Conversation / Interview: Taryn Walker & Krystle Silverfox
Here's the first in a series of three conversational interviews between Indigenous SCA MFA students and Indigenous SCA alumni, presented both to celebrate the well-earned achievements and insight of our alumni and the thoughtfulness of our students, but also in recognition of National Indigenous History Month. Please also read our interview with SCA alumnus and Skoden Indigenous Film Festival co-founder and now co-instructor Carr Sappier, which you can find HERE.
Taryn Walker: Thank you for meeting with me.
Krystle Silverfox: It's a pleasure.
TW: It’s so special to have a conversation with you. How are you doing today? How are you feeling?
KS: I’m doing well. I just had an art show open yesterday, so today I'm very excited to kind of relax and enjoy the weather.
TW: That’s always such a relief. It feels like a big space opens up in your mind, where you can think about whatever you want. So… I think I'll start out a little more open-ended, and then get specific. In what ways have you been experimenting in your art practice recently? Have you been making any unexpected discoveries?
KS: I've been working recently on a new piece called no word for goodbye. That work is very materials forward. I’m thinking about how materials can influence my practice – and I guess other people's practices. I'm here at UBC Okanagan at this moment, working with a team of art students – they're amazing. This project is about remembering. Back in elementary school, I remember there was this thing where you’d tie a string around your finger so that you didn’t forget something. I’m working with that symbolism, and thinking about tying. This time, it's red yarn around pieces of pine branches as a way to think about the land, and also to think about remembering. Working with other people has been such a great experience. It's a studio space where we all connected with each other, having these small interactions. For example, a skein of yarn, you know, it’s really long, so if you're not careful, you can mess it up, get a big knot. But if you have a person holding it – I would usually get my mom to hold it – and then another other person wrapping it… These small acts feel like acts of care. I'm thinking a lot about materials, and how I use materials – a material practice – to think about broader ideas.
TW: Are there ways that you've found working with those materials that have been challenging?
KS: Well, the yarn is definitely challenging, because it does love to get knotted up. [Laughter] But I have a lot of experience with yarn, so I know some tricks. One thing I was struggling with was, what kind of materials I was going to be using for this project. The original iteration I did in Victoria last year used a willow branch. Willow grows up in the Yukon, but it doesn't grow into a tree. It's a different species; it's a bush. I found a willow branch in Victoria, and I was thinking about the extension of, I guess, relationships, the relationship between the two different willow species, and about how I can make my own space of home anywhere I go. When I came here, I was like, well, what are the plants that grow here? I was trying to make a connection between my First Nation, the Selkirk First Nation up in the Yukon, and the Syilx territory here. The material I ended up picking was a pine branch, because we have pine up north and we also have pine here. I was thinking about the relationship between these two different species of plants as relatives, as having relatives in different spaces.
TW: I think that's beautiful. As you've been making this work, have you been finding yourself thinking about past memory only, or are you also thinking about, I guess, future memories, as well? Is there some interplay between the two?
KS: When it comes to memory and time specifically, I don't want to use linear, Western time as a way to think about it. I like to think about time as being more of a coil. It's circular, but it also travels, it moves. I also think that memories and time are nonlinear, in a way, like our dreams. I think they can give us visions of the future, and we can visit people from our past. I feel like our lives are a lot more profound than our waking reality.
TW: I'm also interested in these ideas in my own practice, as well. Spiraling time – a never-ending spiral. I feel like there’re many ways you could imagine that visually. But I think that the way you're winding the yarn and tying it – it really reminds me of the idea of spiraling together.
KS: Oh, that's beautiful.
TW: In your 2022 Sobey Award video profile, you mentioned making art for the future. I'm curious what the future smells like or feels like or looks like – how it lives in your imagination.
KS: I'm not sure what the future holds when it comes to art practices. But what I do know is that, as a Northern Tutchone artist, when I was studying in university, it was really hard for me to find other Northern Tutchone artists and to learn more about our history, which is so unique. So, when I'm making art, I'm thinking about the future as in: if I make art that's accessible for Northern Tutchone people, they don't have to go into museums or they don't have to go into institutions to learn about it. I’m making it more accessible so that Northern Tutchone youth can look at my artwork and be like, “Oh. Wow, that's beautiful.” Or, “Oh, it's so tacky. I can do something better.” I think about my art as being like that: a conversation with the future.
TW: You’ve talked a bit about materials in your practice and some of your thought processes around that. I'm also wondering what your art practice looks like on a daily basis in terms of gathering materials or ideas, or working through concepts?
