Janine Lott on her journey of becoming an artist, one seed at a time

Syilx artist discusses her career and recently commissioned artwork for Downie-Wenjack Legacy Space in Kelowna.

When you walk into Janine Lott’s home, you are immediately met with earthy tones, natural elements and a lot of art. Continuing through her home you see the various gourds that she has been working on — some new, and others in repair. 

“I grow the gourds on this family land, that’s been farmed by so many generations of people in my family,” she says. 

Lott currently resides in Westbank First Nation, just outside of Kelowna, B.C. She is the fourth-generation Syilxw (nsyilxcən word for Indigenous person from the land) woman to be living and cultivating her family’s land. 

“I’ve lived here most of my life and this was my mother’s home and this land was my great grandfathers and my grandfather farmed it,” she says.

Janine Lott’s artwork of a gourd holding baby gourds. Photo by Chehala Leonard.

Lott, who has been working artistically with gourds for almost 30 years now, was recently commissioned to do a special exhibition piece for the Downie-Wenjack Legacy Space at the new Rogers Customer Solution Centre, which opened in September in Kelowna. 

“The unique meeting space is designed by local Indigenous artists from the Okanagan region and is dedicated to raising awareness and understanding of Indigenous art, history, and culture with teams, customers, and community members,” according to a press release from the opening of the centre. 

Now that the space is open and her piece is on display, Lott says, “It feels great.”

“To be a part of things like that, that pull people together to tell our stories from so many different angles, and thought processes too. I think that people will really enjoy the space,” she says.

The Legacy space also features art from artist Sheldon Pierre Louis who is a Councillor of Okanagan Indian Band, and Coralee Miller who is also a member of Westbank First Nation. 

“So many people went into putting that whole thing together and I think it’s going to bring so much more to the people’s lives that go there and take it in and visit and share in that space,” says Lott.

Janine Lott
Commissioned piece for Downie-Wenjack Legacy Space at the new Rogers Customer Solution Centre, N’ha-a-itk Sacred Water Spirit piece by Janine Lott. Photo by Chehala Leonard.

The story behind her latest piece

Lott’s piece for the new space was inspired by N’ha-a-itk, the Sacred Water Spirit. N’ha-a-itk, which is a nsyilxcən word meaning, “Spirit of the Lake” is also commonly referred to as Ogopogo.  

“When I read what the foundation was about and what the project was, that’s just what came to me right away. To tell the story of who we are as Syilx people here,” she says. 

“Because it encompasses everything in this area. And so other than building some cluttered piece that tried to, to say that it’s just simplistic all wrapped up and in  N’ha-a-itk.” 

The stories of N’ha-a-itk go back before European contact and for many Syilx people, these stories have been passed down orally. 

“N’ha-a-itk represents the whole area of the water, the sacredness and the spirit of the water and the mountains and all the creatures that are nourished and flourish in the land and water and surrounding area. And because the Lake is N’ha-a-itk’s home we need to respect that and, and care for it,” she says. 

Her inspiration from N’ha-a-itk comes from the oral teachings that were passed down by her grandfather.

“I remember one time going out swimming with my Papa and I think it was about nine. And so he was swimming way out and he was swimming kind of in the line of the Moonlight.”

“I said, Papa, I want to go back. I’m scared,” she says. 

“And so he swam back and he said, jump up on my back granddaughter. And he had these wide tough shoulders. He was a boxer…and this white wispy hair that was little water droplets, I remember, glimmering in the Moonlight.” 

She continues: “As soon as I got up on his back, I just felt so safe. And he said, ‘tell me why you’re scared granddaughter? What are you scared of?’” 

She replied: “I’m scared of, I don’t know, what’s in the water. I’m scared of Ogopogo.”

Her grandfather then told her, “’Oh, granddaughter, you know, there’s nothing to fear. This is Ogopogo’s home and N’ha-a-itk lives here and we all share the water and the mountains.’”

And, she recalls, he said, “as long as you show respect and care and don’t ever bring any harm to N’ha-a-itk, there’s nothing to fear.”

Her grandfather’s teaching stayed with her. 

“That stayed with me kind of through my life because it was one of those moments that you continue to learn from,” she says. 

“When you feel that sense of fear of things, then you’re lacking some kind of understanding,” she says, adding that her grandfather was gentle taking after his own mother’s teachings. 

“He walked so softly on earth and he used to always tell us, don’t stomp mother earth,” Lott says.

For this reason, Lott also portrays N’ha-a-itk as feminine. 

“I like to portray, actually Ogopogo was the feminine…and I like to show more of the feminine part and my grandfather carried that as well through his teachings from his grandmother,” she says.

Janine Lott
Janine Lott’s nursery in her backyard. Photo by Chehala Leonard.

Generational gardening & gourds

Lott started her journey to art through one of her earliest passionsgardening.

“I’ve always gardened,” she says, noting that she comes from a family of gardeners.  

“There’s some of their spirit in every piece that I create because it’s grown from that same soil that they’ve worked and, and sustained themselves on as well,” she says.

Lott grows the gourds that she uses for each of her pieces. She explains that the idea of growing gourds transpired when she was researching gardening to supply restaurants and stores. As a member of seed exchange, she was sent gourd seeds, which led her to plant them.

“So I planted them that spring and these magnificent forms just started growing off these vines that went crazy. They could get 30 to 50 feet long, the vines and they produce all these different shapes and sizes of gourds,” she says. 

“It takes all four seasons to create a gourd that’s ready to work with and, you know, turn into art,” she says.

janine lott
Janine Lott holding a gourd that she hand-pollinated and grew in her nursery. Photo by Chehala Leonard.

“I also hand pollinate, so I keep my true seeds.”

Lott’s work also encompasses traditional elements from her Syilx and Okanagan roots. For the N’ha-a-itk mask she created for the Downie Wenjack Legacy Space she explains that she also included pine needles and horsehair. 

“I was just really adamant that I wanted to work with pine needle in that because that really represents a lot of who we are as gatherers and in this area. And [its] one of the materials that we use,” she explains.

She says being a part of the legacy space is creating space for Indigenous voices to be heard.

“I just think it’s a great initiative that somebody put their heart and soul into being…a part of creating these spaces that tell our history from us,” she says.

“How many of us have sat through school and, you know, those lessons that spoke of us as if we used to be as if we didn’t exist and, you know, we’ve, many of us have grown up that way?”

“Even after residential school…we were all in the back of the room and kind of invisible and so to be able to have spaces in the corporate world that give us a voice to say who we really are. I think that to me it’s an honour to be chosen and to be a part of that.”