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From murals to coins to kiosk, this artist’s work is all around us

At the Victoria unveiling of her seventh coin for the Royal Canadian Mint, it quickly became clear that coin design is just one of many projects that local artist Darlene Gait is signed up for.
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Artist Darlene Gait unveils her silver coin featuring four salmon on a holographic background.

At the Victoria unveiling of her seventh coin for the Royal Canadian Mint, it quickly became clear that coin design is just one of many projects that local artist Darlene Gait is signed up for.

This summer, Gait has put her personal art on hold to work on book illustrations, public murals and a kiosk. She also has a one-year-old daughter and two stepchildren to raise, as well as her own wedding to plan.

“The more I say it out loud, I can’t believe I’m saying it. It sounds insane. But I keep it together,” she said.

The secret? “Lots of meditation,” she said. “Wine helps.”

Gait, a member of the Esquimalt Nation who lives on Orcas Island, was at the Yates Street Canada Post on Friday to sign her latest work: a half-ounce silver coin, featuring four red and black salmon on a holographic background.

The salmon converge at the centre of a circle with clusters of roe between them, alluding to the salmon’s life cycle.

Though printed with “10 dollars,” the coin retails for $74.95. (The face value is intentionally lower than the retail value so as to discourage circulation, mint spokesman Alex Reeves said.)

On Wednesday, the mint released another of Gait’s coins, retailing for $12,000. The $500, five-ounce pure gold coin tells the legend of the spirit bear. Only 50 were released.

George Nagy, Victoria’s Canada Post retail business manager, said coins with local connections are especially popular in Victoria, citing the Alice Munro coin released in March as an example. “It was big around the country, but we sold out in Victoria,” Nagy said.

Gait said the mint approached her about a year and a half ago to design her first coin. “Every time I submitted one, they asked me to do another,” she said.

The process of designing a coin — or working on any public project — requires more revisions and negotiation than the art you make for yourself, she said. “It’s really hard sometimes when you’re working with a group of people, because they all have different ideas about what they want.”

For the coins, it means submitting concept drawings, rough drafts and a final version.

Gait went through a similar process with the kiosk she is working on for the Capital Regional District, located at the Craigflower Bridge. Other collaborations include photo-realistic illustrations for Sandstone Signs, set to be released by Orca Publishing in September, and the Unity Wall mural at Ogden Point. The five-year mural project involved mentoring young artists alongside Songhees artist Butch Dick.

Gait is also working on a mural for B.C. Hydro that will be installed in downtown Victoria in November.

“It’s about healing, using all the traditional plants from our nation,” she said. “It brings [passersby] right into the forest, in the middle of the city.”

Despite the hectic pace, Gait doesn’t plan to slow down. “I love art. [I do it] for the sake of my nation, for the sake of my mom, my grandmother, for the sake of my daughter and her future.”

Gait added, “I think art is the most important thing in life. The more I think about it, the more I believe it.”

asmart@timescolonist.com