About the Artist
Stz’uminus artist John Marston (Qap’u’luq) carves according to Coast Salish tradition. His tools replicate those of his ancestors, his artistic process similar to theirs.
The youngest of seven children, Marston learned primarily from watching his parents (Jane and David Marston, both accomplished carvers), as well as renowned Cowichan Tribes master carver Simon Charlie. He began carving at age 8, along with his brother Luke (also a renowned carver), he spent considerable time observing elders, absorbing the traditional methods.
Despite carving’s place in the family and frequent visits to Charlie’s studio in Duncan, the choice to pursue the art form wasn’t a foregone conclusion — as often as not, the brothers were drawn to swimming in the nearby river as much as to carving in Charlie’s studio. But the exposure to the traditional legends, designs and methods had a lasting impact. It helped that First Nations carving was generating enthusiasm in the community.
“We watched for a long time how others carved. Spent a lot of time, years, just watching and learned that way. And then eventually, we were allowed to pick up our knives. That is a traditional way of learning things in First Nations culture.”
The City of Totems [in Duncan] was coming together, Marston says, drawing increased public attention to art and culture.
“There was lots of excitement as I was beginning to learn. So we just grew up in that atmosphere,” Marston says. “Those are some of my earliest childhood memories. We watched for a long time how others carved. Spent a lot of time, years, just watching and learned that way. And then eventually, we were allowed to pick up our knives. That is a traditional way of learning things in First Nations culture.”
From watching, listening and learning, Marston progressed to spending five years at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, carving with artists from across the province at Thunderbird Park, including his fifth and last year as Artist-in-Residence.
Earlier in his career, Marston replicated the designs of older Coast Salish pieces and artifacts. By 2005, he was carving his own designs — or as he says, he began working in his own imagination. His designs, however, are far more than imaginative — they are intensely personal and emotional or spiritual expressions, while also encompassing an inherent connection with Coast Salish culture and legend.
“The process now is not about recreating, but re-examining older work. Some of the artwork I do is still based on legend and historical teaching, but not all of it,” he says. “Some is modern concepts or emotional expression — the process is traditional.”
It’s no surprise that Marston finds inspiration mainly in his family, Coast Salish culture and visits into the nearby mountains as often as he can manage, where he aims to hear nothing but stillness of the forest. “It’s a way of connecting to what our ancestors had all the time,” he says. “The loss of that connection changes the way we think, giving myself the space to be there, is one of the biggest inspirations for my artwork.”
Marston’s completed carvings are worked to a knife finish — meaning that a perfectly smooth surface is achieved only with traditional carving knives — a skill he continues to refine. And just as he progressed into sketching his own designs and then translating the design into a carving, he now finds himself often carving right away, with a design still in his imagination.He strives to continually learn more about his culture through his art, and similarly continues to challenge himself artistically, including exploring new materials. He’s worked in wood, cedar bark, horn, metal and glass, and stone — another traditional Coast Salish medium.
Coast Salish isn’t the only cultural influence. In 2006, he participated in a cross- cultural exchange that took him to Papua New Guinea (the subject of an award-winning documentary film ‘Killer Whale and Crocodile’ about similarities between cultures and art forms), and another exchange in 2009 took him to Japan, with Japanese artists coming to Vancouver Island the following year. Those trips affected how he views and represents his own culture, and strengthened his recognition of the need for greater awareness of Coast Salish culture and First Nations carving as an artform.
A father of three with his wife Ashley, a photographer, Marston is increasingly active in his community, particularly by initiating public artworks involving students and staff at local schools.
Marston was honoured with the BC Creative Achievement Award for Aboriginal Art in 2009, the same year he and his brother Luke opened a collaborative exhibition titled Honouring the Ancient Ones, a three-year collection of works at Inuit Gallery. In 2013, Marston opened his first solo exhibition with the same gallery. He has pieces on permanent display at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, both Vancouver and Nanaimo airports, the Vancouver Convention Centre, CFB Esquimalt, and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. His work has also been featured in numerous publications.