Location as Perspective and Image: Interview with Krystle Coughlin

Vol. 1 Issue 01 Summer 2019
Interview held by Louie Fermor in June 2019 within the unceded traditional and contemporary lands of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Watuth, Sechelt, and Squamish Nations of the Coast Salish peoples, in the city colonially known as Vancouver. 

Krystle Coughlin is a Northern Tutchone artist living and working in New Westminster, BC. Her artistic practice explores different materials and concepts such as photography, printmaking, photography, fibre arts, and sculpture. Coughlin recently aquired her MFA from SFU's School of Contemporary Arts, and holds a BA from UBC’s Institute of Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice, as well as a BFA in Visual Arts from UBC. She is interested in the intersections of land and identity, and is inspired by the beauty of the Northwest coast. 

"I was wondering what do people who aren’t from my community see in my artwork. What do they take from it versus what Indigenous people take away from it."


Krystle Coughlin, photo taken by the artist.

You and I first met last summer, in Tkaronto, as finalists for the 20th Annual (and unfortunately last) RBC Painting Competition. I had never been to Toronto before, but had just been living in New York for a couple of months. Out of the other finalists that I had the chance to talk to (the majority of whom, I believe, were either practicing in Ontario or the States), you were one of the few that agreed with me about how surreal that event was. 


Though you live in Vancouver, I believe you have a background working in smaller communities and visiting other places for research purposes. Can you describe some of the communities you’ve worked in? 

Well I just got back from Flagstaff, Arizona. I was there for a week. Studying with Baji Whitethorne Sr. That was the first time I was in the States doing anything like that, my first residency outside of Canada. Most of the shows I’ve done have been here in Vancouver. And I’ve done one residency in the past at Malaspina Printmakers Society, that’s on Granville Island. But Flagstaff was the first time I’ve been outside of Canada. And the RBC competition was the first time I was out of B.C. 


I think you were the first other finalist that I met there— I was wandering around the Harbourfront Centre, lost, and trying to find the entry. And then I found you, and asked desperately, “Are you one of the artists?”




And I was like, “Oh, thank god!” 


The whole experience was weird. The Power Plant is a big gallery so I was thinking, “What am I doing here?” 


That’s what I felt like too. I know your work often addresses urban Indigenous identity— what are your experience making and seeing artworks in these different cities and communities? What are the differences between working locally here, going all the way to Toronto, or working in a smaller space but still abroad like Flagstaff? 

When I was in Flagstaff I found that it shifted my perspective because I’m so used to doing things my way, the way I see it as an urban Indigenous woman living in a city. It’s a very small town in the middle of the desert. Even the scenery around me was so different; everything out here in Vancouver is kind of grey. Which I thought was funny because at the RBC event, people would say, “Oh look, you’re painting’s grey like Vancouver.” 




KC: So when I was out there, everything was different colours, the animals were different— so I had to put my own way of doing things and seeing things away for that week and explore things from how Baji was teaching, how the local Indigenous people care for the land. 


Were you making work while you were there? 

Untitled (salmon head II) small.jpg

Coughlin, Krystle. Untitled (Salmon Head II), 2017.

1. Simon Fraser University

Yeah, we were doing a collaborative project where we all worked together at the same time on a painting. Which was very different— I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. It was a challenge but also easy— I thought it would be difficult. 


Was it an Indigenous collective? 


It’s called the Namingha Institute. The Namingha’s are a very well-known Indigenous artist family in Santa Fe. They put money towards this institute so that people from all over can learn about the art collections at the Museum of Northern Arizona and work with Baji. We had six students, one of them was non-indigenous and the rest of us were. But the non-indigenous person dropped out so it ultimately was only Indigenous people working together [laughs]. 

Do you think that it changed the collaborative process? 


I think so. I think it gave a different perspective. Here at SFU1 it’s very Westernized. The school is trying to decolonize itself through art— we have this interdisciplinary program. But in the Namingha Institute’s program it was all Indigenous students studying with an Indigenous painter. 


In the painting that you presented at the RBC Painting Competion, Untitled (Salmon Head II), you used Northwest First Nations imagery, specifically Northern Tutchone. But the paint application techniques— the dripping and the acrylic washes— they abstract the imagery. Or, at least, they diverge from the line clarity that I’ve seen Northern Tutchone work presented with in traditional contexts. Is there an intentional method of material abstraction that you use when working with Northern Tutchone imagery? 


I feel like I use the Northern Tutchone design— so that’s the closed form line design of the Northwest Coast seen on totem poles and bentwood box designs. I use the shapes from that but my application is from an experimentation in painting. I try to be abstract— that’s actually probably one of my least abstract paintings and I was kind of surprised when it was selected for the RBC Painting Competition. Mine looks kind of formal, I suppose. When I was in Toronto, and while we were having the interviews with the jurors, they said, “This reminds me of the texture of bark or the rain.” But that was just coincidental: just being out here on the coast has a certain aesthetic value. 


