Alan Syliboy was born and raised in Truro, Nova Scotia. Living in the Millbrook First Nations community, he journeys through his life with a demeanor of strength. Alan has built an ever growing list of accomplishments throughout his lifetime, although many people are most familiar with his beautiful and unique works of art that captivate and inspire us. Here we will share just a small portion of some of his great contributions to the world of art.
In 1971 Alan began his private study with influential artist and activist Shirley Bear who is an Order of Canada recipient. Four years later Alan decided to further his education in the art world and joined the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.
Since then Alan has made huge strides towards success as an artist. He created a limited edition Butterfly gold coin for the Canadian Mint in 1999 it was limited to 25,000 copies which sold out. In 2002 he was presented with the Queens Golden Jubilee Medal. The year after that Alan was the featured artist and Aboriginal consultant for the production Drum!for CBC television. He was also involved with Muiniskw, a CBC animation special which included his artwork. Within that same year he also became a juror for the Canada Council for the Arts!
Alan has traveled world wide, graciously sharing his gifts with us all. He traveled to France multiple times throughout his career participating in shows and trade missions. He was delegated by the Department of External Affairs of Canada to take part in a trade mission to Japan where he was joined by several other Nova Scotian companies. He obtained an agent and was involved with exportation of his works. He also took part in Art demonstrations at Ludwig Beck store in Munich, Germany.
In 2007 Alan took part in creating illustrations for the novel “The Stone Canoe: Two Lost Mi’kmaq tales,” which inspired him to continue his use of the Little Thunder character throughout his works, even co-writing a song for his band Lonecloud, called “Little Thunder.” In 2009 Alan collaborated with Nance Ackerman and Paton Francis to create the animation, “Little Thunder” for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics which presented the Little Thunder character in motion using Alan’s interesting and beautiful style. The animation showcased the true magnificence of his artwork and solidified it’s incredible potential. The animation was later featured in a travelling show called “Canada’s best” which will travel nationally and internationally. It has been in 40 different festivals around the world and was voted best animation in Montreal in 2011.
Alan made huge contributions to the 2010 Olympics. He was the lead artist of a group sculpture called “Keepers of the Eastern Door.” He also painted twelve breathtaking 4’x8′ panels entitled “People of the Dawn” which was later shortlisted for the Lieutenant Governor’s Masterworks Art Award.
Alan also has much experience curating different art shows. In 2009 he curated a showcase of New Brunswick artists at the Lord Beaverbrook Art Gallery, where one of his own large murals hung next to a painting done by the legendary Salvador Dali.
As Alan’s accomplishments continue on, he was given an opportunity to present Queen Elizabeth II with a portrait of Grand Chief Membertou. In the same year he was the recipient of a Canada Council grant for his work in “Brainstorm,” a collaboration he did with Nancy Ackerman and Dr. Ivar Mendez.
Alan was once again short listed for the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Masterworks Arts Award for:
The Thundermaker (2013) Multi-media installation, by Alan Syliboy. Nominator: David Diviney
An established Mi’kmaq artist, Syliboy’s artistic vocabulary is inspired by the indigenous petroglyphs of Nova Scotia. His immersive installation The Thundermaker is built around the recently discovered and translated Mi’kmaq legend, “The Stone Canoe,” in which the Thundermaker story is embedded. The installation begins with a circle of text panels illustrated with Syliboy’s drawings, and culminates with a tipi containing a projected animation film of the story. The animation was executed under the artist’s supervision by Nova Scotia Community College Digital Animation students. The artist’s work People of the Dawn was a 2010 Masterworks Finalist.
As Alan walks through this life he has made everlasting contributions and impressions that will teach and share his culture for generations to come. His art will continue to present the Mi’kmaw people with pride and his visions give us all a glimpse of his culture’s true beauties.
Interview with Alan Syliboy by: Cheryl Bell for Billie magazine November 2017.
CB: Can you tell me how you discovered art making and decided to become an artist? Was this a difficult process for you?
AS: When I started school, I was not emotionally up to it. Even in primary, I did not do well. That’s when I started to draw. I didn’t have any art lessons, I was just drawing on my own for my own comfort and pleasure. My first audience was my classmates. Making images was always there, as long as I can remember, and it continues now.
I went as far as I could at school. It was a Catholic school and the approach was quite rigid. I was singled out, for sure, so it was a difficult time. I was a teenager when I started working in my uncle’s cabinet shop. And I was working there when the artist Shirley Bear came by recruiting for an art program in New England.
