“A Day in the Life” with Indigenous Artist and Entrepreneur Erin Brillon

Erin Brillon is from the Haida and Cree nations (Status: Skidegate Haida). Her Haida name is Kalga Jaad (woman of Ice) inherited by her maternal grandmother, is from the Laana T’sadas Eagle Clan of Skidegate Haida. Her Cree side of her maternal grandfather is from Lesser Slave Lake, Alberta. Erin’s work experience has been in deep connection to her people. From the age of 14, Erin was assisting her mother, Edna Brillon, in promoting, marketing and selling Northwest Coast Native art. Growing up in the field of a thriving and internationally revered art form has had a lifelong impact. Being close family friends (distant relations) to famed Haida artist Bill Reid profoundly influenced her life. Art show openings, urban feasts and Indigenous gatherings were a regular part of her life. Erin has always held a deep sense of pride and reverence for her culture.

As a young adult, Erin moved into the area of developing and coordinating healing programs on First Nations reserves throughout B.C. These programs addressed the intergenerational effects of colonization and the traumas of the Indian residential school system. This provided her with an in-depth experiential understanding of the issues that are at the heart of the disempowerment of Indigenous people.

For nearly a decade, Erin worked for an Indigenous non-profit organization, which provides a variety of social programs in Courtenay, Vancouver Island. Erin’s work focused on the development, administration, and facilitation of a variety of Indigenous youth and family-based empowerment programs. Three years into this work Erin realized that her ability to create a positive impact was limited due to her lack of higher education. During a 3.5-year period, she completed a Liberal Arts Degree with a minor in psychology. Erin completed her study while maintaining a 3.7 GPA, working 1/2 time at Wachiay, and parenting her three active kids. Erin also founded and coordinated an art program and social enterprise, called OneTribe, a youth artist collective, where she taught both the making and the marketing of art-based products.

Since 2015, Erin has focused all her energy on growing her clothing, home decor and jewellery business, Totem Design House. After years of wanting to collaborate on a clothing line with her brother, artist/jeweller/carver Jesse Brillon’s Haida designs, the siblings were finally in a position to make it happen. Totem Design House has been an all-consuming labour of love for Erin and has stretched her skills and abilities on countless levels. She has single-handedly designed, produced, marketed and administrated every aspect of the business. From making one-of-a-kind traditional regalia, hemp and organic linen home décor textiles, uniquely designed eco-friendly women’s apparel, to t-shirts and hoodies and seal fur and dentalia shell jewelry. THD is founded on Indigenous values and is careful to not “trinketize” or devalue the art form. Erin explains that the market for northwest coast giftware products and clothing is flooded by mass-produced, mostly made overseas goods, where native artists are paid only nominal royalties. “We are the antidote to the ongoing commodification of our culture, by what has largely been dominated by non-Indigenous business owners.” Totem Design House is the culmination of a family effort, their clothing and accessories are featured in Smithsonian Museum Gift Stores and other museums such as McCord Museum in Montreal and Haida Gwaii Museum.

In 2015, Andy Everson, an acclaimed Northwest Coast artist joined forces with Erin, and all aspects of their lives melded personally, professionally and culturally. Totem Design House produces an exclusive line of his works in the “Andy Everson Collection”. This collection ranges from traditional motifs on hemp pillows to Andy’s uber-popular melding of traditional art with pop culture. The fruition of this creative connection is the expansion into a brand-new studio. Brillon designed every square inch of the space from the ground up, from the working studio and showroom—to their living space above the waterfront studio on Comox Avenue on K’omoks First Nation.

As someone who doesn’t consider business and capitalism her “life path”, Erin has been driven to expand on the work she’s done in non-profit empowerment work by establishing Copper Legacy Indigenous Empowerment Society. Even before TDH was profitable, Erin was donating to Indigenous youth projects, from supporting local girls empowerment workshops to aid in the suicide crisis facing Cree youth in Attawapiskat Ontario. Erin believes we are facing a pivotal time in human history— to work creatively outside the status-quo culture to support and develop innovative solutions to empower Indigenous people to strengthen communities and protect the environment.

In December 2019, Erin and Andy opened their newly built production studio and showroom, named Kwigwatsi Studio, on the K’omoks First Nation, where the couple resides on the second floor above the studio. The newly expanded Gallery and Boutique feature their works, as well as support other Indigenous-made products, from soaps, essential oils and even pemmican!

Erin Brillon
Start my day by sitting outside on my deck to re-set my circadian rhythm and get a few minutes of Vitamin D while reading a few pages from a physical book (as I am too attached to my phone).
Erin Brillon
Forcing myself to move with my desk treadmill. Living and working with Fibromyalgia is a huge challenge and I’m working my way back from burnout from being years overworked which has left me currently exercise intolerant.
Since we are short staffed I sometimes have to operate the Gallery/Boutique when my production manager is working in the studio.
Overseeing progress on our print jobs today. My production manager Rob and my daughter Marlo banged out two multi-colour prints today. One of them is a free t-shirt giveaway for the opening of my brother’s art show.
Checking out my brother’s work in progress (a silver pendant) for his art show at the Bill Reid Gallery.
I’m doming some of our silver feather earrings, it’s a fun easy little task I like to do.
Erin Brillon
Unloading the kiln from some small tests of fused glass.
Erin Brillon
In our boutique, filming social media content on my iPhone, providing details of our candle collection.

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Which nation are you from?

Haida & Cree, Laana Tsaadas Clan of the Skidegate Haida. My Haida name is Kalga Jaad

What do you do?

I’m the owner of Totem Design House, an Indigenous lifestyle brand where we design and produce an array of apparel, jewelry, eco-friendly home decor and women’s wear, as well as fine art and wellness products featuring Northwest Coast native designs.

What are you currently working on?

Art wise I am currently tinkering with my new kiln, working on fused glass designs, new product wise I am formulating a new candle collection, design-wise I am putting the finishing decor touches into our new vacation rental that we spent the last year renovating and business-wise I am working on automating our wholesale program and production on a digital platform.

Where can we find your work?

We have a Gallery and Boutique in K’omoks Vancouver Island, we are online as well as retailers such as Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Center, Bill Reid Gallery Gift Store, Haida Gwaii Museum Trading Post, Fish Creek store in Ketchikan, Sealaska Heritage Center in Juneau and more! You can also check the Totem Design House and Copper Legacy websites.

 

 

About Demian Vernieri 519 Articles
Demian is an Argentinian retired musician, avid gamer and editor for the Montréal Guardian, Toronto Guardian, Calgary Guardian and Vancouver Guardian websites.