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Alan Syliboy and the Thundermaker’s ‘Marks on the Ground’

Alan Syliboy and the Thundermaker’s ‘Marks on the Ground’

Feature Image: Photo by Cody Turner

At 71 years old, there isn’t a day that passes where Mi’kmaw artist Alan Syliboy isn’t engaged in the process of creation. He keeps the creative taps flowing like a river, which continues to take him many places, and offer many lessons just like his song “The Dream Canoe” from Alan Syliboy and the Thundermaker’s new album, Marks on the Ground.

Syliboy sings: “my mother is the canoe/ she takes me to the river/ and my journey begins/ in the early years the water is calm/ the water is warm/ your mother is there to keep you safe/ to give you wisdom that you will need for this journey”

In an interview after the one-year anniversary of his new Art Studio (42 Legends Avenue) in Millbrook First Nation, a Mi’kmaw community where he was born, raised and reared his three children as a single parent. Syliboy shares that he’s taking it easy after hosting an all-day celebration on June 1, 2024 where over 500 people came to visit.

The studio celebration began early Saturday morning and went late into the night. It featured a mid-day children’s storybook reading by Syliboy and later a live performance to launch the Thundermaker’s sophomore album Marks on the Ground. There was even an official cake cutting ceremony, which featured five images of his artwork, and the title of his retrospective The Journey So Far all made from icing.

Alan Syliboy and the Thundermaker’s 7-piece band released Signal Fire (2019) and most recently the full-length album Marks on the Ground (2024). The group consists of leader, percussionist and spoken word performer Syliboy, his son Evan Syliboy on lead electric guitar, Hubert Francis, bassist Lukas Pearse, keyboardist/vocalist and guitarists Joanne Hatfield, Aaron Prosper on vocals and percussion and Matt Gallant on drums. During concerts, Syliboy projects his work on screens to accompany the theme of the song being performed. Often the Thundermakers also feature The Thunder Girls who dress in traditional Mi’kmaq regalia and dance onstage (and when available include Sarah Prosper, a renowned Mi’kmaw dancer and artistic director).

“I never stop working. I think that’s the key to my practice. I continually like the process, and I work in the process every day,” says Syliboy. “It’s not work really. They say that creativity is close to playing like a child. I think the child in me is still alive and creating art.”

Alan Syliboy, Grandmother 1, 1997. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo by Steve Farmer.

What strikes folks most about Syliboy’s work is that you don’t have to go into a gallery to encounter it. Whether you pick up one of his children’s books like When the Owls Calls Your Name (Nimbus 2023), follow him on social media, buy a hand-painted ornament at Christmastime, see his work going through security at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport, dance at an Alan Syliboy and The Thundermaker’s show, or catch a glimpse of his work driving over the bridge to Dartmouth on a law firm’s billboard, the impact of Syliboy’s work is palpable all over Mi’kmak’ki.

In fact, Syliboy’s most powerful pieces Tuft’s Cove Survivor (1999), an acrylic work with watercolour pencil, ink and photo transfer on illustration board (owned by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia), is on display outside of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. The work commemorates the Mi’kmaw settlement of Turtle Grove that was devastated in the Halifax Explosion on December 6, 1917. Of the 1782 confirmed deaths, 29 of the Mi’kmaq community members of Turtle Grove were killed – the remaining survivors were displaced and sent to live in various ‘reserves’ across the province where they became tenants instead of landlords. While many of the affected communities were rebuilt, but the Mi’kmaq community was not. Turtle Cove has since been renamed Tuft’s Cove after the major power plant.

In Alan Syliboy Culture is Our Medicine, a Gaspereau Field Guide to Canadian Artists No. 7, by Ray Cronin (Gasperau Press 2022), the artist remembers his grandmother Rachael Marshall, who was only a little a girl at the time of the disaster and how she felt the ground shake 60 miles away. Not long after the blast, trains filled with wounded people arrived in Truro in need of medical attention.

“Some destruction happens in an instant; some takes place over four hundred years. My art is about more than mere survival; it’s about a thriving Mi’kma’ki where L’nuk know and value our past while creating our future,” writes Syliboy. “The petroglyphs were etched to share stories and beliefs. For about five decades now I’ve paid tribute to that art in my own art, not by replicating it as artefacts but by using it to share new stories and visions to celebrate our living culture.”

Alan Syliboy, Grand Chief Membertou, 2010. Collection of Marcia Hennessy. Photo by Steve Farmer.

Syliboy’s Tuft’s Cove Survivor depicts Jerry Lonecloud and his family, who lived on the shores of Turtle Grove/ Tuft’s Cove. He wasn’t home at the time of the blast which killed two of his daughters. William Prosper, who was the last living member of the community is outlined in red. Syliboy refers to him as the “Tufts Cove Survivor.”

The title track from Marks on the Ground is a sonic poetic dreamscape where Syliboy recites the lines over a building piano and violin. In a way, the song could be an invitation to embrace the journey and also his artist statement.

“I dreamt that I was walking down a path/ this path led me to a vast clearing/ and in that clearing I saw many large rocks/ and on these rocks there were writings, pictures and stories/ and then I could hear my grandfather singing/ I could hear many grandfathers singing/ then I could hear my grandmother singing/ then I could hear many grandmothers singing.” 

Syliboy continues to share about his journey, and role in bringing back the stories and songs from the spirit world to our world in order to make our medicine. He sings: “Culture is our medicine/ and that medicine is to be shared. So, I leave here with these marks on the ground and start my journey to bring back/ to restore that was lost.”

Alan Syliboy’s The Journey So Far, a retrospective curated by Pamela Edmonds, is on display at the Dalhousie Art Gallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia until August 11. Everyone is welcome to the opening reception June 20, 2024, from 6-8PM.

Also, Alan Syliboy and the Thundermakers are performing on the TD Mainstage with Emmylou Harris on July 11 at the Halifax Jazz Festival. Tickets are available here: https://www.halifaxjazzfestival.ca/emmylouharris

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About The Author

Shannon Webb-Campbell

Shannon Webb-Campbell is of Mi’kmaq and settler heritage. She is a member of Flat Bay First Nation. Her books include: the forthcoming Re: Wild Her (Book*hug 2025), Lunar Tides (2022), I Am a Body of Land (2019), and Still No Word (2015), which was the recipient of Egale Canada’s Out in Print Award. Shannon is a PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick, and the editor of Muskrat Magazine and Visual Arts News.

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