Connie Watts

Nuu-chah-nulth, Gitxsan and Kwakwaka'wakw

Artist Statement

Nuuchahnuluth: Hiiyaaksta yaakwiimit:liickaa maamaati luucma (Amongst the Ancestors: Thunderbird Woman)

I grew up in Kwakwaka’wakw territory in Campbell River. We were surrounded by rich culture, many potlatches, and amazing artists. We never attended many potlatches, and I found out later it was because my grandma and grandpa kept much of our culture away from my mom and siblings because they knew it was dangerous. This bleed down to our generation.

Even if we weren’t involved in the culture ceremonies, my Mom raised us to know the strength, integrity and wisdom of our people. When I was six, we attended a potlatch from our Mountain family side in Alert Bay. The big house was still hidden and I remember popping out of the trees to see the enormous building. Walking inside to a packed house where we were embraced, included, and loved. I just remembered the passion, variety of dances and the laughter. It felt like beauty; all that my mom taught us…our connection to everything.

When I was thinking of the impact of the ban of one of our core sociological centres for 67 years. The violent removal of our freedom of expressing our essence of our culture, a story popped into my being. I could feel the containment of this oppression, the feeling of being shrouded. I could feel a being cautiously reentering the big house and welcomed by supernatural beings. I could feel how broken she felt and the deep concern from the supernatural beings to heal her…bring back her core strength and connection to everything.

As the supernatural beings peeled away her hurt and despair, she began to reveal her true nature. Her strength, the thunderbird was freed. As they all worked together to dissipate and move the heavy binding oppressive energy from her being and she in turned shared her new found energy with the supernatural being, they were reuniting them as one. With this unity, she revealed her core, the tree of life and a central female figure.

This was a hard piece for me to create. The feeling to hide it was forefront, born from the decimation of our culture and the attempted genocide. As the true history is told, we all can share the deviation and rise like thunderbird woman to create a more balance, whole society. We can learn and embrace the true nature of living as one.

Hiiyaaksta yaakwiimit, amongst the ancestors, was my Nuuchahnulth name given to me. I feel a sense of all time, where past present and future are one. The birth of this story arose from being in all time. I believe that if we create from our true core, it is a truth that needs to be heard and shared. I believe this story is that for us now, when we are destroying our own home, the world. Living from our core feelings of working towards balance and wholeness will build paths of healing. I wish this from the deepest centre of my being.

For the show, Potlatch 67 – 67: The Potlatch Ban – Then and Now, I have created łiickaa maamaati łuucma (Thunderbird Woman) regalia. She is a representation of the life, vitality and richness of our culture. The Potlatches were a living beings, growing and changing with strong roots. This work is honouring this.

The Story of “Hiiyaaksta yaakwiimit:

In the story I tell, “Nothing” is the centre of what is brought into the big house. It is met by four supernatural beings that move and give it energy, that breath it back to life. The first supernatural beings is the Ancestors; it is the essence of everything we are. The second is the Earth; she is everything we are grounded to. The third is from the Fluidity; she is the air and water that sustains life. And the fourth is the Universe; she is everything we are connected to. They slowly work their way around her, removing all of the white cloth that shrouds her inner being. They pack up fragments of the shroud in their little pouches. They each approach her differently, they slowly and carefully bring her life.

The last shroud covers her whole body. Each of the supernatural beings take one corner and remove the shroud up over her head, to reveal wrapped up wings. The supernatural beings reach up to their back to pull their instrument of healing. The Ancestor pulls rattles created from all of the shells from the sea and the hooves of the many land animals. She shakes this rattle around the hunched over winged being, slowly bringing back her connection to everything that is our culture. The Earth pulls a staff woven from the spruce, hemlock and cedar trees. She slowly moves this around the being, to bring her spirit back to her. Fluidity pulls two wave shaped sweeps from its back made from the feathers of the birds and creates the strength of the wind and water rebuilding her essence of life. The Universe has two staffs, created from lightning, the sun and the moon. She hits the ground around her and hits the ground around her, in all four directions and on the last blow to the ground the wings open up to reveal the Thunderbird women.

The supernatural beings guard her four corners as she rebuild her strength. She starts to open up her wings, flexing them. Her head lifts and moves side to side as she sees everyone and everything; bringing in all the strength that surrounds her. She lifts her head up and opens her mouth. We hear a loud exhalation, and she calls out, feeling the strength from within. She makes her way around to all four supernatural beings. In front of the Ancestor, she
bowing her head and calling out. As she moves to the Earth, as the Ancestor being moves into the centre and throws the pouch of shrouds into the fire. In front of the Earth mask, she bowing her head and calling out, giving thanks. She makes her way to all four and they in turn, burn the pouches full of the shroud.

With all of them in the centre of the floor, the supernatural beings circle the Thunderbird woman: they circle her, she turns; they circle her, she turns; they continue doing this as the energy grows. She then starts to spin and spin and spin and as her arms lift up to reveal the inner parts of her wings. As Thunderbird woman spreads her wings straight out and up; she transform into the tree of life. With a tilt of her head the thunderbird mask turns to reveal her female face. She is the strength of the generations of past, present and future.

Artist Bio

Connie Watts is a mixed media artist, designer and a business owner. She is of Nuu-chah-nulth, Gitxsan and Kwakwaka’wakw ancestry and lives in both Port Alberni and West Vancouver. Watts graduated from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Intermedia, and has her Bachelor of Interior Design from the University of Manitoba.

She has shown her artwork in cities across Canada and the U.S., including New York, Portland, Seattle, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Vancouver. Of the numerous solo and group shows, a highlight includes the prestigious 2005 group show “Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation 2”, which travelled from the Museum of Arts and Design in New York throughout the United States.

Her solo exhibit Re-Generation at the Urban Shaman in Winnipeg was a culmination of her work to date, including her larger first work, “Vereinigung”. It is the exploration of the fusion of past, present and future, to exist in a singular being of artwork. Watts fuses the essence of being a Northwest Coast Native to the ever-changing complex world in which we occupy.  The innovative fusion of materials to the tactile state of being is evident in all of the works in the show.

Watts works as a designer in many areas, including a large executive office project that united her expertise in art with design. She was the project manager for the Aboriginal Art Program at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games. She continues to work on commissioned work for various corporate and private collectors. Her largest installation is the Thunderbird sculpture, “Hetux at Vancouver International Airport, and her first outdoor work was “Kinship of Play” in the city of Parksville in 2010.

“Watt’s sculptural works fuse the very essence of being a North West Coast Native to the ever-changing complex world in which we occupy. The innovative fusion of materials and her use of symbolic West Cost imagery lead to the tactile state of being evident in all of her work.”

Urban Shaman Gallery, Winnipeg 2005