Disembarking from a long flight, weary travellers arriving at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) receive a pleasant surprise. Instead of long, dingy corridors, visitors pass through a traditional post-and-beam longhouse and enter the Pacific Passage, an attractive landscape dominated by Hetux — the keeper of the sky — a multi-coloured thunderbird with a 21-foot wingspan. A cedar whaling canoe floats majestically in the water. A seal and gull sit amongst driftwood logs and rocks. All these figures are decorated in the powerful red, green, and black ovoids that characterize First Nations art. These bold pieces are just a part of the large collection of native art at YVR, one of the great cultural secrets of Canada.
Further along the passageway is the welcome hall of the Musqueam First Nation, on whose traditional land the airport sits. “This is my favourite part of the collection,” says Rita Beiks, the airport’s art curator, pointing to Flight, a 17-foot cedar spindle whorl. Two eagles are carved around two men with upraised arms. The images on the spindle whorl welcome visitors and symbolize flight.
Four large weavings hang nearby. Down a short flight of stairs, two towering cedar welcome figures greet passengers.
“This is one of the best and largest collections of northwest coast Native art in the world,”
announces Bieks proudly.
The project began in the early 1990s when the YVR Art Foundation was formed to acquire the art of First Nations because of the outstanding beauty of their culture. YVR was the first airport in the world to place a major focus on art. Negotiations with the Musqueam First Nation led to the creation of the Musqueam Welcome Area in 1995. This was followed by the acquisition of Bill Reid’s The Jade Canoe, a monumental, six-ton bronze sculpture finished with a lustrous jade-green patina. The sculpture, which has become immensely popular, depicts a Haida canoe bearing 13 supernatural creatures including a raven, who steers the canoe. The Jade Canoe is considered to be the most significant sculpture of the 20th century, and has been featured on the $20 bill.
A stroll around the sprawling airport leads to a constant stream of surprises. One encounters supernatural creatures and the bold designs of Native art. Travelers arriving via the Canada Line are greeted by Susan Point’s Cedar Connection, a giant old-growth stump emblazoned with a human face and an owl. Then they are welcomed by a 35-foot totem pole, Celebrating Flight, with creator Raven at the top.
The airport owns about 200 art pieces with an estimated value of $16 million to $20 million, which are in six main and several smaller groupings. The Foundation also supports young British Columbia Native artists through scholarships and showings at the airport.
The spectacular display, Supernatural World, is in an unlikely location, surrounded by ramps and walkways. A thunderbird swoops down to hunt the killer whale, who has a seal in his mouth. Carvings of an eagle, a raven, a human, and a bear look down from above.
In another major grouping, large cedar carvings of Fog Woman and Raven sit among shops and dining tables. A stream runs from the carvings to an aquarium representing the ocean, above which hangs an enormous orca and stylized bull kelp made of glass. It’s hard to believe that this beautiful display representing the cycle of life is situated amongst the clamour of a modern airport.
Incredibly, there are no maps or pamphlets to guide you and explain this art collection. But there’s a certain magic in stumbling onto amazing mythology and colourful creatures when you least expect them.