lessLIE, Thunderbird and Killerwhale, 2004, acrylic on paper; Sun, Salmon, Frogs and Ravens, 2006, acrylic on paper; Salmon Weir, 2005, serigraph, ed. RMQ 2/5. Gift of the Salish Weave Collection of George and Christiane Smyth, 2021. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography.

Thirteen works by lessLIE

lessLIE’s artistic practice is grounded by a sustained interest in language and the basic human need to make marks as a means to communicate with one another. This investment is complicated by what the Central Coast Salish artist describes as a “passionate ambivalence” for the English language. Throughout the evolution of his practice lessLIE has developed a unique articulation of the relationship between written English and the visual symbols of his culture. He argues that individual Coast Salish design elements, such as circles, ovals, crescents, trigons and u-forms, are like the letters of an alphabet, which can be used to visually “spell” any image.

The acrylic paintings on paper re-interpret traditional Coast Salish stories through a lens of contemporary urgencies like the accelerating ecological crisis and capitalist greed. Compositionally, they draw from lessLIE’s close study of spindle whorls — important elements of Coast Salish weaving technology and tools of cultural communication — through his deft use of colour and positive and negative space.

Thunderbird and Killerwhale, painted in orange, red, black and white, depicts the supernatural story of the whale who ate all the salmon around it and prevented the remaining salmon from ascending the Cowichan River, causing the Cowichan people to experience a period of starvation. They called the Thunderbird who swooped down and grabbed the supernatural whale and flew him away. Sun, Salmon, Frogs and Ravens, painted in yellow, ochre, red and white, represents life on earth; the sun, salmon, frog (or half-frog – half-human), and raven. This design represents the interconnectedness of the world. Salmon Weir is depicts a vertical composition of four salmon heads rendered in red and black. This work refer to fish caught in wooden traps that were constructed along rivers to harvest salmon.

lessLIE is the decolonized name of Leslie Robert Sam, a Coast Salish artist from the Cowichan Tribes. He works across a variety of media, with artwork that draws on traditional iconographic elements and often employs titles fused with humour and irony. While working on his undergraduate degree in 1995, lessLIE began studying Coast Salish art. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in First Nations Studies from Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University), and alongside writing, curatorial projects and guest lectures, he has undertaken graduate work in Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Victoria. His work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally, and is held in numerous collections, including at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Simon Fraser University and the National Gallery of Canada.