'Tree of Life' window dedicated at Cathedral

Artist Susan Point is pictured besides the "Tree of Life" window at Christ Church Cathedral she designed. The small dog is a whimsical picture of the bulldog "Mister" much loved by the late Jean Southam, whose donation made the installation possible
Until this spring virtually all the 30 stained glass windows in Christ Church Cathedral have been quite traditional: Christ the King, Faith, Hope and Charity, King David, the Crucifixion, archangels, and even a copy of Holman Hunt's Christ as the Light of the World, of which there must be hundreds of copies in Anglican cathedrals and churches throughout the communion.

Thanks to the marriage of a splendid gift from one of the city's great philanthropists, the late Jean Southam, and the brilliant creativity of internationally renowned First Nations artist, Susan Point, the restored Cathedral has been further enhanced by a unique new work of art.

It is breathtakingly contemporary in design, and blends a theme that has great meaning in both Christian theology and First Nations beliefs. The last remaining plain windows, on the south wall of the church, are now filled with magnificent stained glass, shaped around the concept of "The Tree of Life".

These windows are the result of a challenging competition, which was won by Dr. Point.

It is a measure of the quality of her art and her vision, that she has been able to create a composition that respects the aesthetic of the existing glass in the church and the formal nature of the Victorian space, but is without a doubt something of our day.

Her composition spans all five windows, the tallest, in the centre, being nearly 19 feet high. In its development, Dr. Point made an extensive study of the existing glass, consulted with the Cathedral's architect in residence, Allen Aubert, a parishioner, and various heritage consultants.

She drew numerous sketches over several months and developed a design which was centred around elongated pieces sweeping upward, while being mindful of the need for structural integrity and for leading of a variety of widths.

Once the Dean and his colleagues had approved the final version of her design, she made several trips to the Seattle glass studio of Fremont Antique Glass, to select glass of exactly the right shades, which was specially blown for the windows. Supporting her in the execution of her design and the fabrication of the windows, was Yves Trudeau, of Studio 1 Glass Art in Vancouver, a master artisan in his own right.

Some of the words which formed the citation when Point was appointed an Officer in the Order of Canada in 2006, underline the special nature of her art and its importance to local and national cultural life.

"An internationally acclaimed artist, Susan Point has played a prominent role in the renewal of the Coast Salish First Nations cultural heritage. Combining traditional symbols with a wide range of materials, she has produced inventive and distinctive works that have been exhibited in Canada and abroad. Widely admired for her creativity and vision...she is a source of inspiration for young artists."

Point is a prolific artist who has worked in many media for more than three decades. Among her most recent commissions are three portals which celebrate and honour her Salish heritage and which now have pride of place in the grouping of large scale First Nations sculptures near Brockton Point in Stanley Park. For the artist who is widely acknowledged to have played the key role in the rediscovery and rebirth of Coast Salish art, the indigenous artform that is almost certainly the most ancient on the shores of the North Pacific, it seems especially fortuitous that Susan Point was chosen to design this breathtaking addition to the Christ Church Cathedral's treasures.

It is more than a century since the Coast Salish were last featured in stained glass in an Anglican church in the Lower Mainland. In 1899, glass artist James Blomfield drew a Salish man and woman at the base of the window honouring the life and work of Bishop Sillitoe, a beautiful art nouveau window still to be seen in Holy Trinity Cathedral in New Westminster.

Point's Tree of Life windows for Christ Church Cathedral are both as art and idea, another order of magnitude. She has been working in glass since 1986 and these windows are in many ways the largest and most ambitious artworks she has completed in this medium since she began her aesthetic experiments in glass.

The design features fish and water at the base, leaves and trees in the central section and mountains and birds above. As Point notes, "for my people, all life is interconnected and these windows underline that reality through Salish design and vibrant colour."

In an artist's statement she writes "The artwork celebrates the beauty of our surrounding land, and our enduring connection with it-a connection honoured and celebrated by a living Salish culture, and by the many others who have chosen Vancouver as their home, and as a place to visit. The colours reflect the mountains and the oceans of the Pacific Northwest, emphasizing the importance of the landscape within our lives."

Bishop Michael Ingham was present at the window's dedication on Palm Sunday, April 5. Another celebration service and reception followed in the afternoon at which Lieutenant Governor Steven Point was present.

It can be anticipated with confidence, that these windows will both enhance the spiritual life of the Cathedral and attract the attention of thousands of people from the wider community and beyond who will ensure that this latest masterwork by one of Canada's greatest living artists is something not to be missed.

Robert Watt is the emeritus Chief Herald of Canada.