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Photo of man luging, students wearing woven animal masks, and a skateboard artist

Generation Next

How do these artists share their heritage with contemporary audiences?

How do these artists share their cultures with modern audiences?

The three artists featured on this page aim to honor tradition while also relating to contemporary life in their work. After studying under master artists within their Indigenous Nations, each has become a master in his or her own right. They create art that incorporates iconography from their Indigenous cultures while educating and inspiring audiences around the world. 

How do you create art that honors tradition but also relates to life today? The three artists featured on this page studied under master artists from their Indigenous Nations. Now they have become master artists themselves. They use iconography from their Native cultures. They educate and inspire audiences around the world.

Top and bottom: Phil Gray (b. 1983), Olympic Skeleton Helmet, 2010. Ricardo Mazalan/AP Images.

Phil Gray uses formline in his design for an Olympic skeleton racer’s helmet. How does Gray’s helmet share Indigenous culture with the world?

Showing Spirit

As a child, Phil Gray knew he wanted to be an artist. And at age 15, after helping Salish (SAY-lish) artist Gerry Sheena carve a totem pole, Gray knew exactly what kind of artist he wanted to be—one who brings traditional Indigenous art into the contemporary world. To achieve his goal, Gray, who is Tsimshian (SIM-shee-un) and Cree (kree), apprenticed under Sheena and learned from other First Nations artists and tribal elders.

Now Gray is known for his three-dimensional works, including boxes, masks, totem poles, and carved wood panels. He says his work has a “very traditional base.” But Gray’s most visible design is two-dimensional and appears on a helmet created for Canadian skeleton racer Jon Montgomery, shown in action above. Using formline, Gray painted a turtle and a thunderbird on the helmet. “I thought it was fitting to pay respect to the First Nations people,” Montgomery explains. Audiences around the world saw the helmet when Montgomery raced in the 2010 Olympics—and won the gold medal! 

Phil Gray has Tsimshian (SIM-shee-an) and Cree (kree) heritage. When he was 15, he helped Salish (SAY-lish) artist Gerry Sheena carve a totem pole. After that, Gray knew he wanted to bring traditional Indigenous art into the modern world. To achieve his goal, he studied with Sheena and other First Native artists.

Today Gray is known for his three-dimensional boxes, masks, totem poles, and carved wood panels. He says these works have a “very traditional base.” But Gray’s most known design is two-dimensional. It appears on a helmet he made for Canadian athlete Jon Montgomery, shown in action above. Gray painted a turtle and thunderbird on the top of the helmet using formline style. People around the world saw the helmet when Montgomery raced in the 2010 Olympics. He won the gold medal!

KC Hall (Heiltsuk) (b. 1986), The Spirit Raven’s Struggle-Skate Deck, 2019. Spray paint, acrylic, and wood. Courtesy of the Lattimer Gallery; KC Hall (Heiltsuk), Nula-Skate Deck, 2019. Spray paint, acrylic, and wood. Courtesy of the Lattimer Gallery

How does Hall connect his heritage and his personal interests?

Referencing the Raven

KC Hall, of the Heiltsuk (HEL-sihk) Nation, shown above, was a graffiti artist in high school. But his growing concerns about getting into trouble for making street art led him to attend art school at the Native Education College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Hall studied under Robert Tait, a renowned Nisga’a (NIS-gah) artist whom Hall later described as a “tough teacher.” For one project, only 10 of the 50 ovoids Hall drew were met with approval by Tait.

Today, Hall expertly combines ovoids with his graffiti sensibilities. He also includes references to the Raven—a character common in Indigenous folklore and a symbol in his family’s crest. Notice how the Raven’s eye repeats in his skate decks shown above. 

Hall works quickly with paint pens, playing with the tension he observes between First Nations traditions and today’s urban, digital world. “I’m not just trying to find one contemporary style and stay with it,” he explains. “My mind doesn’t seem to want to work that way. It always wants to switch it up or do something different.”

KC Hall, above, is from the Heiltsuk (HEL-sihk) Nation. He was a graffiti artist in high school. He worried about getting into trouble for his street art. He attended art school at the Native Education College in Vancouver, British Columbia. A famous Nisga’a (NIS-gah) artist named Robert Tait taught Hall. Hall later described Tait as a “tough teacher.” For one project, Hall drew 50 ovoids—and Tait only approved 10 of them!

Today, Hall combines ovoids with his graffiti style. He often references the Raven—a common character in Indigenous storytelling. Hall designed the skateboard decks shown above. He repeats the Raven’s eye in the pattern. 

Hall works with paint pens. He is interested in the connections and challenges between First Nations traditions and today’s digital world. “I’m not just trying to find one contemporary style and stay with it,” he explains. “My mind doesn’t seem to want to work that way. It always wants to switch it up or do something different.”

KC Hall portrait: Rochelle Baker/National Observer; Lily Hope weaving: Sydney Akagi Photography; Lily Hope (b. 1983), Two Masks. Photo: Sydney Akagi Photography.

How do Hope’s masks create a record of a modern-day event?

Recording History

Tlingit (KLING-kuht) artist Lily Hope, above right, learned Chilkat (CHIL-kat) weaving from her mother, Clarissa Rizal, a master weaver. This Northwest Coast style of weaving, which developed hundreds of years ago, is done by hand and is extremely complex. Weaving a ceremonial robe can take years. The final design often serves as a visual record of historical events shared orally on ceremonial occasions. Hope is one of a growing number of Indigenous weavers who has the knowledge and skills to create these traditional works today.

When Covid-19 began to spread around the world, Hope was inspired to weave a different type of historical record—masks, like the ones shown above left. “It was so intense to weave [them] on my floor with my children around me,” Hope recalls. “It was a lot.” Hope quotes her aunt when explaining her goal: “The mask serves to record that we took care of each other during this time.”

Lily Hope, above right, is a Tlingit artist. She learned Chilkat (CHIL-kat) weaving from her mother, an expert weaver named Clarissa Rizal. Northwest Coast people created this style of weaving hundreds of years ago. Weavers work by hand creating extremely complex designs. It could take an artist years to weave a ceremonial robe. The final design is often a historical record of events. Hope is just one of a growing number of traditional Indigenous weavers today. 

When Covid-19 began to spread around the world, Hope weaved something different to capture the times. She created masks, like the ones shown above left. “It was so intense to weave [them] on my floor with my children around me,” she remembers. “It was a lot.” A quote from Hope’s aunt helped the artist explain her goal: “The mask serves to record that we took care of each other during this time,” she says.

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