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Vancouver aboriginal hotel a 'place of transformation' for artist-in-residence

Aboriginal man calls three-year residency at Vancouver's Skywachàys Lodge and art gallery a “blessing.”

Jonathan Erickson holds the painting that hangs in his hallway, a tribute to him being raised by a white family, but with a “red background.”

Tereza Verenca/For Metro

Jonathan Erickson holds the painting that hangs in his hallway, a tribute to him being raised by a white family, but with a “red background.”

An artist-in-residence at Vancouver’s Skwachàys Lodge is praising the aboriginal hotel and gallery as “a place of transformation.”

Every morning, Jonathan Erickson of the Nak’azdli and Kitwanga First Nations wakes up, grabs a coffee from the Tim Horton’s across the street and returns to his apartment in the 31 West Pender St. building. There, he sits for hours at his desk and perfects his craft — silver and gold jewelry carving. Sometimes he paints.

The downtown facility opened in 2012 and is owned by the Vancouver Native Housing Society. It provides 24 shelter rate apartments for aboriginal people at risk of homelessness.

The top three floors, meanwhile, contain 18 hotel rooms for tourists and for aboriginal patients travelling to Vancouver from remote areas to receive medical treatment. At the ground level, there’s the Urban Aboriginal Fair Trade Gallery, where artists-in-residence showcase and sell their work. 

Erickson is only three months into his three-year residency, but says it’s been “awesome.” 

Life wasn’t always like that, though.

Erickson battled with depression and a drug addiction on and off over the years. He found himself engaging less and less with his drawings, a passion he discovered at a young age while watching his brother sketch Conan the Barbarian.

“I drew from what I knew, from what I saw in books and in libraries; never had any formal teaching. I just kept doing it like that, just a hobby, drawing pictures and paintings for a few commissions here and there.”

In 2012, Erickson graduated from Native Education College with a Northwest Coast jewellery arts certificate. He was so gifted at the time that his teachers let him bypass the drawing, painting and woodworking classes and go straight into metal work. 

In what he calls his spiritual awakening last October, Erickson decided to get help and get clean (he’s been sober for six months now). He also longed for a better work space, better than the “closet” he worked out of in his Coquitlam home. He applied for a Skwachàys residency in January and was accepted for the February move-in date.

Asked what he enjoys most about carving today, Erickson said it’s the storytelling. 

“I didn’t know much about my culture growing up. It wasn’t until this program I learned about my background,” the father-of-four, who was adopted at the age of three by a Caucasian family, told Metro. “That’s where I learned about the residential school system. Basically all that information and knowledge has been put into my artwork.”

One painting in particular hangs in Erickson’s hallway. It’s of two ravens – one black, one white – juxtaposed against a red and black background, respectively.

“It’s about being raised white with a red background and coming into my true colours,” he said. 

James Hunter, artist and residence program coordinator, is calling on cities across the country to adopt Skwachàys’ business model, the first of its kind in Canada. He said many Aboriginal artists who are at risk of homelessness or are low-income are often very talented, but don’t have a safe place to go to.

“We’re trying to create a community that’s clean, safe and sober where people can heal,” he said, adding word has definitely got out about this hidden gem.

“There’s a wait list forming.”

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