Artist Yolanda Felix-Wilbur was born in Oregon but has spent her life in Whatcom County — and certainly has the credentials to call herself a local. “I lived in Bellingham in ’79, on the back roads off of Lakeway, all the way out by the lake,” she says. “It was really nice growing up there.”
She now lives a bit north of town, where she’s made a life for herself and her family.
“My biological mother is a Warm Springs Tribal member, and I was brought to Lummi when I was two years old by my father, after their divorce,” Yolanda says. “I was raised with the Lummi people and married a tribal member.” She lives on the reservation and her children are tribal members.
“We started a gallery-slash-gift shop at a store on the reservation and my husband and children are commercial fisherman, so we’re just immersed,” she says with a laugh. Her gift shop and gallery, ChiQui, is located in the Lummi Gateway Center, which also includes a seafood market and a cafe.
“It’s at Te’Ti’Sen, which is a small business incubator with cubicles they lease to tribal members to start businesses that are culturally or traditionally creative.” The space also carries beadwork, prints, cups, and small artwork from other tribal members. “I’m not the only artist; I try to take the universal approach,” says Yolanda. “I want to be inclusive to other artists, giving them an opportunity to get their art out to the public.”
Yolanda sketched a bit as a child, and never became formally educated in the arts, but things changed for her when her son, Joseph, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2011.
“Joseph wanted a piece of art. He said, ‘Mom, I want a coat of arms, where people can see everything I’m about. I want it on everything: I want it on my boat, I want it on the front door of the house,’” she recounts. “After Joseph passed over, I contacted two Lummi artists, and I waited about four months to iron things out with them before I said: ‘I could do this.’ So, I created this halibut that tells his story.”
Soon after, a relative who was only 10 or 11 at the time, needed to receive the same kind of treatments Yolanda’s son had. “I visited him in the hospital [and] asked him questions about his family and his strengths. I went home and drew in my mind’s eye what he had talked to me about, but I did it in totemic art, to tell his story,” she says. “I released that to his family, and they used it as a fundraiser. Their profits were up to almost $30,000 in four days, and my husband looked at me and said, ‘Now do you get it, Yolanda? Do you get what people see?’”
Although she wasn’t certain at first, she stayed on the path that was opening before her.
“I continued to try to help people through art and commissioned myself to a couple of individuals. Healing elements helped me help people, so to speak,” she says. “That’s where it began, and I’ve just been listening to people’s stories. If they’re comfortable enough with me, I listen to their totem in words, and then I put it on canvas for them.”
Yolanda says acrylic on canvas is her passion, and she also enjoys creating beadwork. “I beaded the talking stick for Swinomish Tribe, and it’s one of my favorite pieces,” she says. “It’s about five foot tall, five inches around, and it tells a story in its design. It’s used in the tribal government for etiquette and protocol.”
The stories that can be told in art have become a theme in her work, including the mural she painted on the side of the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce.
“If you go along the belly of the canoe from the right to the left, all that artwork tells a story about the salmon people, the canoe journey, and the potlatch for the journey,” says Yolanda. “And at the frogs mouth is a circle in a circle — that’s the half moon during the canoe journey potlatch, and above that are chevrons, which represent the islands between Lummi Island, Portage Island, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.”
Nowadays, the work Yolanda does is a mix of designs for the public, including being registered at Allied Arts, and the more personal pieces that got her started.
“I was asked to do some imaging for a parks service, and I’m also working on a logo for a marathon,” she says. “I could take your story — whether you’re native or not — and I could ask you questions about your parents, your children, you favorite animals, your colors, your favor places, what’s driven you. In my mind’s eye I start to develop a story about you in totemic design, so to speak, and then I create it, scan it, proof it, and you can take it and do whatever you want with it.”
Yolanda invites anyone interested in having their story painted to contact her at email@example.com. And while she looks forward to making more connections in the future, she also keeps hold of her past. “All of this really evolved from Joseph’s experience, so I give him that,” Yolanda says. “He was making sure I kept my hands busy.”