My grandmother was always my biggest fan. When Shirley Bear went around to different native communities in the Maritimes and Maine, asking who could draw, that was how she heard about me. Through that program, I spent three months learning the basics of art under various artists in Salem, New Hampshire. And then we visited native communities in Maine and the Maritimes doing workshops using different mediums. I finished the program in 1970. At the time, it was a leading edge thing.
This was a momentous period for me and it changed my whole life. It was like turning a switch on. The world suddenly became a bigger place.
I was primarily a painter. That’s always been my main medium. I had my first real lessons with Shirley. It was also from Shirley that I learned about petroglyphs – etchings on stone – through a book that she showed me. Petroglyphs were unknown to me at that point and to Mi’kmaq people in general. That changed everything for me because the petroglyphs are central to our history and identity. They help to answer the question of what makes us unique. My interest in cultural studies began then and I have basically spent my whole life researching petroglyphs. They were the gateway for me to learn about my culture. I also studied the petroglyphs of the surrounding tribes, the Maliseet and Passamaquoddy, and learned how to identify the work of each tribe at first glance. They became ingrained in my psyche to the point where I had no need to refer to them anymore.
When I was young and in my teens, I lacked confidence. That makes everything difficult, particularly when you are trying to decide on your future path. You are continually asking questions like “Am I any good at this?”, and “Can this sustain me?”. There usually comes a point when you have to take a stand and say “This is what I am going to do.” For me, it was an ongoing thing. The decision was not clear cut.
After the program with Shirley Bear ended, I went to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) for one and a half years. That helped me to make my decision. I spent a lot of time in coffee shops interviewing artists from all over the world – Tokyo, Africa, Europe – who studied or taught at NSCAD. It was my personal quest. I wanted to understand different approaches, how the artists looked at things. It was interesting to see how business-like and structured in their practice some artists were. I learned how important it is to research culture. It inspired me to work harder.
CB: You’ve worked in a number of different media. Do you feel that you’ve arrived at the media and forms of artmaking that suit you best, or is this a constantly evolving process?
AS: It’s been an evolving process. Painting has always been my main medium. I like a heavy-bodied acrylic because of the intensity of colour and it works well for me, and sometimes I use ink.
After NSCAD, I got married and worked as a licensed oil burner mechanic. We had three children and I pretty much brought them up on my own. There wasn’t much time for painting. But when the children grew up and needed me less, I rented a studio in Truro. I painted there every day for over 10 years – I was trying to catch up. I was experimenting. I tried to introduce a new element every day. As a result of the hours I was putting in, the process sped up. I’ve been a full-time artist for the past 17 years now.
I was lucky to do a show at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, which gave me the opportunity to do animation for the first time. I worked with students at a community college in Truro. The students had to volunteer and it took four years to do.
In 1999, I won a competition to design a $200 commemorative gold coin for the Canadian Mint. My design featured a butterfly and it was the first Mi’kmaq coin. There was a limited edition run of 25,000 and it sold out.
I’m also interested in the bringing together of music and art. My latest band, the Thundermakers, has been experimenting with spoken word, line art, and projected animations. We’ve been on the main stage three times this year – at the Stan Rogers Festival, the Lunenburg Folk Festival, and on Grand Parade in Halifax. I’m not sure what’s going to happen next, but our work is continuing to evolve. Even when I branch out in different directions, I incorporate painting.
CB: What are the main messages or ideas you would like to communicate through your art? Why are these important to you?
AS: Our culture is being decimated and has been since first contact, over 400 years ago. We’ve seen a loss in our numbers, the introduction of Christianity, and a diminishing knowledge of our past. I want to study our culture and bring it back. This is part of my quest. My allies in this pursuit are the Parks Canada archaeologists and Roger Lewis, the ethnology curator at the Nova Scotia Museum. Thanks to them, the information we have is much richer and deeper. As a result of this work I wrote a book called The Thundermaker, based on a multimedia exhibition I collaborated with Terry Graff on at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. At the time, interest in the traditional Mi’kmaq stories and the petroglyphs had eroded. But there has been a resurgence and others are exploring these traditional stories in their art now, like Ursula Johnson and Fran Ward-Francis. It is wonderful to see that progression of people carrying on. The Thundermaker is in all the schools – I’m even recognised on the street by children – and I am thankful that it worked out that way. It’s not easy to be an artist, but I’m very happy that these stories are making an impact.
