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How to Pack a Mobile Art Studio in Your Carry-On

Haida-manga artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas on his unique artform and how he paints within the confines of an airplane seat.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Twenty years ago, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas pioneered a new style of art: Haida manga, a mashup inspired by his own Indigenous heritage and the style of Japanese comics. Eight illustrated novels and many international exhibitions later, he’s going beyond ink and paper, working with an architecture firm to integrate Haida manga into three new skyscrapers in Vancouver, and writing a libretto based on his graphic novel, Flight of the Hummingbird, for the Vancouver Opera. We caught up with him at home on an island in the Salish Sea before a trip to Seoul.

What’s your packing style?
I’m a light packer. I only take three of everything, max.

How did you first discover manga?
In the late 1990s, I helped organize a West Coast trip for a professor friend’s Japanese university students. We went deep into the forest for 10 days, and it was from the students that I learned about Asia’s appreciation for manga. It was puzzling to hear the style was considered highly technical, because at the time in North America, it was seen as doodling. I then had the idea of merging my Indigenous voice with this Asian art form.

In 2017, you were commissioned by the Seattle Art Museum to create a mural for their collection. What’s it like?
It is six large sheets of Japanese paper that, when combined, create a 6x2-metre watercolour-and-ink painting that considers the relationship between humans and the ocean. It’s complex and the entire space is filled. The mural, called Carpe Fin, is now in their permanent collection, and it will be exhibited from November 2, 2019 to November 1, 2020.

Do you travel to Japan often?
Yes. In my family there are stories going back to 1894 of Haida people visiting Japan and being welcomed as full persons, which was not the case in Canada at the time. When I visit now, I go to remote areas, like Mount Koyasan.

What's in the bag of Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

This was a gift from my sister, Lisa Hageman Yahgulanaas, who’s a textile artist and weaver. She used a rare Haida technique called Raven’s Tail. I use it to carry my mobile art studio.

Watercolour brushes are delicate, but the bristles of these ones fit inside their handles, so they’re good for travelling.

As someone who has lived close to the ocean my whole life, I try to avoid plastic. Japanese brand Snow Peak made a special series of chopsticks in celebration of the success of Flight of the Hummingbird.

On the airplane, I set up a mobile studio within the confines of my table tray, which includes my sketchbooks, paintbrushes and this watercolour kit from Opus Art Supplies in Vancouver.

I bought a box of these directly from the artist in Mount Koyasan, Japan. Because it’s an accordion, I can stretch out the pages and do long, continuous paintings. The cover is made out of cedar from 800-year-old trees. My Haida culture is very attached to cedar, too — it’s in our longhouses, ocean canoes and totem poles.

My signature glyph is a fish, based on an experience with a large carp in a pond in Nagoya, Japan. I also come from a family and community that has a close relationship with the ocean.

When you’re travelling, it’s not always easy to replace your supplies, so I bring robust equipment, like pencils with 0.9-millimetre lead.