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Movement, colour and tradition

Jessica Chickite on making her mark in the art world

Jessica Chickite (Heh-mah-Khoo-doh-gah) projected her design onto a large canvas, big enough to fill the whole wall.

The drawing, originally made at a scale more suited to a single sheet of paper than the side of a building, incorporated traditional Indigenous form lines: the shapes that make up the basic skeleton of Native art like ovoids, U-shapes, as well as We Wai Kai imagery. It also had a bit of Chickite’s own personal touches. It had movement, some human figures, ocean scenes, animals. While filled with a sense of history and tradition, it was also distinctly hers.

The Chickite name is well-known in the Campbell River area. Her traditional name, Heh-mah-Khoo-doh-gah means Great Chief Lady. She is the great-granddaughter of the late hereditary chief Johnny Chickite, daughter of Max and Barbara Chickite. Jessica’s father Max is a renowned carver, and he had a big impact on Jessica growing up.

“He would always paint at our kitchen table or carve in the shop and he just taught me. When I was really really young, probably two or three, I started to draw shapes called form lines — the First Nation shapes — and he’d get me to practice,” she said. “Then he’d get me to colour them, and paint them. Eventually I started to copy his designs because we had prints all over the house.”

Eventually she began to mature as an artist and start looking for ways to make her work distinctly her own.

She would do things like incorporate movement into her pieces, or work with non-traditional colours. Soon, a distinct style began to emerge through her work and people started to take notice.

“In around middle school I started to be brave enough to try my own designs without copying, and I just kind of progressed from there,” she said. “I definitely tried to create my own unique style. My dad is so well-known, but I wanted to be known as more than Max Chickite’s daughter.”

“I have a lot of movement in my art. I also use non-traditional colours and try to make it my own.”

Most recently, Chickite’s work can be found adorning the walls of the new Starbucks location at Quinsam Crossing. That piece is one commissioned since she started making art full-time. For that piece, Chickite said she really wanted to make it her own. It features a siren swimming among salmon beneath two canoes. The siren’s tail has the form line shapes, but uses more feminine colours of purple and white. The canoes, she said, represent the We Wai Kai creation story where Chief Way Key gathered his tribe after having a vision of a great flood.

“Woven cedar ropes were made that began in the village and ascended to the top of the mountain where Way Key lashed four canoes together,” the We Wai Kai Nation’s website says. “Finally the flood did occur; however due to Way Key’s hard work and planning, the tribe had lots to eat. When the current was too strong Way Key began to worry about the woven cedar rope. Way Key ordered one canoe to be sent adrift which the current took south. The current reversed to the north and was strong again; Way Key ordered another canoe to be sent adrift which went north.

“When the flood receded, Way Key was left with two canoes in the same place. As the story goes the canoe that drifted south landed around the state of Washington and the canoe that went north ended up around Kitimat and to this day our language, culture and names are similar. The two canoes that remained are considered to be the descendants that are now known as the We Wai Kai Nation (Cape Mudge Band), and the Wei Wai Kum Nation (Campbell River Indian Band).”

Those two canoes are featured in Chickite’s piece. As is the Thunderbird, emblazoned on one of the paddles.

Art is a family affair for the Chickites. As Max passed down his love for art to Jessica, so is she passing it down to her kids. Jessica said her daughter is “very artistic” and her son, though only five years old, is showing a keen interest in working with his grandpa and dad Cody LaFrance (also a carver) in the carving shed.She hopes that he picks up the brush or knife like those who came before him.

To Chickite, art is about more than just making a beautiful painting. It’s a matter of identity.

“It’s an honour to be able to represent being proud to be First Nations, and not being embarrassed of it,” she says. “Unfortunately, when I was a kid, sometimes people were embarrassed of it, which I always thought was crazy. I was always so involved in my culture. One of the reasons I love drawing native art is that it represents us and represents me as a person.

“I’ve always known I was going to be an artist. I never thought I would be a doctor or a teacher. I just knew this was what I wanted to do my whole