Artists are evolving in this area and we are gaining good artists with new ideas. I’m proud to see that happening. Part of your job as an elder is to pass this dedication onto the next generation.
CB: What do you feel is the most important of significant piece of art you have created? Why?
AS: There are different ones I like for different reasons. I just did a piece called The Signpost, that is erected at the Halifax Commons. It is made from poles that have paddles at the ends. These paddles represent the eight Mi’kmaq districts and each one is named. There is also a petroglyph that was discovered at Bedford in the piece and will soon be lit by solar lights. It’s a very simple work to remind us that Halifax is an important sacred centre for the Mi’kmaq people.
Another work I like is a public piece called Dream Canoe, which is at the Antigonish Library. Back in the 1980s, I took a black and white photo of some children playing in a canoe on the Afton reserve, which is in the area. The sight of them took me back to when I was a child and used to play in the same way. Twenty-eight years later when I was looking for inspiration for the Antigonish project, I found the photo and blew it up and painted around it.
The Antigonish Library is a destination now. Over 6000 people saw the Dream Canoe in the first few days after it was installed. I think it speaks to many. Its message is simple. It’s a reminder that we all start out the same.
The coin I designed is also a favourite. A lot of Mi’kmaq designers typically feature the eight-point star. So in the competition for the coin, many of the designs looked similar. I took a different approach and reduced the coin size so that it looks more like an ancient coin. It’s not symmetrical, but it feels more organic, more true to us.
CB: What are you currently working on or have planned for the near future?
AS: I currently have lots of films on the go, including a new animation, and I’m writing new material and music for The Thundermakers. I’m also running workshops on drum painting on Salisbury Shores, St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, and Lunenburg and I’m asked to speak at events. I was painting yesterday – I take every opportunity I get – but I’m not putting in the same number of hours as I used to because I am busy with all these other things.
CB: This issue of Billie explores the theme of Canada 150 in the Atlantic region. What does Canada 150 mean for you?
AS: As an Indigenous person, this issue is like the elephant in the room. It is making things awkward in many ways. On the one hand, there is 150 money everywhere for projects and I have been involved in many events. At the Stan Rogers Festival this summer I spoke about how some people have more to celebrate than others and that we need to work to make things more equal. I have never seen the crowd more subdued. We live in a great country, but there is so much more to be done. Our society will benefit overall for not forgetting our Indigenous peoples. We must put more effort into making things better and fixing the things that can be fixed, including providing clean water for everyone. Murray Sinclair’s Plan for Action is key for a better future and will help to make things happen. Canada 150 is also an opportunity for dialogue.
“People of the Dawn”: This was a mural I did for VANOC during the 2010 Winter Olympics in British Columbia. It consisted of twelve 4’ x 8’ panels. My son Evan prepared the panels my assistant Pat Power worked on backgrounds and scaling up characters. This project took approximately one month to complete, and was shipped via Air Canada Cargo, who were very helpful in delivering the piece directly to the site, in July of 2009. The final budget was $12 000.00 which included materials, labour and shipping costs.
“Keepers of the Eastern Gate”: This is a 19’ sculpture I did with ten other Mi’kmaq and Maliseet artists from the Atlantic Provinces. This competition was partnered by VANOC and MAACS, and resulted in four groups from across Canada being selected to produce works which I was lead artist alongside Arlene Christmas. The figure is a traditional Mi’kmaq symbol that is used to identify the Mi’kmaq Nation. The title “Keepers of the Eastern Gate” is the traditional name for the First Nations from this region. The piece was constructed by Darren Martin of Creative Metals in New Glasgow, NS, and was transported by him to the site. The approximate final budget was $60 000.00. From design to finished product was approximately six months.
“People of the Eastern Door”: This was a 6’ Coca Cola bottle I painted for the Aboriginal Art Bottle Program held by VANOC. This was a design competition, and my design was chosen to represent Nova Scotia. Mine was one of approximately two dozen bottle designs done by First Nations artists of Canada. The bottles were unveiled all across Canada during the Olympic Torch Relay, and eventually auctioned off with the proceeds going to the Vancouver 2010 Aboriginal Youth Legacy Fund. I was paid $3000.00 for the completion of this project.
“Butterfly”: This was a design I did for a $200.00 24kt gold coin for the Royal Canadian Mint in 1998. There was a competition amongst Mi’kmaq and Maliseet artists from the Atlantic Provinces, resulting in my design being selected. I was then invited to the Royal Canadian Mint in Ottawa to work hands on with the engraver. From selection to the striking of the coin was approximately one year. The limited edition of 25 000 coins were produced and retailed for $417.00. The edition has since sold out. For this project, I was paid $10 000.00. The Butterfly coin is the only Mi’kmaq designed coin to be struck by the Canadian Mint.