KS: I try to have my lived experience influence the way I interact with materials. Everybody has their own experiences and they have their own thoughts when it comes to, you know, their art practice. My art practice is interdisciplinary. I do have the MFA from SFU in interdisciplinary art. So, for me, all materials are up for grabs. I use anything that I can get my hands on to make art, which is so lovely. Sometimes I'll be in the studio painting for long hours, and then I get kind of burned out of painting. So I want to move to other, more tactile media. It's kind of strange, because I'll be in the studio working on a project, but then when I go outside, I'll start seeing things, and I'll be like, “Oh, ok!” For the Sobey award, I had an artwork that was four pieces of concrete. It's kind of funny because I actually did the prototype when I was doing my MFA.
TW: That's really cool.
KS: So, for the Sobey, I got to make that into an actual artwork. But it was funny because I was looking for pieces of concrete to use – just found concrete. And after I found the pieces I wanted to use, I would see it everywhere. Like this branch project… When I'm walking down the street and I see pine branches, and I'm like, “Oh, is that something I want to use?” It almost makes me see things in a different way.
TW: Were there any specific moments or interactions during your MFA that you found really helped push your practice forward or shaped it, leading you to where you currently are as an artist?
KS: Well, I think the whole MFA experience for me was just so eye opening. It was really interesting because it's not a typical MFA where you're specializing in one media, like painting or photography. You can do anything you want. My cohort was a group of amazing artists – a musician, a puppeteer, someone who does land based work. Interacting with them, we had this one class – it was on collaboration. The idea was, you’d work with someone who wasn’t working in your specific field to kind of expand your practice, and see what possibilities there are working in different genres. I remember working with an artist named Leif Hall who does extended sound. She uses her voice to make music. When I was working with her, we did this ASMR project. Our conversations were around lived experience and tactile things. We did a 16-channel sound project that was like beads in a bowl spinning around you. It was really cool.
TW: I just had that class last fall. I really enjoyed it.
KS: Yeah, so cool.
TW: I feel like every cohort is such a randomized, different mix of people. It must be really exciting to teach it. You’re going to get totally different things out of that class, year to year.
KS: Yeah, that must be very exciting.
TW: In my cohort, there're a lot of people who work with digital media. There was a lot of digital art in different formats. It was really interesting seeing them, like, bring that out of other people, too. I've been reading some of your writing on your practice, and you talk about intersecting urban and traditional ways of being Indigenous, and I was wondering: are there any ways that these facets of identity intersect that are joyous or unexpected for you? How does that affect your practice?
KS: That's a complex question. I think about intersectionality, as, I would say, having different facets of my life Influence me in very subtle ways. I grew up in Vancouver, and it’s a very urban area. There's a large population of Indigenous people that do live in Vancouver, so I was really lucky to grow up in a neighborhood that had a lot of Indigenous people. We had the friendship center just down the street, and I went to my first potlatch there. It was my family's potlatch, so it was really different. How do we practice our traditions far away from home? And how do we do this in a meaningful and respectful way? For my First Nation, we have a thing called Doòli law, and that means our traditional protocols. They have four pillars, kind of like the medicine wheel: sharing, caring, teaching, and respect. When I'm navigating the world of art, I'm thinking about these things – how can I make art that shares knowledge? How can I make art that cares for the materials that I'm using? These protocols extend beyond my art practice, as well. How do I navigate, as a good person, in this world? When it comes to intersectionality, it's really important that we know who we are as people, where we come from in our culture. The world is constantly changing. It's so dynamic. To say that tradition is something that's in the past is very misleading, because it's constantly changing. It’s the same with Indigenous futurity or urban Indigenous culture. It's not like there's no tradition there. There is tradition, it's not just set in the past. It's a really interesting time shift, I'd say.
TW: Like you spoke about earlier, the past is constantly speaking to the future and the present. It’s very circular and intermingled.
KS: In Western knowledge, we have these very binary categories, of ways of thinking. Black and white, or urban and rural. But these ideas are misleading. They're so rigid that they don't actually make sense to the majority of people. I'm trying to think about how, like, you know, I sometimes feel like, “Oh, I'm not traditional enough,” or, because I live up north, “I'm not city enough” anymore. I just have to respect myself, I think.
