In the language of her maternal family, Jean Taylor is called Khàsx’ ân Tlâ. The well-known Tlingit artist has recently relocated from Teslin, in the Yukon, to Creston so she can be closer to a daughter and three grandsons.
“Having grandchildren here is a huge attraction,” Taylor said on Monday. “I’ve been able to spend time painting with the two younger ones.”
Taylor and her husband, Hugh, who consults with First Nations communities in the Kootenays and Montana, have been so pleased with their several months in Creston that they are now considering making it home.
“We’ve always moved around,” she said, in an open kitchen and living room that doubles as her studio. “We would spend about five years in Teslin and then go somewhere else for a while to get some new experiences.”
Although she has been drawing since she was able to grip a pencil, Taylor began to take her art more seriously after leaving a career in social work and the health care field.
“We moved to Grande Prairie for a while and I took some art courses,” she said. “And I learned that art was what I wanted to do.”
Her close ties to her Tlingit culture provide the theme for many of her acrylic paintings. She has come to appreciate that she was raised among artists who didn’t use the word to describe themselves.
“We grew up with no television or electricity. We packed our water in and chopped our firewood. And we made our own playthings. I made my own entertainment by drawing dolls or building them out of sticks. My first art sales were in elementary school, where I drew dolls and costume cutouts, then sold them for 25 cents.
“I was surrounded by artists — my grandfather made snowshoes, my grandma tanned hides to be made into clothing and shoes, my aunts gathered beads and drew patterns to decorate moccasins and mukluks — you didn’t see that as art when you were a child.”
As she reached “middle age”, Taylor found her professional work increasingly exhausting.
“I needed happiness,” she said. “I asked myself, ‘What will I do with the next chapter of my life?’ It took a few years to make up my mind. I learned that I could do more than just draw and I haven’t looked back since.”
Taylor leans to culture themes in her paintings. Tlingit people in masks, button blankets, intricately woven hats (she wears one for public appearances), moccasins, mukluks, mitts, jacket and snowshoes are what she grew up with. She has also become a skilled portrait artist and now often receives commissions.
“Right now I’m into painting ravens,” she said.
This week she is working on a painting that sprawls across two canvases, destined for a show in the north. It depicts five ravens on the ground, each one showing movement and looking for all the world like a group of dancers.
“I’m from the eagle clan. But if my husband was adopted into a clan he would be a raven. That creates a balance.”
A collection of paintings now on display at the Creston and District Public Library illustrates Taylor’s versatility. Landscapes, including one that features Creston’s grain elevators, Tlingit dancers and women in traditional garb are among the subjects, all painted with strong, confident brush strokes that give the viewer a sense of motion and life.
“I’ve been looking forward to this show for a month,” she said, “ever since Hugh (who also acts as her manager) arranged it.”
Taylor’s painting career, which she undertook in an effort to find happiness, completes a spiritual circle when the paintings also create a feeling of happiness for those who see and own them.
The show, part of Art in the Library co-ordinated by Carol Huscroft, runs through May 21.