Canadian artist John Marston in his Ladysmith studio with some of his artistic creations. Don Denton photography

Inspired Artist John Marston

Ladysmith artist creates a variety of art and brings Indigenous culture to students

  • Sep. 14, 2018 12:00 p.m.

-Story by Sean McIntyre

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication

Like Boulevard Magazine on Facebook and follow them on Instagram

It’s no understatement when Stz’uminus artist John Marston says he’s been living in the age of the eagle. Last year, BC Ferries announced that John’s design would adorn the side of one of the company’s new Salish-class vessels. And now, a larger-than-life eagle motif transits daily through the southern Gulf Islands.

Closer to home in Ladysmith, visitors to John’s studio are greeted by an eagle welcome statue carved from an imposing 14-foot-long piece of old-growth Vancouver Island red cedar. The carving is part of a multi-year project John and students have been working on to give the local high school a refreshing new look that acknowledges the region’s roots.

Both projects are a significant coup, not merely for John’s exemplary career as an artist, but also for the important societal shift to incorporate and recognize the significance of Vancouver Island’s rich and varied Indigenous cultures.

“To see it in the school system is really inspiring because that’s making the educators and the people that are part of these organizations aware that these are issues that we have to look at, talk about and teach our children,” he says. “That real history that hasn’t been taught, but there’s more awareness, and the artwork is one of the things that helps people open up conversations about cultural practices and what was here before first contact.”

That important conversation about cultural identity and reconciliation has been part of John’s career as an artist. At eight years of age, he was in the habit of watching and learning from his elders. He gleaned the techniques of his craft from his parents, Jane and David Marston — both accomplished carvers — as well as from Cowichan Tribes’ master carver Simon Charlie.

John soaked in the rich talent that surrounded him. As he emulated the techniques of his masters, he saw Indigenous carving take an entirely new shape around him. Duncan’s City of Totems project, for example, placed Vancouver Island’s carving heritage at the forefront of the public eye. The Indigenous traditions of Vancouver Island were experiencing a resurgence that empowered local First Nations and promoted a deeper understanding of the region’s past.

As John gained experience, his confidence grew. By the time he was a young man, John was carving alongside artists from across British Columbia at Thunderbird Park next to Victoria’s Royal BC Museum, where he spent four years, the last of which as an artist in residence.

It was soon after that formative stage that John’s work took on a much more personal tone, he says. Though firmly based in the teachings and techniques of his elders, the young carver gave his imagination free reign. Eventually, he began to experiment, leaving the old ways and branching off into new areas. Exploring. Experimenting. And learning. The result, he says, is a carving style that straddles old-world legends and modern-day spiritual expression.

“I could keep doing one-layered work until I grow old, or I can push my own abilities and carry on forward,” he says. “It’s always good to understand that there’s a modern-day movement of artists. We are artists of today who are part of old communities.”

Artist John Marston carves a mask in his studio. Don Denton photography

John’s creative potential is well represented by his current workspace. For the past three years, he’s been based in a 1930s-era shipping warehouse that also houses the Ladysmith Waterfront Gallery. The additional space means more of John’s works in progress can see the light of day.

During a visit to the studio earlier this spring, I found John putting the final touches on a sun mask, hewn from a piece of second-growth red cedar. Cradling the mask at his workbench while shaping it with the surgical precision of one of his finishing blades, John explains how it isn’t unusual for a piece like this to take up to four or five years to complete.

Inspiration can be fleeting. John routinely switches between pieces depending on his perspective.

“To have a consistent body of work in progress, you need to have things progressing all the time,” he says. “Every piece that I do is very well thought out and well planned out. It’s never just quickly done. Even if it’s totally different than what I normally do, I always give 100 per cent and my best ability.”

Whereas many of John’s projects were previously stashed away out of sight due to space constraints, his cavernous new space means he can have several projects on the go all at once, freely shifting between pieces depending on timelines. Alongside the sun mask and the giant eagle welcome pole, John has ceremonial cedar boxes, impressive wall hangings, abstract canvas watercolours, weavings and at least two traditional harbour-style canoes.

“I always wanted to carve canoes, so I decided to start with these,” he says. “These would have once been seen everywhere on the south coast.”

In between the works in progress are the raw materials that will fuel countless projects to come. Antlers, shells, cedar bark, kelp and raw lumber await their transformation. John collects the materials from his traditional territory in the hills and shoreline that surround Ladysmith. He can spend days out in the wild in a search that brings him closer to the natural world.

“It’s a big part of who I am as an artist. Taking the time out to collect the material and having that connection to the natural world is really important to me,” he says. “Imagination and inspiration for the work has to evolve and come from somewhere. Our culture teaches us that so much of who we are is based on the natural world. That’s where I find my inspiration.”

The works of John Marston will be exhibited at the Ladysmith Art Gallery in September.

Just Posted

Peeling away: OK strip clubs disappearing

Hear from Penticton’s only strip club owner about their success in a dying industry

It’s time to Ring and Sing, in spring

The Musaic Vocal Ensemble and the Oliver Handbell Ringers present a concert for bells and voices

British-born recording artist sings the blues for Okanagan critters

Steve Rodgers, son of legendary musician Paul Rodgers is performing a benefit concert Saturday

Support for Penticton shooting victim

A GoFundMe has been started for one of the four people killed April 15

Okanagan’s first rodeo event of the season on Sunday

The 54th annual Chopaka Jackpot Rodeo goes Sunday near Keremeos.

FOODIE FRIDAY: Brodo Kitchen makes special poutine

Brodo Kitchen features homemade comfort food and a spin on Gnocchi, transformed into poutine

B.C. RCMP receive application for Police Cat Services

RCMP announced the launch of the Police Cat Services unit as an April fools joke

Traffic flagger ‘pushed’ by vehicle in Osoyoos on April 18

Aimee Attig is looking for witnesses of the incident that took place on Highway 3 near the AG Foods

The 25th annual Osoyoos Eggstravaganza gets cracking on Saturday

Find out what the Town of Osoyoos has planned for Easter

Shuswap dancer stays across street from Penticton shooting day after Salmon Arm tragedy

Dancers come for festival, put in lockdown in rec centre, watch police response from Airbnb window

Kirkland Signature veggie burgers recalled due to possible metal fragments

Recalled products came in 1.7 kg packages with a best before date of Apr. 23, 2019

Chaos at the ferry terminal for people heading from Vancouver to the Island

Easter crowds create backlog at Tsawwassen ferry terminal

Vernon-raised BC Was Awesome producer returns home for filming of episode

The topic of this Vernon-featured episode has not yet been revealed.

Parents of 13 who tortured children get life after hearing victims

One of their daughters fled their home and pleaded for help to a 911 operator

Most Read