World renowned Mi’kmaq artist, Alan Syliboy, partnered with Halifax Stanfield International Airport and the province of Nova Scotia to create ‘3D Butterfly’, a 4.5 meter wide by 4.5 meter high mural. The mural was painted live in the Halifax Stanfield main lobby over three days in August of 2013. Alan did this work while standing on scaffolding, two storeys high.
An interview with Alan Syliboy
Mi’kmaw artist Alan Syliboy has three books due this season from Nimbus Publishing: a board book, Mi’kmaw Animals, in both Mi’kmaw and English; a new Mi’kmaw and English edition of The Thundermaker; and Humpback Whale Journal. Alan Syliboy’s luminous illustrations draw on the petroglyph tradition, which, in combination with his own vibrant colour palette and strong design sense, result in works that dance with story and meaning.
Deirdre: Why do you consider it important to have your books published in both Mi’kmaw and English?
Alan Syliboy: One way to support the language initiative with children is to put books in their hands, to bring them our stories and culture through books. This is an opportunity to change things with young people. Sometimes I am recognized on the street by grade two children! They have read or their teachers have read them The Thundermaker.
Deirdre: You have spoken in other interviews, such as the one with Cheryl Bell in Billie magazine, about the influence of petroglyphs on your work and also how you recognize differences among Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Mi’kmaw petroglyphs. What are some of these differences?
Alan Syliboy: All these neighbouring tribes use the double-curve design in their petroglyphs. All these tribes are close relations–we’re from the same stock, the same roots, but in Mi’kmaw rock art there are more spirals, the curl is more prominent. When I had my first real art lessons, years and years ago, with Shirley Bear, Shirley introduced me to Marion Robertson’s book, Rock Drawings of the Micmac Indians [published by the Nova Scotia Museum, 1973]. Petroglyphs became the way I learned about my own culture. I don’t have a copy of the book any longer and it’s out of print now, but I have the book in my hard drive.
Deirdre: What other artistic traditions inform your work?
Alan Syliboy: I keep away from other traditions. I like Miró and Klee and Kandinsky, but I don’t spend time studying them. I want to stay in my lane—I want to go down my own road. I’m not trying to incorporate other traditions.
Deirdre: How are art and storytelling connected in your work?
Alan Syliboy: Storytelling is not my focus. I am concerned with making a good picture. I developed the skill part many years ago when I was not working with colour. I worked only with pencil and charcoal for many years. When I finally got a studio and turned from black and white to colour, I had established my ability with design and how to balance a page. I was prepared for colour. It was easy to add colour, and it’s one of my strengths: I’m a colourist. I experimented with contrast and colour for years in the studio.
Deirdre: Your work is known nationally and internationally as well as in our Atlantic region. What is the significance of your work in our region?
Alan Syliboy: When I started as an artist there were no well-established Mi’kmaw artists in the region. When Shirley Bear and I got together and found the petroglyph book, we then both had purpose. We wanted to do what was important to our culture. We educated ourselves and in the process we educated Mi’kmaw people. Very little was known about our culture. The Mi’kmaw culture is now accepted and Mi’kmaw design now thrives.
Deirdre: What was your response to the recent matter of the removal of the statue of Edward Cornwallis from a south-end square Halifax?
Alan Syliboy: The removal of the statue symbolizes a process of incredible advances in being Mi’kmaw. Momentum dragged the Cornwallis question along with it for years. When I was in school we Mi’kmaw were invisible. Now we are visible. The obvious question around Cornwallis had to be answered. That’s a reality that can’t be ignored any more. It’s just the start. We have more texture now; we are more dimensional now to the dominant culture. We now interact with the dominant culture.
Deirdre: Do you have any last words? Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to speak to?
Alan Syliboy: I feel it’s a good idea to have books in both languages in the hands of children. I feel secure in the future that we Mi’kmaw will be seen as real, multi-dimensional human beings. That’s what I’m happy about: the new generation of Mi’maw learning about their own culture.
Deirdre Kessler is Prince Edward Island poet laureate (2016-2018) and author of more than two dozen books for children and adults. Her poem, “Sorrow Song of Whales,” set to music, will be performed by the choral group, The Sirens on June 24 at Indian River Church, P.E.I.