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Jan3ThuFor Salvationist Michelle Stoney, becoming an artist was a journey of self-discovery. January 3, 2019 by Kristin Ostensen
Being a professional artist was never the plan for Michelle Stoney.
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“I was going to be a teacher because everybody in my family is a teacher,” she admits.
Yet by the time she was five years old, a different future was in the works, even though Stoney herself didn’t realize it.
“Growing up, I would always watch my ye’e [grandfather], carving or drawing traditional formline, while my cousins and siblings were running around outside playing,” Stoney recalls. “I was so mesmerized by it. I loved the flowing lines.
“I didn’t know it was tradition in our culture that when you’re apprenticing under somebody, you just sit there; you don’t ask questions, you just watch them do it,” she continues.
Now, with several awards and countless commissions behind her—including a painting at Canada and Bermuda’s territorial headquarters in Toronto—Stoney is an accomplished artist like her ye’e.
But it was a long road for her to get there.
Faith and Family
Stoney’s journey begins in Gitanmaax, the Indigenous village in northern British Columbia where she grew up and still lives today. She is a member of the Gitxsan Nation, House of Delgamuukw, and is Cree on her father’s side.
Stoney’s ye’e, Victor Mowatt, was a master carver and continues to be the most important influence on her art. But more than an artistic guide, Stoney’s ye’e and grandmother also played an important role in her journey of faith.
“My ye’e was a strong Christian,” Stoney says. “He always had a Bible with him, and we knew he prayed for every one of his grandkids. He was an alcoholic when he was younger and he always talked about how being a Christian saved him.”
Stoney started attending the Salvation Army corps in Hazelton, B.C., with her family when she was a young child. “We went to church with my granny every Sunday,” she notes.
Along with regular church involvement, Stoney attended the Army’s Camp Mountainview in Houston, B.C., every summer, first as a camper and then a counsellor. It was there, during teen camp, that Stoney dedicated her life to God.
“I had been thinking about it for a long time,” she recalls. “My counsellor asked me if I wanted to pray with her, so we did and I was crying and telling her that I wanted to give my life to God and serve him. Later, when I worked at camp, I wanted to be that person for somebody else. That’s why camp was such a big part of my life.”
Actually becoming a counsellor was a significant step for Stoney, who struggled with self-confidence. “I was super shy,” she says. “Once me and my twin sister, Tamara, were old enough, people started suggesting that we apply to work at camp. But we felt like, no, we can’t do that.”
Looking back now, Stoney is glad they took the leap of faith and became staff. “Once we started praying with kids, seeing the joy on their faces and planting the seed in their lives—that was the exciting part and that’s what got me into it.”
Motivated by those experiences, Stoney worked at Camp Mountainview and the Army’s Camp Walter Johnson in North Carolina for more than 10 years combined. “I still have many friends from across Canada, thanks to my time at camp,” says Stoney.
Change of Plans
During her teen years, art was never far from Stoney’s mind, but a career in art couldn’t have been further.
“I knew I wanted to make art but nobody said I could go to art school—it wasn’t even in my mind that it could happen,” she says.
After high school, Stoney went to college to earn a diploma in physical education, and took a First Nations class as an elective. “I made my first mask there, and my ye’e came all the way to Nanaimo, B.C., to help—he practically carved the whole thing for me!” she remembers with a smile.
“I feel like I’m The Salvation Army’s artist now.”
Stoney didn’t start creating her own designs until she transferred to the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, continuing her plan to become a teacher. That changed when she took an art class.
“I spent all my time in that class, and almost failed my other classes,” Stoney remembers. “That’s when I realized that maybe I should apply to art schools.”
Stoney took a year off to work on her portfolio, applied to the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, and was accepted, starting classes in 2007. “It was a long path to get there, but I think I needed that life experience first,” she reflects.
Finally in a place where her artistic talents could be cultivated, Stoney began to develop her own style. “When I went to Emily Carr, I gave myself a guideline that, in every class I took, I was going to use formline,” she says.
Formline is the traditional artistic style of Indigenous peoples on the northwest coast of North America, which uses characteristic shapes (for example, ovoids, S-form, U-form) to create images.
Stoney says that using formline in every class was difficult at times, but the end result was her own unique fusion of Indigenous artistry.
“I brought together many Canadian cultures to make my own style,” she explains. “I took formline from Gitxsan, bright colours from Cree, and black lines from Ojibwe, and combined them.”
Going to Emily Carr was an important step on Stoney’s path to becoming an artist, but leaving her family and community was a challenge.
“The first few years there were hard for me because I was by myself and I was so shy,” she remembers. “That was the time in my life when I was finding myself and becoming my own person.”
At a particularly low point, Stoney says she was doing the assignments, but was not really engaged with what she was doing. She worried that she might fail out of art school.
She finally had a breakthrough in 2009, when she applied for a YVR Art Foundation award and, to her surprise, won.
“That was the first award that I won and it was really important to me because it came at a time when I was struggling,” Stoney remembers. “I never thought that much about myself. I was always thinking, I’m not good enough. So I think that award saved me as an artist. I felt like, I can do this—they believe in me.”
In 2012, Stoney graduated from Emily Carr and won a contest to design new banners for the Vancouver International Airport. Her winning design, seen by thousands of travellers, depicted a raven transforming into an airplane.
Stoney brought her grandmother and ye’e to the unveiling ceremony. “My ye’e was so happy—I’m almost crying just thinking about it,” she remembers. “He was so proud of me.”
Stoney’s ye’e passed away two years ago, but she says he is still very much present to her. “During the hard times when I feel I can’t do any work that day, I think about my ye’e,” she says. “He’s my biggest inspiration. Everything I made when he was alive, I couldn’t wait to show him and see what he thought. It’s the same now—whenever I think of him, I know he’s there watching over me.”
Since graduating from Emily Carr, Stoney has taken on many projects—from paintings and sculptures, to murals, jewelry and more—including two works of art for The Salvation Army. One is a stylized painting of Canada, representing various Indigenous cultures, that hangs at territorial headquarters. The other is a Salvation Army eagle staff, which played an important role at the Army-hosted Celebration of Culture pow wows in 2017 and 2018. She has also done painting workshops at Camp Mountainview. “I feel like I’m The Salvation Army’s artist now,” she smiles.
Home again in Gitanmaax after recently finishing a program in jewelry arts at the Native Education College in Vancouver, Stoney is settling back into life in the community and at the corps, while focusing her artistic energy on making jewelry.
“Sometimes I can’t believe it—everything has just worked out for me,” she says. “I let God be in control of my life and I try not to worry too much about what’s going to happen next. I trust that he’ll guide me in the right direction.”
For more of Stoney's art, visit her Facebook page.