Growing up in Saskatchewan, Kamloops artist Eileen Leier’s first experience with salmon was the tinned version consumed during winter months. When Leier witnessed her first salmon run in B.C. in 2010, she was blown away by the number of sockeye thundering past.
Drawn back again in 2014, she stood on the banks of the Adams River, framed on either side by the Little Shuswap Indian Band Reserve and the Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park, and witnessed one the world’s largest salmon runs with 15 million seeking to spawn that year.
The number of people traveling from near and far to spy on the salmons’ journey, locals mixed with international spectators all hoping to experience the natural phenomenon, became a subject of fascination for Leier.
People’s interest in the salmon run captured her imagination, as did the little village setting that grew around the run. Her latest exhibit, Sqlelten7úw’i – Red Salmon – Sockeye: Reconsidering the Adams River Run, is currently on display at the Arnica Artist Run Centre in downtown Kamloops, and explores the collective fascination with this spectacular and wholly endangered life cycle.
“We take for granted that the salmon will always run,” Leier said.
For Leier and many others, questions about the wellbeing of the salmon population lead to bigger inquiries about the health of the planet. In 2009 there were so few salmon running that public concern led to the establishment of the Cohen Commission, an investigation into the welfare of salmon along B.C. coastlines. Recommendations were made to provincial and federal governments but very few changes have
“Politics are affecting wild stocks—people have to make noise about this,” Leier insisted. Grassroots public movements are a significant way to draw attention to the issues.”
When asked if her art is her way of making noise, she smiled and replied, “Absolutely.”
Her exhibit features photography, edited film and underwater video of the famed Adams River run, mainly captured during the dominate run in 2014. The artist is also asking the public to participate by recording their own stories as well as colouring and writing on their own salmon to be added to the virtual Adams River flowing in front of the Old Courthouse which houses the exhibit.
Her intention is to connect people to the stories of the persistent salmon and their annual quest.
She is fascinated by landscapes, historical and provincially sanctioned sites which she calls “the containers of natural phenomena.”
Her work is focused on wild spaces and deconstructing the need for humans to organize wilderness, such as the info booths, food trucks and souvenir tents that pop up at the Adams run. It raises critical questions about perception and meaning in relation to the impressive natural occurrence.
Leier described a concept used in other languages and cultures called “home blind”, meaning one takes their own landscape for granted because of its familiarity. Leier argued it leads to complacency about the environment. To combat this, her project is a mission to engage the public to become involved in the natural event.
“Salmon reconnect ourselves to the earth, to its beauty, its cycles and the ailments that affect it, and us as its inhabitants,” said Leier. “The salmon risk all to return to their origin, reproduce and die; their remains nourishing bears, birds and other creatures.”
Without the salmon there would be an impact straight through the food chain.
“The salmon run is the microcosm of bigger environmental issues.”
The Adams River continues to call to Leier, and she returns year after year.
“I’m more in awe as the years go by. It’s just magic—to see the power of the natural world and this manifestation”.
Sqlelten7úw’i – Red Salmon – Sockeye: Reconsidering the Adams River Run is on display until Oct. 22.