Tafui McLean can point to the exact moment that art changed her life. It was decades ago, in Jamaica. Then-five-year-old McLean couldn’t stop crying on her first day of school—that is, until her teacher gave her a sketchbook and some paint. “It was meant to pacify me, and for me, it was like breathing,” says the artist. She held tight to that soothing feeling, and later fell in love with textile design in high school art class.

After studying studio art at Dawson College and design at Concordia University, McLean made her home in Vancouver, and now much of her work is inspired by the Canadian landscape. She also draws inspiration from West African textiles—her studies in pre-colonial Indigenous art led to an interest in the storytelling power of repeat patterns. “I noticed that there was a common thread in textiles from different Indigenous groups across Africa, and even in Asia,” she says. “And that was really fascinating to me as an artist, especially as someone who was born in Jamaica.” The motto of Jamaica is “Out of Many, One People,” and that message of unity rings very true for McLean.

That same draw to unity also makes sustainability fundamental to McLean as she creates her own art prints and pillows (which she calls “soft art”). “I believe in respecting the land,” she says. “We are not separate from it, and we are not separate from each other.” 

McLean chose organic Belgian linen for her pillows because it requires less water for manufacturing than other materials, and she makes small zippered pouches with the offcuts. Coming next for the Tafui line is a wallpaper, and soon she will have fabric by the yard available for fans of her signature bold, abstract patterns.