Emerging WLFN artist builds rich Secwépemc worlds through her paintings

“Coyote Rejuvenates/I Reflect” by Michaela Gilbert. Photo from Gilbert’s website

Michaela Gilbert grew up in a home surrounded by art. Her mother is an artist, and she would often watch her work on pieces, or they would attend gallery shows together.

In particular, seeing her mom attend art school “gave me some confidence in going down that same path,” Gilbert says. 

Now, the young Secwépemc artist from Williams Lake First Nation is honing her own craft while attending the University of Victoria’s Visual Arts program. She’s currently in her fourth year of studies.

While school keeps her busy, Gilbert has had many opportunities unfold before her in recent years. In 2023, she partnered with TELUS as a part of an initiative to feature Indigenous stories and artwork on their vehicles and billboards coast-to-coast. 

Her design, named “‘Qwléwem’ (To Pick Berries),” portrays a raven and Saskatoon berries to honour the story of How the Raven Stole the Sun. The painting depicts twisted brambles with plump Saskatoon berries and a midnight-hue raven — incorporating tones of lush purple and deep blue that resemble the berries and the colour-shifting abilities that Raven was said to have.

After she created the project at home, TELUS enlarged the piece to display on their promotional materials. As part of the initiative, a documentary crew came to her house to film her. 

Michaela’s artwork featured on a TELUS billboard. Photo by Dionne Phillips

Moving away from ‘romanticized expectations’

When Gilbert began creating art, she says she felt stuck within the parameters set out by what the public thought of as Indigenous art. 

While discussing experimentation within the realm of Indigenous art, she confronts those “romanticized expectations of Indigenous artwork while trying to move away from that.” 

Currently, Gilbert is creating a body of work representing her experiences living on and around reservations. She uses her personal experiences and sometimes uses elements of stories told to her to create her projects.

Gilbert adds that she incorporates “cultural knowledge and some of the stories that I learned during my Shuswap class” into her artwork, as evident in the Coyote series.

In the paintings, Gilbert puts herself into the coyote’s fur and paints to depict three different scenes. In one painting, “Coyote Juggles His Eyes 2022,” Gilbert paints herself as Coyote, chasing after a raven who has one of her eyes in its beak. 

She uses small brush strokes to mimic the texture of the coyote’s fur and poses the coyote in action to depict the chase. The vivid blues and greens brighten the scene and allow for the colourful raven and textured coyote to appear to jump off the canvas.  

At school, Gilbert says she has experimented with her painting styles and ways of painting over the last four years.

“In a way, at first, I just started painting to paint, so there was a lot of symbolism in my painting and more so depiction of emotion.” She notes that her work was “more random” at first but she has since found more of a voice.

“I’ve started to establish a style and get a formula for how I work and my stories,” she says, adding that her paintings are “a lot more narrative now, and there’s kind of obviously a story happening within them.”

“I think I found a style that I might stick with for a while because I’m feeling confident with my current work,” she adds.

Michaela Gilbert works on a painting. Screengrab from TELUS video

Exploring different mediums

The journey from an idea to a finished product is a process for Gilbert. It usually starts with a sketch, looking at reference photos and prepping her canvas. She uses a projector to speed up the process because the last step is actually painting, which she says takes the longest.

While Gilbert’s primary medium is oil painting, she felt drawn to exploring photography after taking a course during her second year of studies where she explored darkroom techniques for film photography.

“I didn’t know photography was so creative until I went to university,” she shares. 

Even after completing the required class, Gilbert continued taking photography classes as an elective, and portraiture and film photography have become new passions since then.

Gilbert says that while her photography requires her to stage a whole scene, her paintings are a compilation of different elements that she incorporates onto the canvas.

There are some similarities in Gilbert’s photography and painting: “I like to world-build and create a range of characters through the use of limited models,” she says. 

Although the required photography class gave Gilbert a new tool to create with, she also had to work through a challenging sculpture class. She found herself focusing on just trying to create an object instead of using the 3D medium to tell a story or translate ideas.

The actual process of building and assembling a 3D project was another challenge.

“I struggled and struggled all term, and I made it known that I was struggling, but I still tried my best, and I actually ended up with a really good grade because I guess I was putting in more effort because of how hard it was for me.”

‘You don’t have to be good at it right away’

When asked about advice for Youth pursuing art, Gilbert says, “You don’t have to be good at it right away.” She says that you just need to keep working to get better and adds, “I think if you’re determined to do something, you can make it work.”

Gilbert says she started taking her art seriously in the Grade 12 after attending the Summer Institute for Teens through the Emily Carr University of Art + Design — a month-long immersive program involving studio time and a public exhibition at the end.

“I look back at my first paintings and … I’ve gotten so much better and it’s just putting in the work and you develop your skills over time.”

While working through any problems that arise, Gilbert has people to rely on. 

“Here at school, I’m lucky to have a tight-knit cohort, and we all talk through things to each other when we get stuck, so having that community is helpful.” 

Meditating, where she can think through issues, is also one of Gilbert’s problem-solving skills.

“I think art is kind of my whole life, but with art especially, it helps work through mental health and feels quite meditative and helps you get stuff out when you need that release.”

She says she has been thinking differently and has learned to question everything. “In art school, we do think less academically and more creatively.” 

In the future, Gilbert sees herself applying for shows where she can exhibit her artwork, but for now, she is focused on producing her current projects and notes that it would be fun to work on something larger-scale. 

Gilbert says she has never doubted her decision to become an artist and attend university for her art.

“I’ve always been fully supported through the whole process,” she says. “It’s working out well for me.”

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