“Wow, it looks amazing, Jason!”
“How do you draw such a perfect circle? How long will it take to finish?”
“I can’t wait to see it! What color will that part be?”
The questions and comments were plentiful, constant and encouraging from students passing by as Lummi Nation artist Jason LaClair masterfully painted the hallway wall at Happy Valley Elementary and answered each student’s pondering observation with intentionality and care.
The art piece now completed, a salmon egg in the Coast Salish art style adorns the staircase wall as a recent addition to school’s interior and permanent example of art and cultures students in grades 3-5 learned about during a recent curriculum unit.
Happy Valley has been implementing the Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State curriculum from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). The school partnered with Allied Arts for the opportunity to have LaClair provide instruction alongside classroom teachers, in addition to painting the wall mural piece.
“It makes it more of a personal connection and I feel like kids can learn easier,” LaClair said of the ability to work with students in the classroom. “Learning out of books is all right, but learning straight from the artist – and to learn about the community they live in, to learn of the history of this area, and to know they should feel comfortable asking me any question. Because that’s how we get to know each other as a community.”
The unit has taught students to articulate and understand elements of individual and collective identities, recognizing common, shared elements across native and indigenous communities as well as distinct cultural characteristics unique to a single nation or tribe. Part of the curriculum’s intent is that it is locally based, so students have learned about Lummi and Nooksack communities.
LaClair, who is of Lummi and Nooksack heritage, has been practicing art over the last 29 years as a self-taught artist. Through firsthand expertise and instruction, students learned the distinctive style and unique characteristics of Coast Salish art before painting their own canvases using the shapes and tradition of Coast Salish art.
“They were super excited, and it was a breath of fresh air, because I was nervous,” LaClair said. “To have their full attention, asking questions, and just being excited – it’s good energy and that’s a great way to start a relationship with the school district.”
Joining the salmon egg in the hallway are student canvases of orcas, salmon and eagles using the Coast Salish art shapes of circle, crescent, and trigon.
The selection of the salmon egg was a collaborative and intentional choice as the permanent centerpiece. LaClair’s design at the base of the stairs is in the Coast Salish motif and the design of the salmon egg in the center represents the life cycle of the salmon. Fishing has been a way of life for the Coast Salish people since time immemorial.
Titled Skwe-shun-ut (Protecting Our Way of Life), an inscription plaque on the wall describes the mural collaboration project, message, and highlights of LaClair’s background.
“What’s really important right now is protecting the Salmon People and of course the natural resources,” LaClair said. “Because if we don’t, then it’s not going to be around for future generations. They’re also important to feed other species, other than just us – like killer whales. The kids and the staff chose it together.”
LaClair’s art can be seen across Whatcom County and has included logo work along with large-scale murals. One such example is the story of the Salmon People illustrated on North Forest Street along a concrete wall and done in collaboration with mural artist Gretchen Leggit.
LaClair and Happy Valley staff plan to partner in June for an outdoor mural, working with younger K-2 students after the first visit focused on grades 3-5. He will also visit Cordata Elementary in May for a similar collaboration.