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Vancouver Island artist’s mask heading to prestigious U.S. museum

John and Peggy Varnedoe purchased the piece and have donated it to the Burke Museum in Seattle.
Local artist Sandy Johnson’s ‘Cry for Change Mask’ is a compelling call for action on the environment and highlights the ongoing scandal of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Photo submitted

A piece of Comox Valley art will soon have a new home – and a new audience – at a museum in the U.S.

Comox Valley artist Sandy Johnson’s Cry for Change mask was recently purchased by two long-time visitors to the Valley from Savannah, Georgia.

“They have friends they visit and they have a huge focus on the Island and First Nations group, and they are also huge art enthusiasts,” explained Lydia Fisher of the Spirits of the West Coast Art Gallery, where the mask was exhibited prior to its purchase.

John and Peggy Varnedoe purchased the piece from the gallery and have donated it to the Burke Museum in Seattle at the University of Washington.

Fisher described the piece as “very topical.”

The Kwakwaka’wakw artist’s mask is a call to action on the environment and highlights Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).

Johnson spent his early years on Gilford Island and is a member of the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation.

Fisher explained the mask wears an expression of anguish and features oil pipelines for eyebrows, forest fires, clear cuts, fish farms, sea lice the Highway of Tears (Highway 16) and a red dress, representative of MMIWG. The mask also has the painted design of an eagle, black bear and killer whale – all animals that are dependent on wild salmon.

Fisher noted the Varnedoes see the purchase and donation of the mask to the Burke as a way of giving back, saying thanks and supporting local artists, as well as engaging in reconciliation. They want the mask to be seen by as many people as possible in the hope it will educate and inspire thoughtful debate around environmental social issues.

“The Burke has just reopened after undergoing renovations and it will be delivered soon,” she added.

Gallery owners Walter and Tatjana Stolting said in a release they are very happy the mask is heading to Seattle.

“The Burke Museum holds one of the largest and most important collections of Native American art in the world, so it’s wonderful that Sandy’s powerful and thought-provoking mask will be joining their world-class collections,” they noted.

“We are sure that Sandy’s mask will find a worthy place and have a large impact at the (museum) where it is bound to inspire debate around the environmental and social justice issues facing the Pacific Northwest.”

The Cry for Change mask is on display at the gallery until Jan. 25. Spirits of the West Coast Art Gallery is located at 2926 Back Rd. in Courtenay.

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Erin Haluschak

About the Author: Erin Haluschak

Erin Haluschak is a journalist with the Comox Valley Record since 2008. She is also the editor of Trio Magazine...
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