A gift of Indigenous art to inspire teaching

Inspired to bring Indigenous art to life in classrooms, local Coast Salish art enthusiasts, George and Christiane Smyth, gifted Coast Salish art prints from the Salish Weave Collection to UVic’s Faculty of Education for teachers in training to integrate the artwork in their teaching right from the start.

The Smyths have always believed in the power of art as an educational resource, hoping that these latest pieces would be integrated into the curriculum being taught from grades K-12.

“The art’s great, but what you need is teaching around it to activate the collection,” says George. “We didn’t want the collection to end up as just great pictures on the wall, moving it into the classroom and having programs behind it makes it much more valuable.” 

The Smyths have been acquiring Coast Salish art since 2003 and began raising awareness about the art form through galleries and institutions in 2007. Pieces from their collection have been donated to UVic, Vancouver Island University, Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia, Princeton and Stanford universities in the United States, along many other institutions. They created the Salish Weave School Program to share Coast Salish art in classrooms all over Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland. Some of the prints have even traveled as far as New Zealand. 

Partnering with Cowichan Valley School District 79 as a pilot project to implement its school programs, The Smyth’s also provided educators with recently developed educational tools and lesson plans about integrating the art into their curriculum through their Salish Weave Collection.

“The school districts see the value in the art and they have the expertise to add an educational value to it,” says George.

The lesson plans involving the prints include using visual thinking strategies, storytelling, identity and ancestry projects, introduction to Coast Salish design, math training, and more. Each district integrates the art in a different way – from framing and displaying the prints to transporting them between schools in protective sleeves to holding exhibitions or integrating them with events.

For instance, at Crofton Elementary School, two teachers, Angela and Becky, find the art a real gift to teach in their inclusive classrooms. The perspectives of children coming from different journeys, with diverse learning needs, enrich the conversation and is key to this program’s success. Children collaborate and help those who are struggling the most.

“We make it achievable for everyone and the kids that we thought would struggle did great. It allows for students to see their place in the world and express themselves in a way that works for them. It gives them the tools to learn critically and deeply, and express themselves and their emotions,” says Angela.

At Crofton, the prints are explored in class, together, from September until May in preparation for their annual gallery held in the school library. It is woven into their social studies, science, math or language classes. In May, students are asked to present their own creation inspired by a piece of art they selected based on shapes, colours or words that attracted them from the prints. At the gallery, students present their own creation next to their selected original artwork and explain to fellow students, teachers, and community members what inspired them.

“It created a real shift in global culture awareness and anchored them in today’s world. They become aware of a culture they didn’t know, that is all around them and integrate it into their life. They are now seeing the Coast Salish shapes and integrate their meaning,” says Angela.

Of their decision to gift the prints to UVic, Christiane says, “it just made sense that the Faculty of Education would have these prints as a resource.” Because they want working teachers to use the prints, the Smyths thought that it would be useful for teacher candidates to learn to work and get acquainted with them before they start teaching in classrooms. “Some of these teachers will encounter the Salish artwork in the school districts that they will end up working in,” says Christiane.

Reflecting on his own education, George praises the depth to which Indigenous knowledge is now integrated into the curriculum and classrooms. “We didn’t know anything compared to what they’re learning now, nor were we given the opportunity to explore art and create our own. We have been blown away each year by the depth of the children’s reflections,” he says. 

George and Christiane are also working with UVic students to expand the program’s impact in the classroom. Sheila Karrow, a PhD student in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction works with the Smyths to distribute the prints and curriculum material to the school districts and follows up with districts that are already using them. She is also exploring ways to develop more supporting material to be used in the classroom. One option to expand the program is to bring artists in to the classrooms to share their experiences with students.

“We don’t have enough curriculum for aboriginal studies yet,” says Karrow. “Lots of teachers are looking for guidance and help on how to do it right, how to be respectful, and to have the discussions around what appropriation is as well.”

“The core of this is helping teachers understand that art isn’t just a subject area on its own,” says Karrow. “It’s a way of thinking and a way of teaching and being that is quite natural to Aboriginal culture. It’s a way to access different types of knowledge that may not be accessible in other ways.” She appreciated that this donation is helping new teachers understand how to use this material. “It’s bigger than art,” she says.

On top of this most recent gift to the Faculty of Education, the Smyths support an Indigenous artist-in-residence program in the Indigenous Education Summer Institute. You can learn more about this program here.

The prints were all commissioned from Coast Salish artists. These contributing artists include Susan Point, Chris Paul, Andy Everson, Maynard Johnny Jr., lessLIE, Luke Marston, John Marston, and Dylan Thomas. They are available for viewing online at Salishweave.com, along with available educational materials and lesson plans, and more information about the Salish Weave collection.