Kwantlen Artists Brighten Doors, Educate Students

January 5, 2023

A partnership long in the works between Kwantlen First Nation artists and students at Langley Fine Arts School is finally underway and brightening the exterior of the Fort Langley school. 

Late last fall, Coast Salish artist Miməwqθelət (Elinor Atkins), with help from her brothers and her mother, q̓ʷɑti̓cɑ (Phyllis Atkins), has led a collaborative project that, when completed, will see a dozen doors and two pillars at the school painted with murals done in a traditional style, featuring imagery that is important to Kwantlen First Nation.  

For Miməwqθelət, whose name means “the first bird to sing in the morning,” the project has been something that she’s been excited about ever since the idea first started percolating three years ago, a few years after graduating from LFAS in 2016. 

“It feels amazing,” she said.  

“I was an art major here at the school and I always kind of wanted the school to be painted, and to be colourful and feel more like an arts school on the outside at least. 

“Inside, you always hear music and everything so it does feel very much like an arts school, but the outside was quite plain, so it was always kind of a dream of mine, and it feels like very full circle that I get to come back and interact with the kids, and put our mark as Kwantlen people on this school, as well.”  

Before she and her family members began to design and paint the murals, they collaborated with young Fine Arts students, who, after learning about local animals and plant life, shared their own ideas with Miməwqθelət.  

“They drew their own little draft drawings that I got to look at. Then for my designs, I took reference from their drawings and influence from their ideas, and then put that into my work so they can see it on the school,” she explained.  

Student influence can be found in a mural of hummingbirds that is to be painted on one door.  

“One of the little girls, she put pink clouds in the background (of her drawing), so I took influence from that. And they had little yellow and turquoise hummingbirds, so I used those colours. And I asked the students who were walking by while I was painting what they’d like to see in the paintings, and what colours they wanted. So they wanted a blue and yellow flower, so I put that into the hummingbird door.”  

Other images that will be part of the soon-to-be-completed project include the raven, who Miməwqθelət describes as the Trickster that also represents intelligence; the heron, which represents “staying on the right path” as well as the idea that “self-reflection is good,”; the moon, which represents “truth and intuition”; the sun and moon, which are part of the Creation story; and the wolf, which is the “clan animal” of Kwantlen First Nation.   

Both the wolf, and another image of the grizzly bear, “represent where we are from,” said q̓ʷɑti̓cɑ. 

“We wanted to honour our family line here on our traditional unceded territory,” q̓ʷɑti̓cɑ said.  

As well, two pillars at the front entrance of the school will be painted with sturgeon, which also represent Kwantlen First Nation.  

“It was important for us also because Kwantlen is largely a fishing community. Our people have been fishing for generations,” q̓ʷɑti̓cɑ continued.  

For Miməwqθelət, adding Indigenous imagery to the school is about more than just brightening up the school’s exterior. She hopes that, when completed, the murals will serve as “a teaching wall, so that the kids can come and learn the stories that go behind each animal.” 

“I want Indigenous students and urban Indigenous students to feel like it’s a safe space for them, and (for them to) feel represented here at the school. It’s truly a wonderful thing that we’re able to put our mark on the school and have those young Indigenous students come and see a part of them on the school, as well,” she explained. 

“And non-Indigenous people, as well. I think it’s important to know the history of the land that we’re on and have a better understanding of our art and who we are as a people.”