This story originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. See the story in print here:
By Alexis Welch
Painting through extinction
In a few weeks, three new contemporary art commissions will take over the unassuming walls of Revelstoke’s downtown alleyways. One of the artworks, titled Coming Home, features a local artist who has never set foot in Revelstoke. Ric Gendron is a member of the Sinixt nation whose ancestors are widely accepted as the first inhabitants of this land. However, until recently, the Sinixt were declared extinct by the Canadian government. For this commission, Gendron has created two giant diptychs, both densely populated by Sinixt faces past and present. These vibrant and figurative works boldly reestablish the Sinixt’s deep connection to this region, reinforcing that, yes, they most definitely exist.
This curation is the first public piece of Sinixt-made artwork displayed in Revelstoke. “We knew we wanted one of the Art Alleries this year to be Indigenous,” says Miriam Manley, Artistic and Executive Director of Arts Revelstoke. “It was important to us that it was Indigenous art of people native to this land. The LUNA selection committee all liked Ric’s work and unanimously agreed to feature him.” Arts Revelstoke’s only request was for Gendron to focus on portraiture to complement Rob Buchanan’s Contemporary Landscape Art Allery located across the alleyway.
“What he came back with, which is so fascinating, speaks so much to Revelstoke Sinixt history,” comments Manley. Across the four large panels, gaze thirteen Sinixt figures. Many of them have historical significance to this region, such as Chief Edward, one of the last Sinixt hereditary chiefs. Some of the others are Gendron’s relatives. “The man with the green jacket and hat, that’s my grandfather: Julius Little Alec. I also snuck in a picture of my mom and dad on their wedding day. And to make things even worse, or better, however you want to think about it, I even snuck myself in there when I was in Kindergarten in the far bottom corner,” chuckles Gendron.
The entire work is draped in bright colours, a signature of Gendron’s style and the acrylics that he uses. Early in his career, Gendron avoided acrylics, thinking they were reserved for advertisements, but a friend convinced him otherwise. He began to fall in love with the medium and its vibrancy, leading to experimentation and manipulation of colours. This change resulted in more and more paintings outside of the box.
When asked about how he started painting, Gendron responds, “You know, I just started like every other kid. Every kid is an artist until someone tells you, ‘You’re not an artist,’ then you’re not. But I have never really listened to people.” This nature drew him towards the works of other unruly painters. Matisse and Van Gogh were inspirations in his early work, particularly their use of bright, gaudy colours. Then he became intrigued by Indigenous artists such as Fritz Scholder and TC Cannon. “At the time Native artists were expected to stay in the ‘Western Art’ and ‘Cowboy Art’ genre, these artists refused to be put in that box. I have always been pretty rebellious, and I thought ‘I want to do that too’,” states Gendron.
Many of these themes are seen within Coming Home. A number of the figures wear what would be considered by some “nontraditional” Indigenous dress, such as bow ties and dress shirts. Gendron remarks, “A lot of people still think our people are living in the past. We have had questions like ‘Can you leave the reservation?’ or ‘You don’t have to work because the government supplies everything for you and gives you money, [right]?'”. These stereotypes disregard the realities of thousands of contemporary Indigenous populations across North America.
In the lower left-hand corner of the painting, one can see the details of a small sweat lodge. The sweat lodge still plays a big part in many Indigenous lives, including Gendron’s, who has been attending for around 52 years. It is important to remember that “There was a time where that was all outlawed—ceremony, languages, regalia, everything. I mean, both the [Canadian and the United States] governments tried to totally do away with Native people.” The sweat lodge was on the list of illegal practices until the 1970s, with many Indigenous peoples getting locked up for simply trying to practice their beliefs. “It is just crazy, this history most of the world doesn’t even know about,” says Gendron. “I’m not trying to make any political statements even though I do. It’s just who I am. It’s just how my life is, you know?”
On his father’s side, both of Gendron’s grandparents were Sinixt, Indigenous Peoples whose traditional territory spanned from the northern region of Washington up to Revelstoke. The Sinixt would travel north each summer, making use of the Sn̓x̌ʷn̓tkʷítkʷ (the Columbia River) with their sturgeon-nosed canoes. In the late 19th century, the Sinixt were pushed off their land by colonial settlers, with many ending up at the Colville Reservation in Washington State. Furthermore, in 1956 the Canadian government declared the Sinixt extinct even though hundreds of descendants still lived south of the border.
After many years of hard-fought legal battles, the declaration of extinction was revoked this April by the Supreme Court of Canada as part of the Desautel decision. Although Arts Revelstoke chose to include Gendron’s artwork for Art Alleries months before this outcome, the results of these court cases make this commission feel even more impactful for the community of Revelstoke
Gendron’s work is one of three new Art Alleries works revealed at the 2021 LUNA Arts Festival. Art Alleries started as a LUNA legacy project, a way to make LUNA last longer than a single weekend of art exhibitions. The idea, envisioned originally by Rob Buchanan, would transform alleyways, commonly overlooked and underutilized spaces in metropolises worldwide, into places where you want to linger and appreciate beautiful works of art.
The painting will have a permanent home on the walls of the Explorers Society Hotel and will be unveiled at LUNA Arts Festival on September 25.