One of William Flett’s earliest childhood memories is of the plane he was travelling on touching down on the tarmac in Haida Gwaii one dark, rainy night. He was five years old. Though William and his parents lived on the islands of the Haida people situated off the north coast of B.C. for only a year before returning to Vancouver, its culture and rich artistic traditions had a lasting impact on William’s artistic expression. The Haida reverence for the natural world and their depictions of spiritual encounters with local wildlife have inspired William’s pictures of bald eagles, bears and orca whales.
Since his HIV diagnosis nine years ago, at age 19, William has been drawn increasingly to the art and culture of his ancestors. “Traditional Native art has always been important to me,” William says. “But I didn’t have the opportunity to learn about the significance of the animal crests in Native culture [depictions of animals and mythical creatures that decorate totem poles, furniture and other objects] and make my own designs until after my diagnosis.”
Although several of his animal crests are Haida, he doesn’t focus solely on animals associated with the Haida people. “I’d like to do a turtle and a wolf crest, which are more East Coast animals. Or a thunderbird, which is featured more in native art from the Seattle area,” William says. “I didn’t grow up in an exclusively Haida environment. Because I grew up learning about many native cultures, I feel it’s important to reflect that unity of all native peoples when making new yet traditional designs.”
Animal crests convey traditional Aboriginal stories about creation and the natural and the spiritual worlds. William’s first crest, an eagle, came from an art assignment to create a self-portrait. “My family crest is the Double-Headed Eagle, and my native name translated is Big Eagle. I enjoyed the significance of that connection,” he says. The work pays homage to Haida carver, printmaker and painter Robert Davidson by closely following the style of Davidson’s representation of this mythic animal.
Raven on Tree
William has used his more recent animal crests—mostly digital prints but also some acrylic paintings—to grow as an artist and offer something new. They tend to focus on an obscure part of an animal story not traditionally represented. For example, Haida images from the story of Raven bringing light to the world traditionally depict Raven with the light in his beak, carrying it to the moon, the sun and the stars. But William’s crest depicts an earlier part of the story, one not often visually referenced, where the Raven sits atop a tree, disguising himself as a pine needle.
Or sometimes William chooses to depict an animal that is not central to the story. “There are not many Haida stories where Frog is the focus,” he explains. “But in many of the stories of creation, Frog communicates with the Creator. I’m interested in showing Frog’s connection to the spirit world, to the moon, the nighttime, the stars, the ethereal realm.”
His Killer Whale is perhaps the crest that William is most proud of: “It’s the one that I created from scratch with very little reference to earlier Aboriginal artists. This one is the most me.”
William’s mother and grandmother both influenced his development as an artist. As a young adult, William’s mother, Norma Abrahams, seriously pursued argillite carving. His grandmother, Peggy Shannon, a prominent member of the local Indigenous community and a counsellor at Capilano University in North Vancouver, did bead work. As arthritis became an issue for her, she did more trading with other Indigenous crafters who specialized in abalone and other shell buttons used for making traditional Haida button blankets. “Wherever I went with her, like to the Native Friendship Centre on crafting or potlach nights, people recognized her,” William recalls.
He cites a number of Haida artists whom his grandmother counts among her friends as major influences on his art, including Robert Davidson, fashion designer Dorothy Grant, sculptor Bill Reid, and jeweller and television host Tamara Rain Bull. “I’ve studied their work, mimicked their styles and learned from them,” he says, “especially how to mix the traditional and the modern.”
But William shakes off the suggestion that his art and well-being as a person living with HIV are closely connected. “The drive to express myself through my art could be an aspect of self-care and self-reflection,” he says, “but I don’t feel art is as important in this respect as my volunteer efforts.” He credits his involvement with two Vancouver-based organizations by and for youth—Gab Youth Services and the AIDS service organization YouthCO—for giving him the skills and support he needed to come out as gay when he was 18 and, a year later, as HIV positive. “Volunteering is a big part of my self-care routine.”
William started hanging out at Gab during his first year of post-secondary education at Vancouver Institute of Media Arts, where he studied visual effects and animation—“the movie industry side of art,” as he calls it. Gab provides a safe space for LGBTQ youth 25 and under, offering information and referrals, a drop-in space, peer support and special events. It was there that William began to realize that he had something to offer as a peer educator.
Around this time he also began volunteering with YouthCO. “At first, I just volunteered for special events,” he says. “But then I became involved with their social program for young poz gay men, which included discussing things like HIV medications and disclosure.” His involvement with YouthCO’s Mpowerment Program took William’s volunteering to the next level when, as a peer educator, he began facilitating workshops on consent and drug use.
Willliam’s opportunity to shine came unexpectedly, when the facilitator for a discussion night on coming out suddenly suffered a concussion. William realized that he would either need to take the initiative to create an outline for the event or cancel it (other Mpowerment events had already been cancelled due to this unfortunate accident). He began to work on an outline for the discussion, and the rest is history.
William’s involvement with YouthCO helped to stabilize him after finding out he was HIV positive during his first year of study at VanArts. “I was out of classes for two weeks with what I realize now was seroconversion illness. At the time, I thought it was just a bad flu.”
Unfortunately, the seroconversion illness that William experienced played havoc with his sleep habits. He couldn’t get out of bed in time for classes. Coupled with the bout of depression he experienced post-diagnosis, William ended up dropping out of his program at VanArts but says he might return to visual effects and film at some point in the future.
For William, the worst part of living with HIV is the stigma. On Halloween day, a few months after he had started taking antiretroviral medications, his mother found one of his pill bottles and discovered online what it was prescribed for. All hell broke loose in the house where William lives with his mother, other family members and “random friends.” William received an urgent phone call from his father, telling him that his mother now knew about his diagnosis and that the news was spreading like wildfire. “It was a scary Halloween in a way I hadn’t expected,” William laughs ruefully.
HIV may have diverted William from his chosen career path but it has opened up new roads for him to pursue. He has become a sex-positive community educator who draws on his own experiences living with HIV. And he is an artist with his foot in two worlds—the vibrant world of what has been called a “renaissance” in Haida arts and crafts, and the modern technologic world of film and visual effects. “I have no idea where this is all going, but the journey is interesting.”
Darien Taylor is CATIE’s former Director of Program Delivery. She co-founded Voices of Positive Women, to empower and support women living with HIV, and is a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. Darien has been living with HIV for more than 20 years.
This article previously appeared at CATIE's Positive Side, here.
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