Do you feel when you’re presenting that imagery on a larger scale, in a place like Toronto, that there is something that the audiences want to see in that work?


It was curious. Because, at the Painting Competition and the events they had, we had to kind of sell ourselves as artists to people from the bank. I was wondering what do people who aren’t from my community see in my artwork, what do they take from it- that versus what Indigenous people take away from it. 


I feel similarly. The work that I presented there, and the one that was accepted from what I submitted, was extremely traditional: a white-canonical oil-paint self portrait. Torso, naturalistic figure, barely any nudity. In the statement for the work, I described my being queer. But the painting, on it’s own, is hard to be read that way. So I wondered why that painting, of all those that I submitted, was chosen. What was it about this particular painting that an audience would want to see— what palatability exists in this work that makes it easy for a commercial, financial-field audience to interact with? 


How do you feel about the competition now that a year has passed? 


I’m actually still kind of shocked about the whole thing [laughs] “What happened? Did I really go to Toronto last summer and do this thing? Because everything happened so quickly. I feel like that opportunity really did open a lot of doors for me. People do take me a lot more seriously as an artist. We were in Canadian Art, so people found me through the publication. And it’s really going fast now because of that time. 

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Coughlin, Krystle. All that Glitters is Not Gold, 2019.

Another work that you’ve done, All that Glitters is Not Gold, seems to have a conceptual root in using a material’s history as a means for deconstruction of a contemporary norm. Can you describe some of the material presentation choices that were made for that work? 


I guess the star of the piece is the Hudson’s Bay blanket. Which, traditionally, Northern Tutchone people cut the blankets in half during potlatch and gifted them. So I used half of a blanket, one that was gifted to me by one of the elders of my family. I used that and put some un-spun wool along the bottom so it lengthened the blanket and made it look unfinished or like it was ripped in half. And the blanket was suspended by copper nails and copper wire in a cedar frame. And the cedar frame was built from the discarded materials of one of the old SFU campuses, which I used to build a stretcher frame. Which would be traditionally used for tanning and stretching hides. Then the bottom of the work is decommissioned Canadian pennies.

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Coughlin, Krystle. All that Glitters is Not Gold, 2019.

"So All that Glitters is Not Gold is a nod to these relationships that are really difficult and essentially problematic."

It uses copper. And copper is a material that is traded between my First Nation (as well as other First Nations) and corporations. And Goldcorp (the name of the SFU building where we are right now) is a mining company that has a mine on my traditional territories up in the Yukon. So All that Glitters is Not Gold is a nod to these relationships that are really difficult and essentially problematic. The literal framework of the piece is the school. The copper is the trading material. Half a blanket is a reference to the history of the site, which used to be the Woodward’s building (which later had many of it’s locations purchased by the Hudsons’s Bay Company). It’s all of these layers of materials coming from places. 


That’s so interesting that there were so many narratives all going on at once, and all in the place that you were going to school. Is there a way that you handle these materials that contemporizes them? 


I feel I approach say, painting a lot different than I do a sculpture or installation. With painting, it’s an imaginative process. But when I’m using physical objects in my work I like to think about what they mean and where they come from. 


Is there a story-telling happening in these objects? 


I guess so. I really like to look at archives, and history, and try to apply it to my own practice. 


You were doing research at an archive recently, right? 


Yes, the Bill Holm Center. Out here in Vancouver there’s the Museum of Anthropology that has the big collection of Indigenous artifacts and objects. It’s on the University of British Columbia’s campus. I spent a lot of time at the UBC campus, I was studying there for seven years. I went to the Museum of Anthropology to study Northwest Coast art and they had this little map: “Here are all the Nations!” And my Nation’s in there. So I thought, “Oh cool, this is where my art is.” But when you look in the collections, there’s one piece. So I thought, “Okay, if I want to learn about my own Nation I can go fly up to the Yukon or go to the Seattle where the Bill Holm Center has a big collection of Northern Tutchone art. They had Tutchone bone scratchers. So, if you want to scratch yourself you don’t use your nails, you use the bone pick. It has little carvings on it, and it goes around your neck and you wear it. There were lots of copper objects, copper arrowheads. There were bentwood boxes. There was also contemporary artwork, like paintings. It was a big selection of different artworks. It’s easier for me to get to Seattle and study their collections than for me to fly up to Whitehorse. That’s why I applied to go do that research. It was a cool experience.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity, with Coughlin's consent. 

Louie Fermor is a writer and artist living in Mohkinstsis, on Treaty 7 Territory. They are the founding publisher and editor of Studio and have provided artwork and writing for exhibitions through out Calgary. This past year they participated in the New York University Summer Studio Residency, was a finalist for the 20th Annual RBC Painting Competition, and received the M:ST and Luma Quarterly Critical Writing Prize. 

Click here to see Fermor's other writings for Studio. And click here to visit Fermor's personal website.