Art as a means to self-discovery

Book Covers: The Woman Who Married the Bear and The Woman Carried Away by Killer Whale (Photo: Janine Gibbons)

Rhonda Lee McIsaac

Janine Gibbons, a Haida illustrator from Petersburg Alaska recently came to Haida Gwaii to share her illustrations from two children’s books; The Woman Who Married a Bear and The Woman Carried Away by Killer Whales. Both stories have roots in Haida and Tlingit oral traditions and are illustrated and adapted for young children. One young reader, a baby, and 15 adults jammed into the Queen Charlotte Senior Centre beside the Queen Charlotte Public Library to listen and learn about the Gibbons’ illustrations and books.

The path to an artistic career has had many side trails, Gibbons said.

My Mom wanted me to be a heavy equipment operator, which was a more viable career choice, she figured but instead she went on to earn a travel degree, became a deck hand and earned a Mate’s ticket, Gibbons said. When she was done with the ocean, Gibbons went and studied in Colorado to become an elementary school teacher. Health issues prevented her from completing her teaching degree and she then turned toward art classes. Not just any art classes but “like Indian Arts and Crafts” she says with incredulous laughter coming from the gathered crowd. “But I made money!” she said, and then explored painting and jewelry making to fill out her artistic career.

Sealaska Heritage Institute hired Gibbons to illustrate two books. She said how the turnaround time for the grants was a challenge; seven months for the first book and only two months for the second. It was about doing the best I could with the skills I had, she said, while drawing attention to the lack of Northwest form line in her illustrations.

The stories she illustrated in those two books were oral stories that were being adapted for children’s picture books. Language revitalization was key to the content required by Sealaska Heritage Institute.

In her work, Gibbons seeks to make the connections between the past and the present by using her personal experiences. Like the fact that her grandmother; Helen Todd, was the first commercial female bush pilot flying across Alaska. Or that Helen Todd’s Haida sister, Marguerite Fiorella was the first Haida to be trained to fly in Alaska. In one haunting illustration, Gibbons painted a bear entering the woods as homage to Todd who died on a forested lakeside.

When Gibbons was new to illustrating, she found the bigger she painted the more detail she could put into a painting. Sealaska Heritage Institute also saw the merit of making the children’s books larger than planned. The photos are richer, Gibbons said as she turned the page to show off the centerfold of bear eyes that seemed to jump off the page. The originals are painted on larger-than-life primed wood panels that when photographed pop from the page. The original works will be part of a show later this spring.

The combination of Gibbons skill, photography, and the publishing genius of Baby Raven Reads have resulted in award winning books. The audiences for the illustrated books are five and under, although she illustrates them so that adults can enjoy them too.

Gibbons believes in the power of her art and has donated the cover pieces to auction. The book covers feature carved poles and Haida and Tlingit artists like Donald Varnell. Gibbons will be busy with new illustrations in the upcoming year for another book to be released by Sealaska Heritage Institute.

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