TW: As we experience the world and have our own lived experiences, we are also always changing as people, as well. It's kind of, in a way, like creating things is such a little magical capsule, because it kind of captures that very fleeting moment of the self, in a way. I feel like I've also been thinking about our viewpoint on landscape. In Western culture, there's this binary between the city and a town or the natural world, and you have to leave the city to go to the natural world. But the city is just integrated in a landscape, and we're present with that landscape always, you know? There's really no leaving or going. You're kind of always interacting with it, in some sort of way, even though it may be visually different, like, you're interacting with more concrete, or whatever.
KS: Thinking about the land and how we have this relationship with the land, a lot of the time people will be, like, “Oh, the land is like over there.” And let's say we're in a city – they're thinking about the land as being separate. But I think we have to also think that we are part of the land. As physical beings, we breathe the air. That's part of the land. Our skin is porous. We are constantly in exchange with our environment. So, we're not separate, we're part of it. We have to acknowledge that the things that we do to the land, we're also doing to ourselves.
TW: Yeah, absolutely. Our bodies are so integrated with the experience of the land, or we’re extensions of it. Something that I've also been thinking about, because I’m doing my MFA right now and I’ve returned to academia, is how, whether we like it or not, the Western art industry and academia are so entrenched in systems of colonialism. I think the question I've been asking myself is, is how do you stay grounded within these systems of colonialism, while also, you know, thinking about these ideas of being in relationship with the land, or in a good relationship with people? I wanted to ask you: what keeps you grounded while you navigate or come up against these systems? Because I feel like, as an Indigenous artist practicing in Canada, this is something that you have to navigate, even after you're done your MFA, to continue as an artist.
KS: I think for me, to get that balance in my life… It's kind of funny, but I actually use art as a way to deal with my own thoughts and emotions. I'll just sit in the studio and work on something, even if it's something that isn't for an art show or for the gallery. But for me, my art practice is very heavily influenced by academia, so research is a fundamental part of my artistic practice. But that can get really intense sometimes – like, you're constantly thinking in theory. And a lot of the time, it positions Indigenous art as being traumatic – like, we're victims – and it's more focused on negative ideas. So, for me, I really like to just get outside and spend time. The Yukon River is right outside my door, so I can just go walk down there and sit by the river, which is amazing and beautiful. It's this beautiful blue color. You know, just enjoying the day, the moment around us. That is really important.
TW: Getting outside is such a powerful way to shift how you feel. I feel like, while doing research, it's sometimes so easy just to get caught up in your head.
KS: When I was at SFU, we had this class. I don't remember what it was called, but it was part of the LandMarks art exhibit, which was essentially art that was taken outside of the gallery. We went to Stanley Park and everybody made site specific work. We were thinking about our relationship to nature and the environment. And that was just such a breath of fresh air – just being outside. I was making paper, so that was inside [Laughter]. But I also got to go outside and, you know, teach people how to do origami. Another artist, Roxanne Charles, sat in a field across from the statue of Lord Stanley, and she was doing weaving. That class was so refreshing compared to, like, a lot of other classes where you're inside, with no windows, and, you know, you're essentially just regurgitating theory that you’ve read.
TW: Yeah! [Laughter] That’s so amazing. Are you able to get outside during your residency right now, as part of your making process?
KS: Well, unfortunately, I haven't. I had this really amazing, dedicated team that went out for me, because I just got back from Greenland. I didn't have a lot of time to find the materials myself. But they were just a powerhouse of a team. They went out and got everything, and I think for them it was a really different art practice – knowing that there are possibilities in just finding objects. I think that's really important, especially when it comes to being a sustainable artist. Sometimes we don't have a lot of money. Being able to see the world around you as something that you can tell stories with is really impactful.
TW: Oh, absolutely. I think about that a lot, too. There's going to be times when there are certain materials that are available to you, and then times when they're not. I think that's also such a great thing about being interdisciplinary. In many ways, you’re less reliant on one specific thing. You're able to shift into working with something else, putting materials together in a new and different way. When you make art, do you think about sensory experience at all?
KS: Oh, yeah. I think that's what I love about just making art. For me, it's the materials themselves. Just touching these different sticks. And it was really interesting, because every stick has its own personality, almost, or its own identity. I mean, it does. Because they're all part of trees, and they were alive, and they had their own agency, in a sense, at some point, before they snapped off and became our project. Just thinking about how things feel, how things smell. I think art is amazing for that kind of stuff. I was just talking to another artist about, how do you capture smell? Because smell is such a tricky thing, and a lot of people have smell sensitivities. I think – just a walk in the forest. It might not seem like it's that impactful, but it's all of the smells of the plants, and the decomposition, and the dirt, and, in Vancouver, the sea air – everything kind of works together and makes it a physical experience.
