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Extended Interview: Q&A With Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

The artist spoke with Scholastic Art about his experiences and inspiration

Important Note: In this extended version of the interview, the artist makes reference to incidents of racism and to the traumatic practice of sending Indigenous children to residential schools. Please be aware that this material may prove triggering and disturbing to students and may lead to a challenging class discussion. 

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas (b. 1954), Naaxin Copper From The Hood, 2013. Car hood, copper leaf, and paint. Photo: Christopher Fadden/Courtesy of the artist.

Compare Yahgulanaas’s Naaxin with the Chilkat robe in the Coastal Customs article

Jack Litrell/Courtesy of the artist.

Artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas considers himself a hybrid. “My name is a blend of a European family name—Nicoll—and a Haida clan name—Yahgulanaas. The fact that I’ve merged these two names together speaks to my hybrid ethnicity and identity. I’m a blend of those two major histories.” The artist believes this applies to all of us, and he uses this idea in his art. “We are complex, we are hybrid, we are diverse.”

Scholastic Art: When did you first know you wanted to be an artist?

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas: I was always inclined to doodle and to draw. Most of my peers left that behind, but I didn’t. I kept drawing because there was comfort and relief in it. I grew up and did a lot of adult-type things, but I was always doodling. When I was about 40 years old, I realized if I don’t draw and paint and be creative now, I probably never will. And so I quit my grown-up job and just started to make artwork. 

SA: How did your childhood influence your work?

MNY: I initially grew up as a young child on an Indian reservation. But Canadian law at that time required people of mixed ancestry to leave the reservation, even if that was our family. So circumstances unfolded and I grew up off the reservation in a small Canadian settlement immediately next to the reservation. I knew that I had the ability to move through some borders that other people had difficulty moving through because my great-grandmother still lived in a large and wonderful house in the Indian reservation. Realizing that I could move back and forth through a wall that prevented most Canadians from entering the reservation gave me a feeling of being somewhat unique. And, most important, I wasn’t forced to go to a residential school. 

SA: What is a residential school?

MNY: A residential school is an institutional school set up by the federal government. In Canada, the government took Native children away from their families to these schools where they lived for the entire year. Teachers isolated the children and did not permit them to speak their Indigenous languages. There were 137 of these schools in Canada, and I believe the last one closed in 1992. The multi-generational impacts of this trauma are expressed today in high incarceration rates, drug and alcohol abuse, and poor parenting. Because I didn’t have to go to residential school, that really underscored the feeling of me being somewhat unusual and even privileged. 

SA: How would you describe your art?

MNY: My artwork is not just about me. The aesthetic of the image is important, but more important is the story inside of it. A lot of my work deals with Haida iconography, a visual language that is quite nuanced. I want to make artwork that is accessible to people who don’t understand those icons. And rather than being afraid of it, they can find an emotional connection to it. It reminds us of how familiar we can be with one another, should we choose to be.

SA: Tell us about your series Copper from the Hood.

MNY: There is a history in this part of the world of people making large copper shields. They represent wealth, immortality, and the power of a name to pass from generation to generation. I thought, what do we use as symbols of wealth today? And it seemed the answer is the automobile. So I decided to make the notions of copper shields accessible to a modern world through the automobile by painting on the hoods. This one is called Naaxin, which is the Haida word for a robe traditionally worn by a chief.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, A Sailing Light, 2016. Paint, ink, and collage on canvas. Photo: Tobyn Ross/Courtesy of Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas.

What do the collage elements add to the narrative in this work?

SA: Tell us about A Sailing Light.

MNY: It is the story of being lost at sea and of discovery. It’s a collage that’s layered with historical documents, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and maps of the Northwest Coast of North America. The beauty of doing a single panel work, not a mural or a comic book, is that it’s easier for me to work in a focused way. I get to go deep and focus in on it. 

SA: What is Haida Manga?

MNY: Haida refers to my clan. Manga is a Japanese term that means pictures without limitations. When I started to do my graphic works, I didn’t want people to think this is just a comic book. I wanted them to understand this is coming from someplace different. And so I coined the term Haida Manga to recognize that.

SA: What are the formal qualities of Haida Manga?

MNY: I use ovoids similar to formlines to structure my Haida Manga works. But I like to use the [term] framelines—instead of formlines—to describe it. On the surface, the ovoids seem to function the same way as a gutter does in most comic book art. Gutters are little rectangles that create empty spaces between the drawings. It’s almost like saying the only important thing about the story is inside the drawing; Everything that’s happening outside is irrelevant. But the world is actually quite different. Each of our stories are inside a panel, but we are influenced by things outside the panel. There is a bigger world beyond our little boxes. When you step back from Haida Manga, you see the framelines influencing what’s happening inside the panels. 

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Carpe Fin Installation, 2018. Watercolor and ink on handmade Japanese paper. Photo by Leonard Gilday/Courtesy of the artist.

SA: What is the relationship between a large Haida Manga work that hangs on the wall at the museum and the related book that students can hold in their hands? 

MNY: When we see a mural on a wall it looms over us. We feel lesser than because it’s so great. That’s a true-life experience, but I want us to also have another experience, holding it in our hands and controlling it. When I take that great mural that’s on the wall and hold it in my hands, I am in control of how I see the world. I can choose the way I react to that which is bigger than me. And that’s the beauty of a book. 

SA: What types of stories do you tell through your artwork?

MNY: I try to tell stories in a way that’s applicable to the life we live today. Tradition is great, but if tradition doesn’t serve the living, it gets in the way of the living. 

Extended interview with Scholastic Art and Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

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