Artist Darlene Gait credits her grandmother Cooper as the most significant creative inspiration in her life. “She told me that if you look into nature, you can see patterns up in the sky and on the earth, and you can also see them within yourself.
“We would be on the beach and my grandmother would say, ‘Look at the sky and you can see the sand.’ And I would say, ‘I don’t see any sand, I just see clouds.’ And she’d say, ‘Look closer.’”
Gait waits for her listener to grasp the image, and then smiles. “I realized that the rippled clouds above looked exactly the same as the rippled sand under our feet.”
These themes of paying attention, of looking more closely, and of connection run throughout Gait’s work, making her the perfect artist for this year’s BC Summer Reading Club, the theme of which is “Walk on the Wild Side.”
As a child, Gait was filled with curiosity about the natural world and says she drove her grandmother Cooper crazy with her questions. Gait had just as many questions about the two different worlds she inhabited in her childhood home on Vancouver Island. There was the Scottish-English world of her father’s family and the Aboriginal world of mother’s. “One wasn’t necessarily better than the other,” she observes, “but there were extreme differences—in manners, culture, food, art. As a child, I wondered a lot about it.”
By the age of 10 Gait knew she was going to be an artist. And even then she was wondering, “How am I going to bring these worlds together when I get older?”
Her early attempts to bring together symbols from her Aboriginal culture into British-style paintings were not well received. Even the Canada Council of the Arts wouldn’t support her. Her request for Aboriginal funding was turned down because her work “wasn’t native enough,” while her request for non-Aboriginal funding was turned down because her work was “too native.”
“’Well, screw you!” Gait recalls thinking. “I’ll do it myself.”
It was a struggle to not have that support during those difficult years, and Gait frequently found herself asking the question: “How am I going to make this work?” Married at 18, a single parent at 21, she nevertheless managed to take care of her son, put food on the table, and still find time to paint. “Sometimes I’d work till 2 or 3 in the morning and then just get up and start again. It was like that for a lot of years.”
It took about five years, but eventually people started to warm up to Gait’s style. Finally, it was okay for her to be herself. This was in no small part thanks to distribution of her work through the Canadian-based company Island Art Publishers.
While she says she wouldn’t necessarily want to repeat those years, it was the foundation of what was to come. “There is no way that you can make it in the arts without so many thousands of hours. You have to put in the time,” Gait says adamantly. “I’ve seen people who just want to go from A–Z. There’s that whole thing in the middle where you gotta work on this—I’m still working on it!”
During this period, Gait made contact with many other people struggling with their identity and/or with issues of racism on both sides of their family.
She pauses. “Sometimes the biggest struggles you have in life are the best things that you can do.”
The word ‘unity’ is often associated with Gait and her work. In fact, it’s one of the core values she held onto from a decade spent exploring the Baha’i Faith. She believes all things need to be united, but “the biggest thing you’re ever going to do is to find unity within yourself. I’m still trying.” She adds, “Everyday is hard for everyone because everyone has their own struggles that they are going through.”
When you look at a Darlene Gait painting, the illustrations are so specific, so detailed, it’s easy to wonder whether she might also have a science background. She sighs and shakes her head, “I always think that I never see enough, that I’m not going deep enough.”
Chances are that once you see the illustrations for this year’s BC SRC you’ll find yourself in disagreement with Gait. Her work contains gorgeously detailed animals featured in a series of luminescent landscapes that reflect the incredible biodiversity of this province.
If you look closely you might notice that many of the animals Gait has chosen are on the endangered (or at-risk) species list, including the Northern Leopard Frog, the Little Brown Myotis (bat), and the Vancouver Island Marmot.
“I want children to make that connection: If an animal is on the endangered list and living in their own forest that means we’re not doing our job to protect them.” As far as Gait is concerned, children need to know that “they’re going to be inheriting the responsibility for caring for these animals.”
She isn’t at all concerned that awareness of this responsibility is too heavy for young children. “Children are really smart. They want to know; they’re curious.” She pauses, “I think it’s is easier to explain to a child than to an adult—there’s no guilt association. Most adults don’t want to talk about it.”
According to Gait, artists are the ‘visual writers’ and it’s her hope that children and their families will be inspired by this year’s BC SRC to go outside and connect to nature. She acknowledges how challenging this can be for busy parents and says she has learned a few things about the power of imagination from parenting a three-year-old daughter and two stepsons When Gait first met her stepsons, they were not at all interested in nature. She enticed them into going hiking by telling them stories of magical trails, where sticks became wizard’s wands and pterodactyls were disguised as eagles. “To this day they still talk about that, the magic is still there.”
While this year’s BC Summer Reading Club invites children and their families to “Walk on the Wild Side,” Gait’s exquisite illustrations also invite all of us to look more closely, more deeply.
Cynthia Ford is the Provincial Coordinator of the BC Summer Reading Club.
If you are coming to this year’s BCLA Conference, be sure to come by the BC SRC table and meet Darlene Gait in person! She will be signing posters between 12 -1:30 p.m. on Thursday, Apr. 20, 2017. To learn more about Darlene and her work, please visit her website, onemoon.ca. Darlene is available for library visits this summer. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.