Indigenous artist John Marston in his Chemainus studio.The painting behind him is by his friend, Ladysmith artist Dennis Brown. In front of him are architectural plans for new artist studios in Ladysmith that he is helping to design. Don Denton photo.

Rising from the storm

Stz’uminus artist John Marston

  • Sep. 28, 2022 7:30 a.m.

– Words by Sean McIntyre Photography by Don Denton

Clichés about weathering the storm and emerging stronger are commonplace, but most are supposed to be metaphors about grinding away through adversity and overcoming obstacles. Few, if any, are about actually picking up the pieces after a devastating windstorm.

Four years ago, Stz’uminus carver John Marston was enjoying the rewards of a lifetime devoted to leaving his mark on a cultural tradition that stretches back thousands of years. BC Ferries had just commissioned him to design the exterior artwork on a brand new ferry dubbed the Salish Eagle, he was working with high school students in Ladysmith to complete a welcome statue hewn from a 14-foot-long piece of Vancouver Island old growth red cedar, and he’d reached the point in his artistic career where he’d developed the confidence, skill and creativity to proudly represent the modern edge of an ancient art.

Then the storm hit.

The winds that swept across much of Southern Vancouver Island in December 2018 left tens of thousands of households without power for days, uprooted countless ancient trees and brought life on the island to a standstill. At John’s Ladysmith studio, housed in a spacious 1930s-era heritage warehouse near the town’s waterfront, the wind quite literally tore off the roof.

“I got to my studio and there was a whole crew outside saying, ‘You can’t go in there.’ And I wasn’t sure what they were talking about,” John says. “Then I opened the door, and it was like a waterfall coming off the roof and into the studio, so I just ran in there and pushed everything off to the side and grabbed my immediate projects, my knives and whatever else I could find.”

The event was far more than a minor inconvenience. Within his studio were dozens of projects, large and small, on which John had been working. There were giant canoes, lofty totems, ceremonial cedar boxes, abstract canvas watercolours, woven works and stacks of collected material—items such as raw wood, antlers, shells, bark and kelp—that John had gathered on his frequent journeys through the forests and into the hills outside of town. Having all of these easily accessible within a single room gave him the opportunity to work away on any given project, depending on how, when and where inspiration struck.

“I went from 4,000 square feet to 400, so it was challenging in the beginning. The amount of raw material that I had gathered over the years was a really difficult thing to deal with losing,” he says. “I’d spent four years in that building, creating and working and living there, and so it was a home away from home. I always think of the studio space as a place of living, learning and growing. It was a great place to be and a great experience to learn about what it’s like to have a studio that large.”

Long after cleaning up the storm’s aftermath, John is no less busy and definitely no less inspired. He’s swapped his former studio space for a spot at his home in nearby Chemainus, where he lives with his partner and three children. Though it’s small, John has taken every effort to establish a new creative sanctuary. He’s framed the room with many of the same carved materials that he uses in his work. Whatever materials he cannot fit into the new studio are nearby, tucked away inside a shipping container.

Since the move, John has been been involved in several large-scale public works, including the new Malahat SkyWalk attraction overlooking Saanich Inlet, a space for cultural learning and exchange at Ladysmith Secondary and work with Victoria-based Power to Be—a group dedicated to helping people living with a disability or other barriers to access nature. He’s also an active part of the team that’s been tasked to redesign a new arts hub in Ladysmith, a venue that aims to offer space under a single roof for artists working in various media.

Back at his new home studio, John continues to blend the abstract with tradition to create works for private collectors, whose demand for his artwork has grown remarkably in recent years.

His kids are always nearby and can now more easily watch him work, in the same way John gleaned the techniques of his craft from the people around him in his childhood. At eight years of age, he was in the habit of watching and learning from his elders. He gleaned the techniques of his craft from his parents, Jane and David Marston, as well as from Cowichan Tribes’ master carver Simon Charlie.

As for his own children, John says there’s no pressure for them to follow in his footsteps.

John’s techniques and perspectives grew among the rich pool of talent that surrounded him. As he absorbed the ways of his mentors, he witnessed Indigenous carving take an entirely new shape around him. Duncan’s City of Totems project, for example, placed Vancouver Island’s carving heritage at the forefront of the public eye. The Indigenous traditions of Vancouver Island were experiencing a resurgence that empowered local First Nations and promoted a deeper understanding of the region’s past.

John was in the right place at the right time. He was soon carving alongside artists from across British Columbia at Thunderbird Park next to Victoria’s Royal BC Museum, where he spent four years, the last of which was as an artist in residence.

John’s work gradually adopted a more personal tone, he says. Though firmly based in the teachings and techniques of his elders, the emerging carver gave his imagination free rein. Eventually, he began to experiment, leaving the old ways and branching off into new areas. The result is a carving style that embraces modern-day spiritual expression while acknowledging old-world legends.

“The connection to my Coast Salish culture and the natural world have always taught me to honour the lives of my ancestors,” he says. “I view my artwork as a form of personal expression and a way to share my heritage.”

More information about John Marston and his work can be found at johnmarston.ca.

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication

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