Ovila Mailhot is a Coast Salish graphic artist and designer. Originally from Seabird Island in British Columbia, Ovila lived in Chilliwack, BC for several years, and is currently living in Lafayette, Indiana.
Ovila’s path to a career in graphic design started when another job ended, and what seemed like a problem turned into an opportunity. He had been working as an industrial painter for several years, until a layoff from the job gave him the time and motivation to explore more creative pursuits. “I was kind of like YouTubing a whole bunch of different stuff, like culinary art, I got into that for a bit. I bought myself a guitar. I started teaching myself how to play a guitar. And then it wasn’t until I started drawing that I kind of realized that this is probably something that feels like I’m meant to do.”
Ovila has now been working as a graphic designer for several years, incorporating Coast Salish designs and styles into a variety of work and projects. “I’ve been doing graphic art and design for about six years now. I’ll get new contracts all the time. I did some work for a few apparel companies. I do logo designs for mostly Indigenous businesses, small businesses, schools, college, and working with other Indigenous artists throughout Canada and the (United) States too.”
He got his major break working with a company called Salish Style, out of Seattle, Washington, when they found some of his designs on social media and reached out to collaborate. “That’s kind of how I got my break, because I used to just do my sketch work on pencil and pad. And then I got confident doing it, so I started sharing my posts on social media. Salish Style asked if I was interested in doing some design work with them, so I was really thankful for that.”
As a self-taught artist, Ovila had a steep learning curve. “I didn’t go to school for graphic design. Everything I’ve learnt has pretty much been self-taught.”
“So, I got noticed by Salish Style, and they took my rough drawing and they said they were going to vector it. They asked if I knew anything about that, and I had no idea what vectoring even was. So then I spent a majority of my time doing YouTube tutorials, like pretty much all the time for an entire year, on graphic design, Adobe illustrator and what vectoring was until I started getting good at it. And then things just took off from there.“
Despite the learning curve, Ovila felt that art was both the right path for him. “I think art was something that just came natural to me. I never thought I’d be an artist, but I come from a really creative family. My father was a painter, my mother was a writer, so I guess it’s just in the blood. I just felt really comfortable doing the work that I was doing.”
And as he became more comfortable, he developed his own unique style, including elements of traditional Coast Salish culture and design into his work. “I spent a lot of time kind of feeling uncomfortable about my style because I didn’t necessarily have a teacher. And I remember in school they would teach us formline art, which was from the Pacific Northwest. But that was all I knew at the time, so I was kind of drawing that for a while, practicing formline style. It kind of felt uncomfortable to me because that wasn’t where my roots were from. It wasn’t until I started studying Coast Salish art and looking at other artists and looking at our ancestral work, like the spindle whorls, and doing research through museums and books and looking at the ancestral designs. Then I started practicing those and then it just felt natural to me.”
“I wanted to express myself through things that I was inspired by growing up or things that I see on a day-to-day basis. I wanted to try and incorporate that into my work, but kind of still using the traditional elements from the Coast Salish art that was before us and passed down to us.”
In addition to his art, Ovila has also started reconnecting with his traditional language, and has found a way to combine both practices. “I was really thankful to be part of the Leq’a:mel language class and that was really cool too. I’ve always had a little bit of knowledge when it comes to Halq’eméylem language from the Seabird Elementary School, but over the years, you forget that if you’re not practicing often. So it was really good to get back into that, because we teamed up doing those language flashcard series. And I was really happy how that turned out and I’m really looking forward to learning more about the language because it just feels really good to do something like that.”
“I want to be able to give back. Now that I’ve found some success, I want to give back with my art in any way I can, and I think by doing the language flashcard series is the perfect opportunity to do something like that.”
Special thanks to Keith Collier for authoring this blog post.
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