ESQUIMALT, British Columbia - Connection. That's the golden thread woven through all of Esquimalt artist Darlene Gait's paintings and screenprints.
Her art is varied in style as well as subject. "Spawning," an ink and colored-pencil depiction of salmon spawning, brings to mind the work of Musqueam artist Susan Point. Several of Gait's mixed media and acrylics - like "Alert Bay," "Connections," "Legends" and "Wisdom from Above" - are reminiscent of Tsimshian/Haida/Heiltsuk artist Roy Henry Vickers.
But her work is uniquely personal, inspired by her connection to the environment and wildlife as well as her belief in the oneness of humanity and the beauty of its diversity.
Gait, 39, is as inspired as she is inspirational. One night, in her husband's native Spain, she had a dream about the connectedness of people and other living things. The next morning, she was praying on the balcony of her room and a hawk landed on her head. She and her husband studied the bird, which mimicked their head movements. That encounter led to "Balance," an acrylic on canvas.
"It has always been a difficult challenge to find a balance mentally, physically and spiritually, and it has been a lifelong goal of mine to have that, and I remember this dream I had with the feeling of finding that balance and it was so incredible," she wrote about the piece. "I tried to illustrate that in this painting."
In her wildlife art, prominent animals of the Northwest Coast - bear, eagle, raven, salmon - are depicted from encounters she has had with them in their environment. She incorporates Coast Salish elements to illustrate the interdependence of her culture and the environment.
In "Blue Moon," Gait honors her maternal grandfather, who died before she had the opportunity to know him.
"I spent a lifetime not knowing who he was," she said. "I felt a huge loss. All I had was an old photograph of his beautiful face when he was a young man. ... I heard he had a really tough life and died a broken man on the streets of Vancouver. I did not know which band he came from or where he was born, and went on a journey to find some knowledge about his life."
During her journey, she found herself looking out toward his birthplace, one of the islands off the west coast of Vancouver Island, and she could feel his presence. This experience led to "Blue Moon."
The piece shows her grandfather's eyes, in which can be seen a blue moon, representing his journey. Behind him are the islands where he was born and the sea where his ashes were spread. In the sky are eagles, representing the ancestors who are with him now.
To Gait, art is a powerful tool for forgiveness and healing. Another painting, "Letting Go," illustrates that perception.
"I let go all my hatred, sadness and pride, and went on a journey," she wrote of the introspective scenic piece. "On this path I saw many colors and it was marvelous. The mountains, ocean, wind and sky cleansed my soul and I remembered my purpose once again. When I returned home, my people of the earth seemed closer to one another. But they had not changed: just my perceptions."
Gait has been shaped by her own rich experiences.
Gait started painting at age 10 and sold her first piece when she was 16. She was married at 18 but divorced at 20.
Undeterred by the obstacles that can accompany being a young single parent, she attended college and landed a job as a children's book illustrator in Toronto. She was a book illustrator and graphic designer before opening One Moon Gallery on the Esquimalt Reserve in April 2007.
"When I was in college in Calgary, I had a lot of trouble with men in the art business," she said. "They felt women should not be in the business and they would always make deals with me that were unfair. That changed when I became not afraid to speak out anymore. I have a voice and a mind of my own."
Her advice to young women: "If you feel confident about who you are and you ask the Creator for a voice, you're going to get one."
Through her art she met her husband, Mark Granfar, a collector of her work. They met, dated and married three years later. Like her husband, she is Baha'i, the influence of which is evident in her work. The Baha'i value, among other social tenets, the equality of women and men, recognition of a common origin and unity of purpose of all religions, and spiritual solutions to economic problems.
The Baha'i also emphasize service to others, a practice Gait believes would make a difference in younger people's lives. It's not enough to be Native, she said; young people need to know they have a purpose.
"'There has to be spiritual fulfillment," she said. "If we had that, we wouldn't have the problems we have with suicide and abuse." She advises young people: "Be grateful to be alive. Look at the gifts you have. You have so much going for you. Grab it."
Gait is prolific. Ideas come to her at night; she'll get up and write ideas down and do a rough sketch. She always travels with a camera, and some of her wildlife art is based on photos she took in the field. She is currently working on seven different pieces in her studio, which faces an oceanfront park and is adjacent to a longhouse.
"I think it's important to listen to that inner voice that guides you to the right path in life," she wrote on her Web site. "I see it as my ancestors guiding me and, without it, I would not be where I am today."
For more information, visit www.darlenegait.com.
Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.