By Nicola Ryan
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” the old adage goes. There’s truth to it. A talented and thoughtful artist can find a way to turn a tale wonderfully told into a visual creation that’s just as captivating. Mi’kmaq artist Marcus Gosse has managed it. His design is featured on the latest collectible coin from the Canadian Mint, part of the Generations series celebrating Indigenous storytelling and the art of gifting knowledge.
“One of my artistic goals was to be on a coin,” Marcus says. “It was a dream of mine. I always thought that would be great because you’re getting to show the beauty of your Indigenous culture to the world.”
Marcus is a member of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band. His grandmother, Alice Maude Gosse (originally Benoit), is an Elder who was born and raised in Red Brook on the Port au Port Peninsula. Now based in Stephenville, Marcus creates art that celebrates the richness and vibrancy of Mi’kmaq culture, though he was still surprised when the Mint came calling.
“I was at the Stephenville Mall, having a look around, when all of a sudden I was contacted by the Mint,” he recalls. “They said ‘Marcus, we like your work and we’d love to have you design a coin regarding the Mi’kmaq Creation story.’” He was honoured by the request. “They’re trusting you to try and represent your culture to your best ability,” he says, “and trusting that you will do it with honour and integrity, and bring forth your best product.”
Marcus jumped into the project, but had his work cut out for him. “Our creation story, it’s very beautiful, but it’s very lengthy. Have you got a thousand pages?” he laughs. “I knew I needed to summarize the story and be able to describe it in a visual manner with the different parts.”
The ancient story tells of the Creator, Kisu’lk, the Giver of Life, and the seven levels of creation starting with the formation of the heavens and earth. It describes how Kluskap, the first human being, was brought to life with force of lightning; and of Kluskap’s family, who are intrinsically connected to the natural world and the plants and animals that live therein. Marcus’ design distills the story to its essential elements: the seven levels of Creation, the four cardinal directions, the cyclical nature of the natural world and the connectedness between all things.
“The design took over 300 hours,” Marcus says. “It took a lot of planning, Zoom calls, meetings with the team, the engraver, the graphic designer, the product manager.”
For accuracy, Marcus consulted with Elder advisor Stephen Augustine, Hereditary Chief on the Mi’kmaq Grand Council. “He’s actually a story keeper. His family are the keepers of that story,” he explains, referring to how traditional oral history is safeguarded and preserved over generations. “So he helped guide the design and made sure that it was historically correct.”
In the details, Marcus has incorporated essential elements of traditional Mi’kmaq art including the eight-point Mi’kmaq star, hieroglyphs and double curve designs - elements that Marcus includes in all his art.
“I feel it’s important that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people see the ancient designs that make up Mi’kmaq culture and art, and know what they are,” Marcus explains. “Creator, or God, is in the middle, represented by the Mi’kmaq star. Creator creates the air, the animals, the water, and everything happens from there, the centre. In Indigenous culture, Creator does not take a human form - it’s a spiritual form. So I had to come up with a way of representing Creator in a non-human form, and the seven smaller stars represent the seven levels of creation.”
Since the coin’s release Marcus has seen a fantastic amount of support both at home and abroad. “I’ve had a lot of people in the Mi’kmaq community in Newfoundland buy my coin. They bought one for themselves, their children, their grandchildren. Several people in the United States also have bought these and joined my Facebook group,” he continues. “It’s really nice that Indigenous people from various nations such as, like, the Navajo, the Cherokee, are buying the coin because they appreciate the beauty of traditional Creation stories. I’ve had people from all over the world contacting me about it.”
The coins in Generations series - which, so far include designs from Inuk artist Jason Sikoak and Métis artist Jennine Krauchi - present a unique way of combining art, storytelling and the transmission of traditional knowledge.
“I’m very proud of the way it’s able to educate young people,” Jason explains. “I’ve had kids ask me what Mi’kmaq art is, what the designs are and what they mean. Through things like the coin, and also murals, art, other things, you know, kids are able to understand. I’ve also created colouring books, and the Downhome magazine has given me my own section, ‘Colourful Culture.’ It’s important for people to realize that we have such a rich abundance of Indigenous culture in Canada. And there’s a lot of different, beautiful components of Indigenous culture that are available to explore.
“I feel education is very important to helping with reconciliation,” he continues, “and helping Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to come together and to maintain a beautiful relationship together. That’s what I’m trying to do with my art.”
While Marcus has achieved his dream of creating a coin, he’s far from finished. He plans to continue blending conventional and unconventional artistic techniques together to create vibrant art that provokes thought and discussion, and celebrates diversity and spirituality.
“I want to get into sculptures, fabricated aluminum sculptures,” he says. “I want to get into doing mobiles inside of buildings - hanging whales and eagles and different animals,” he says. “I’d like to get into illustrating more books, doing more Mi’kmaq colouring books, and doing more teaching hopefully.”
To learn more about Marcus, look him up on Facebook at “Mi’kmaq Art by Marcus Gosse.”