Alum of the Month: Eliot White-Hill, Kwulasultun

Eliot posing in front of the mural over the fireplace

Eliot White-Hill, Kwulasultun, in front of "Matriarch Moon" - the mural he created for VIU library's 24-7 commons area, one of the busiest spots at the Nanaimo campus.

July 15, 2021 - 7:30am

Eliot White-Hill, Kwulasultun, graduated with a degree in Liberal Studies and Philosophy from VIU in 2018 with dreams of following his father and other family members into a career in Indigenous law. Right after graduation, he started a full-time job as Project Coordinator with Petroglyph Development Group, the economic development arm of Snuneymuxw First Nation, and soon started pursuing a career in Coast Salish art as well.

So far, White-Hill has been commissioned by the City of Nanaimo to create an installation at Beban Park Pool, exhibited at a recent Nanaimo Art Gallery show and had his first solo show last fall at White Rabbit Coffee Co. His latest project is a set of murals on the third floor of VIU’s Nanaimo campus library – one in a new family area that was recently constructed and one in the 24-hour library commons area. He was named Emerging Cultural Leader in the City of Nanaimo’s 2021 Culture and Heritage Awards and recently received a YVR Art Foundation Emerging Artist Scholarship to help him pursue a Master of Fine Arts at Emily Carr University of Art + Design starting this fall.

“The overwhelming support that I have gotten from everyone, the connections and conversations I’ve had, it all motivates me and makes me so proud of our community in Nanaimo,” says White-Hill.

 The unveiling of a new mural in the library commons area

What made you choose VIU?

I always planned on going to VIU. My parents both graduated from there when it was Malaspina College and that was where they met. My mom, Ilse Hill, was part of the second cohort to graduate from the Liberal Studies program. Her education in Liberal Studies and her experience there was incredibly transformative for her, and it had a big impact on myself and my brother. She had us reading the classics from a young age and it felt like every dinner was a Liberal Studies seminar. I inherited her passion for reading, literature and critical thought. I knew before I graduated high school that I wanted to pursue a degree in Liberal Studies. Some of the professors, like Janina Hornosty, who were just starting while my mom was in school, were still teaching when I got there and that was a special experience. My capstone project for Liberal Studies was a comparative analysis of my late great-grandmother, Dr. Ellen White, Kwulasulwut’s published stories from the Coast Salish tradition and the use of myth in Plato. I think the project was a little ambitious for myself as an undergraduate student but being able to do that work was so meaningful to me and holding up our stories in the same light as classical thought was powerful and something that has not been done often enough in academia.

 

Tell us what you’ve been up to since graduating from VIU.

When I graduated, I started working full time with Petroglyph Development Group (PDG). My job with PDG has been incredible. I am constantly learning and doing new things as our company grows. PDG is an economic development corporation owned by Snuneymuxw First Nation. In the six years since PDG was started, we have taken on management of Saysutshun (Newcastle Island), Tuytaxun General Store, have developed new businesses like the Snuneymuxw Gas Bar and have new projects on the horizon like the Courtyard by Marriott being constructed downtown, which we are one of the primary investors for. It brings me a lot of pride to be able to help advance economic reconciliation for Snuneymuxw, to contribute towards the creation of new jobs and careers for our people, and to work towards establishing sustainable wealth for future generations.

How did your career as an artist start?

My career as an artist began when my great-grandmother passed away in the Summer of 2018. I realized that I had to do more to learn and be able to continue the work that she did. So, I conducted extensive research of Coast Salish culture, everything I could find. I realized that all the textbooks and anthropological accounts could tell you facts and tidbits about who we are, but if you want the whole picture you need to look to our own forms of self-expression. I became obsessed with Coast Salish art. I learned about the history of our art, and how it has been disrespected and erased within the territories of the Coast Salish peoples. As I learned, it became apparent to me how critical it is that Coast Salish art is represented and respected within our territories, because that has not happened as it should have. Art became a new way to use my voice, a new language that I can speak in. I have had a passion for storytelling and writing for as long as I can remember, which was inspired by my great-grandmother’s books and stories. I am honoured to have these opportunities to contribute my voice and to the work of honouring our ancestors, our people, our future generations and our land, blanketing them all with our art. 

What effect do you hope your artwork will have on others?

I hope to share about Coast Salish art, who we are, and the way that our ancestors see the world. I want to share the wealth of our heritage with everyone here. I want future generations of Snuneymuxw and Coast Salish peoples to grow up surrounded by our art, and that when they look to the world around them, they see themselves reflected and represented. There is enormous potential in art of all kinds to create connections, for people to look at something or read something and feel that connection. That becomes a space where empathy and understanding can flourish, and where I feel the work of reconciliation can be advanced. It is these connections on an individual-to-individual level, on a moment-by-moment basis, where that shift can take place, aside from the work of reconciliation on a nation-to-nation level.

What piece of advice would you give to current VIU students?

University is difficult. It is a transformative time. It is full of pressure and deadlines and can be inconsiderate of what is happening in our lives. Take your time, be present. It isn’t a race. There are incredible conversations to be had, people to meet, opportunities to explore and things to learn. Cherish your time there because it will be over very quickly. Be conscious about what you bring to and what you take from these spaces, you make a difference. 

What’s next for you?

My goal has always been to work to support and advocate for Indigenous rights as a lawyer, following in the footsteps of my dad, Doug White III, Kwulasultun, and so many in our family. It’s been a roundabout journey. Prior to becoming an artist, I was very focused on business. Unfortunately, I was rejected by the Indigenous Master of Business Administration program I applied to. So that was when I decided to take a serious run at art and applied and was accepted to Emily Carr University of Art + Design to pursue a Master of Fine Arts. My goal is still to pursue education in law after the MFA, though I am open to whatever career trajectory feels right. It is a winding path, but I am always driven by my goals and my teachings. Fundamental to our snuw’uyulh, our teachings, is to always strive to better ourselves and learn. To become better people. As I continue along this path, I learn new ways to realize my goals and to express myself. I keep on in that direction and just try to be present and enjoy each step.  (This seems to align better with this question.)

I just want to see where the world takes me, see what opportunities arise, and continue moving in a direction that feels right. To keep working to better myself and learn as much as I can, and to keep sharing my art and telling stories.


Tags: Community Engagement | Indigenous | Liberal Studies | Philosophy | Our Alumni