When the Okanagan Indigenous Music and Arts Society put out a call for an opportunity to paint a mural on the Kelowna Gospel Mission, Syilx artist Sheldon Pierre Louis knew he wanted to pitch a design, but he wasn’t entirely sure what that design would be.
Then, one night, his partner Csetkwe had a dream about Louis’s aunty Lucy, an Okanagan artist who Louis credited as a major inspiration in his life.
“My aunty Lucy, she always supported me and looked on from afar as I was becoming a young artist. She always loved seeing my artwork and what I did,” said Louis.
In Csetkwe’s dream, Louis said that his aunty told him that he needs to paint salmon, an animal that is a primary food mainstay of the Syilx Okanagan people that has become central to their culture and trade traditions.
For 10 years, Louis said that salmon has been a central component of his work, using his art to draw attention to environmental impacts on salmon and the Columbia River.
“I still struggled with it. I’ve created so many salmon pieces. How is a salmon piece going to fit in the downtown core?” he said.
As he thought more about it, he decided that his design would be more than just salmon — it would be a memorial piece dedicated to his aunty. He looked back at old video footage of her reflecting on her work at the Round Lake Treatment Centre, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre located in Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB) territory.
“She went to work, and her and my uncle, that kind of became their life. Helping to heal people, helping them move out of alcoholism and drug addictions,” said Louis. “That was a part of her early life. That kind of relates to the wording, the kʷu mr̓imstn – we are medicine. It’s kind of a reminder that each of us are medicine.”
He also had a vision of incorporating fellow OKIB community member and artist Billie Kruger into the design, drawing inspiration from an image of her releasing salmon into the waterway. He reached out to Kruger and pitched the idea to her, which she welcomed.
As it turns out, Kruger was friends with aunty Lucy, something Louis wasn’t aware of until Kruger told him.
“I didn’t understand why, at the time, I wanted to put her in this mural,” he said. “But now that she shared this story about aunty Lucy, by all means, she needs to be part of this mural.”
With aunty Lucy as the design’s centrepiece, Louis formulated an idea to capture three Indigenous women in three different stages of their lives in the mural. His niece, Irene, was the third piece of the puzzle.
“This photo was of my niece wearing this old, kinda grandma-looking sweater and a ribbon skirt. She looked like a little grandma, basically,” he said. “A little, young grandma. It’s a perfect image.”
Coincidentally, baby Irene was named after Louis’s grandmother, who happened to be the aunt to aunty Lucy.
“It seemed like a coincidence, but not quite a coincidence that all those pieces seemed to come together in the way they did,” he said.
In his design, he featured the faces of two tuma (grandmother) spirits behind the three women watching over them.
“It’s a bit of a contrast of the old and the new grandmother spirits that are watching over those women, watching over and being caregivers over the land and the language,” he said. “Also, just looking over those people who are living on the streets and watching over them as well.”
Written twice on the design is “we are medicine” — once in Nsyilxcən and again in English.
“My grandfather — he never taught his kids or us grandkids the language. He regretted it in his final years,” said Louis.
“He said any little bit of your language that you know — it doesn’t matter if it’s three, five words or more — he said you make sure you always use it in whatever way and whenever you can.”
While “we are medicine” speaks to aunt Lucy’s work at the Round Lake Treatment Centre, Louis said it also speaks to missing and murdered Indigenous women and Two-Spirit people.
“The whole crisis that’s surrounding that, I wanted to also give a reminder that our women are medicine. They’re important. We need to protect them,” he said.
Salmon lined the design’s border, which he said speaks to the resiliency of the Syilx people, their language and their land.
In April, Louis’s design, titled “kʷu mr̓imstn – we are medicine,” was selected as the winning concept for the Gospel Mission’s mural project. He got to work on the art piece at the end of August, spending a total of 15 days over a three-week period painting the design.
Each day would last around six to eight hours, where he would slowly piece together the design on the 25 ft. by 100 ft. wall. But during the first week of undertaking the painting, he was living in a hotel after being evacuated due to the White Rock Lake wildfire on Aug. 4.
“I spent a week in a hotel in Westbank at that time, separated from community and family. At that time, it was more of, ‘I had to push through this,’” said Louis, who’s also a councillor on the OKIB’s band council.
It wasn’t until Sept. 4 when he was able to go back to his Vernon home.
“I really had to try and manage my emotional state as best as I could. Doing that work as an artist, you’re putting a piece of yourself into that,” he said. “I had to be very careful when I was on that wall that my mind and my heart weren’t in a place of stress and worry around the fires.”
He wrapped up painting the mural on Sept. 12, adding the final salmon touches to the bottom of the mural, after initially deciding against it the day before.
“When I decided to go do it, it was the two-year anniversary of aunt Lucy’s passing,” he said. “I’m really grateful that I did go back to add those salmon because it creates much more of a connection and much more of a memory of her to it.”
After bringing the mural to life, he described the experience of being able actually to see his finished work as amazing.
“Even though we were going through a very tough and stressful time, to come through that and still be able to put something so beautiful like that, so representative of our people and nation, it really helped to uplift obviously some of the people in our community here that were dealing with the evacuation,” he said.
“It’s been received very well from our nation members. They always remind me that the work I’m doing out there is important. It’s representing us, showcasing us, reminding the people they live in Syilx territory.”