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.