TW: In many ways, smell is so interrelated with memory, too, which is so incredible. It's also hard to capture that, like you're saying – if you go on a walk, how do you capture all of those different types of sensations? What are some other materials – in the sense of books, music, even conversations with people – that are helping to generate your creativity right now?
KS: One thing I'm thinking about is my partner, Dustin. He's Tlinigit, and he has this love of music that is just unmatched. He makes these crazy playlists. One is old Western fiddle music, and another one is rap. So, he's always playing these different playlists. For me, I just have the same albums on my phone, and I listen to those over and over again. But hanging out with him, and we'll both be in the studio, just having that experience of, like, getting different music and different things introduced into my life. It's just so meaningful.
TW: Yeah, absolutely. I also love the feeling of discovery, when you listen to something new. That is so exciting.
KS: Also, I've been doing a lot of reading lately. I have been doing a lot of traveling, and you have to bring a book when you're flying. Just in case. Right now, I'm reading Joshua Whitehead’s Making Love with the Land. It's a collection of essays. When I'm reading it, I’m like, this feels like he's talking about things I'm thinking about. I'm not done yet, but it's very inspiring.
TW: I haven't read it yet, but it's on my list.
KS: Yeah, put it at the top.
TW: Yes, ok. I will. I think that's one thing about being back in the flow of reading again for my practice. Sometimes I get a bit overwhelmed, because there's so many books out there that I want to read, but there's limited time. I have one last question for you. Do you have any advice for young or emerging Indigenous artists that are trying to find them themselves or their practice that you wish somebody had told you when you were in that place?
KS: Wow – I'm not emerging anymore? [Laughter] I think for advice, I would say, first of all, keep true to your own practice, and, you know, keep using the materials that you feel resonate with you and your life. What I wish I learned more about when I was in school was grants. Grants actually helped me pay my rent, and to give me the time and space to focus on making new art. That's really important. The one thing that was my little trick for success was, I had a very focused goal every year: my goal was to be in three art shows per year. And after doing that for, like, ten years, it kind of started paying off. Now I don't have to look for shows, shows look for me. It's really cool that it's kind of flipped. But having that consistent “three shows per year” helped me build my CV up. Also, a lot of the time I would get rejected. So, I'm like, “OK, well, I applied for five shows and I only got two.” But I still want to make that three show mark, so I'm just going to keep pushing myself. Another thing is, you have to really think forward in time. As an artist, someone's not going to, like, just knock on your door, and be like, “Oh, you're a famous artist.” You have to plan in advance. Like, ok – I want to do this residency, and I have to apply six months in advance, for example. That's a lot of extra work, so take it easy.
TW: I agree with all of those things – can confirm. [Laughter] All good things to think about. Well, thank you so much for this conversation, Krystal. I really appreciate you taking time to speak with me.
Krystle Silverfox is a member of Selkirk First Nation (Wolf Clan), and interdisciplinary visual artist. She currently lives and works on the territory of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and Ta’an Kwach’an Council (Whitehorse, Yukon). Silverfox holds both a BFA in Visual Art (2015); a BA in Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice from UBC (2013); also an MFA in Interdisciplinary studies from Simon Fraser University (2019). Her artistic practice explores different materials, methodologies, and symbols to create conceptual works.Krystle Silverfox is inspired by Indigenous feminism, trans- nationalism, decolonialism, activism, and lived experience.
Taryn Walker is a queer, interdisciplinary Indigenous artist of Nlka'pamux, Syilx, and mixed European ancestry whose work explores concepts of identity, tenderness, healing, cycles of life and death, and the supernatural through drawing, printmaking, installation, and video. In 2018 Walker graduated from the University of Victoria's BFA program with a Major in Visual Arts and a Minor in Art History & Visual Studies.Taryn was awarded the Diane Mary Hallam Achievement Award by the University of Victoria for academic excellence and commitment to the arts in 2018 and in 2017 they were also longlisted for the Philip B. Lind Emerging Artist Prize, presented by the Presentation House Gallery for demonstrating excellence as an emerging video artist and photographer. Most recently, in 2022 they were shortlisted for the ohpinamake prize presented by the University of Saskatchewan. Walker’s work has been presented in spaces, residencies, and events across Western Canada and beyond. Their artistic research has also been granted support from the Edmonton Arts Council, the Indigenous Curatorial Collective, and the First Peoples Cultural Council.