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Island artist finds unorthodox canvases in car hoods

“I admire the aerodynamic beauty and engineering and aesthetic that goes into building cars,” says Nicoll Yahgulanaas Yahgulanaas, whose Madrona Gallery show opens Nov. 5. “They are remarkable shapes.”


Where: Madrona Gallery, 606 View St.

When: Nov. 5-18

The hood of a car, unremarkable though it may be, serves a very distinct purpose — which is to provide protective cover for the automobile engine therein.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, however, sees past the pure functionality of the hood. The visual artist, who was born in Prince Rupert but raised in Masset, Haida Gwaii, revels in the vast artistic potential of these inanimate objects, and turns them into unorthodox canvasses.

“I admire the aerodynamic beauty and engineering and aesthetic that goes into building cars,” Yahgulanaas said. “They are remarkable shapes.”

Bowen Island-based Yahgulanaas will have several new car-hood creations on display and for sale this month at his solo Madrona Gallery exhibition, which opens Nov. 5 and runs through Nov. 18.

Yahgulanaas will be in attendance for an opening reception from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, and said he’s eagerly anticipating what amounts to his city debut.

“I haven’t really had a presence in Victoria in terms of a gallery exhibit,” he said. “But Victoria has always been really nice to me.”

He began painting car parts 15 years ago. One early Vancouver exhibit included reconstituted Dodge, Chevrolet, and Plymouth car hoods, in addition to a gutted and fully painted Pontiac Firefly, which Yahgulanaas topped with a cedar canoe by Haida artist Bill Reid. Yahgulanaas later moved on to Toyota hoods, Volvo sunroofs and various gas tank caps, the latter of which will be featured at the Madrona Gallery.

He also crafted a unique set of paintings for his inaugural dip into the market, including his first-ever oil painting, Big Oil. Like many in the upcoming exhibit, Big Oil is a mixed media creation — a hybrid, Yahgulanaas said with a laugh, adding to the ongoing automotive theme.

A trio of interesting pieces in the exhibit are mixed media collages which use ledger paper from the 1920s made from cotton and linen fibres. The asking price for each is $10,000, well below the car hoods priced at $32,000. That was by design, Yahgulanaas said. “Those prices were set with Victoria specifically in mind.” His hope is that they remain in the personal collection of someone who lives in Victoria.

The artist has a longstanding relationship with the city, dating back to the 1960s. Many of his family and friends are based here, and his 2019 collaboration with Pacific Opera Victoria, which saw the company adapt the children’s book he co-created, Flight of the Hummingbird, into a widely performed chamber opera, remains one of his career highlights.

He also taught at the University of Victoria, where he was named UVic’s second Audain Professor in Contemporary Art Practice of the Pacific Northwest, and was commissioned to paint a mural for the Royal B.C. Museum.

“When I was a young kid, my grandfather, who was Scottish by birth, would take this little half-breed kid from a small fishing village off the coast of Canada to Victoria, and I would think: ‘Oh my god, this is a city!’ ” Yahgulanaas said. “It was amazing, because that was my first introduction to comic books.”

Yahgulanaas is known in many corners of the world for his distinctive fusion of Haida imagery and manga, or Japanese graphic novels.

His work in this area has led to high-profile exposure in London’s British Museum and the Manga Museum in Kawasaki, Japan, among other institutions. In 2017, he became the first living contemporary Canadian Indigenous artist to have his work displayed at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

That he has topped such lofty career peaks from the comfort of Bowen Island is impressive. Though he does most of his creative work from two studios in Vancouver — he likes the separation from his primary residence such a set-up provides — Yahgulanaas remains a proud islander. It appeals to his outsider personality, which carries proudly into the international art world.

“I’m not particularly interested in staying inside the well-trodden path. I don’t want use classic watercolours or acrylics or oils or totem poles, I want to do things that mix it up. Things which are about hybridity and diversity, which are much underappreciated. That’s the fertile area. That is what keep it exciting and innovative.”

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