Ahousaht artist sees opportunity in a blank wall at United Church

Port Alberni, BC

When you enter Port Alberni’s United Church you are greeted with a long foyer filled with gift items on shelves, a reception area, books and comfy armchairs. At the end of the foyer was a set of double doors, painted white.

“There was an event here and Geena seemed to have a problem with white walls and asked if we’d be interested in her doing something,” said Mary Heatherington with a smile, the Alberni Valley United Church worship assistant.

Ahousaht artist and Port Alberni resident Geena Haiyupis recalled attending a Pride event at the United Church called Bubbles and Chalk.

“I noticed that the church had already had a lot of Indigenous designs and pride designs,” Haiyupis noted. “There was a wall with a big white door, the entrance to the gym.”

“I said to Tam, gee, it’s such a shame that everything else is super colourful and that door is so white!” Geena shared.

According to Reverend Ed Lewis and Mary Heatherington, Geena takes part in activities at the church, including Ahousaht Dance Group nights and designed T-shirts for Pride week.

She approached the United Church with an offer to paint an Indigenous design on the white double doors.

“[Haiyupis] submitted three designs, and we selected one,” said Heatherington.

The chosen design, Heatherington said, was selected for the vibrant colors and the symbolism in First Nations culture, which reflects the work the United Church is doing in terms of reconciliation.

“I really started watching the United Church for all of their events and activities that they’re doing and they appeared to be more like a community centre than a church to me,” said Geena. “I then started going to house of dance practice, and I couldn’t help watch this white door every single time I came in and it really bothered my brain.”

That was when Geena approached Heatherington about reconciliation groups.

“I really wanted to paint those doors to honour the commitment that the United Church had towards truth and reconciliation,” said Geena.

“Lots of people think that reconciliation is just an act, but the real part that means the most is recognizing people’s truth, and hearing the truth, and accepting their truths,” said Geena.

She said she wants to give back to this amazing community for their commitment and all of the hard work they are doing.

“To hear our people’s stories and the amount of work that they were putting into listening to our people’s stories,” said Geena.

The work the church is doing reminds Geena of her grandfather, Roy Haiyupis.

“He was a real magical man,” she said. “It reminded me of all of the things that he really stood for, all of the impacts that he wanted to make from people’s experiences and residential school and healing that inner child. It made me realize that everything he stood for is not gone with him, but it is living inside of us.”

The new mural at the church features a rainbow, which Geena says symbolizes unity.

Reverend Ed Lewis noted that the rainbow colors represent LGBTQIA2-S pride, another marginalized segment of the community.

Embracing the rainbow are brilliant sun rays, which symbolizes growth and warmth. There is an eagle for strength and to focus on goals. The bear, for Geena, symbolizes strength and the preparation that it takes to make sure that teachings get handed onto the next generation.

“These are commitments that have been handed down from mothers to their children, because we are matriarchal society,” said Geena.

The mural also features a salmon river.

“Salmon, no matter where they go in their lives, always find their way back home and I think that’s where our people are, Geena added. “We are just trying to find our way back home, and finding our way back home for me means healing.”

While Haiyupis gifted the mural, the church made a contribution to assist with paint supplies. Several people from the church community as well as Haiyupis’ friends and family assisted in the work.

“I really wanted to put a design on this wall because our Nuu-chah-nulth people access space at United Church for AA or dance practice or social events, and I just wanted to give back to this community to honour our people,” said Geena.

“I believe that if our people see Indigenous representation, they’ll feel more centred and more visible in the community and not be ashamed, because being Indigenous is something that we should be proud of,” she continued. “We should be using residential school, history and knowledge as a source of strength and courage for people because every single survivor has a courage story to be told.”

“We try to be part of the healing process,” said Heatherington, adding that there is nothing that can be done to undo the past. “But if we can assist in any way in healing, we will.”

“One of the beautiful things about this project was getting to know members of the community or church members and working alongside them,” said Geena.

She praised her sons for always helping with art projects.

The mural, for the most part, is complete. It needs to be finished with varnish and then given a few days to cure. After that, the United Church plans to host a celebration of the completed mural.

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