing up hearing stories from his parents about their lives – his father’s in a long house and his mother’s in a residential school – have shaped his ideas of his history, culture and its importance. His mother nurtured his interest in art as she drew animals and carved whistles from maple tree barks while his father taught him about leadership through his role as the elected chief.
Speaking and carving ... both are language
In his youth, he travelled extensively as part of the Cowichan tribe canoe racing team while living in Duncan. This exposed him to the cultures of other First Nations peoples. This is where he met Cicero August, a fellow paddler on the same team who was a carver and influenced him greatly. Temosen remembers the initial struggle to gain access to art supplies in the days that he started and now boasts of a large carving shed with many antique tools. To him, language, arts and carving are all part of the same fabric of culture - they are intertwined, the design systems that are used are the same.
To Temosen, art is an action – it is what makes culture come alive. Sharing the love of art and its significance will give people a better understanding of the First Nations. He envisions the days when people from across the world will be able to gather at places that house indigenous artefacts, arts and culture and learn from it. He is happy to witness the resurgence of First Nations languages, arts and culture and encourages everyone to learn more about it.
To Temosen, community leadership is leading through example. By sharing stories from the past and understanding and learning with others has helped him to be a better leader. Though he has his fair share of struggles, he did not let any of them turn into major failures. He remembers researching for examples of Coast Salish designs in museums and private collections when started carving as there was not enough indigenous art on display at that time. Now, his art works have graced many public buildings, schools, airports and private collections. He is trying to slow down and is currently working on limited edition prints, usually not more than 100 in an edition.
You can find more of Temosen’s traditional Coast Salish style artwork at The Mary Winspier Centre at Sidney as well as across schools, businesses, the Victoria airport, UVic and the Butchart Gardens as well as in private collections across the island and the rest of the country.
By Chandrima Mazumdar, I write on topics related to leadership, diversity, media and gender equality.
We extend our appreciation to the Victoria Foundation for sponsoring this VCLA award