Surrounded by the tools of his trade in a rustic studio with massive windows that frame an idyllic image of the nearby forest, Robert Davidson’s studio is bright, cozy and inviting. However, it is also a place of work, busy with purposeful activity. Two young men are outside chopping wood and inside, Davidson along with his most recent apprentice, Nuxalk artist Sesyaz Saunders, are working side by side, heads down carving. Davidson is patient but direct, as he meticulously guides Saunders’ technique on the large cedar carving called “Supernatural Beings.”
Robert Davidson, who is an established and highly acclaimed Haida artist, is often credited with leading the way for the renaissance of Haida art and culture. His body of work now spans over fifty years and can be found locally, as well as internationally, in several public and private collections including the National Gallery of Canada, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Canadian Museum of History, and the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles. His Haida name is Guud Sans Glans, which means “Eagle of the Dawn,” and his artistic roots run deep with many prominent artists and elders, most notably famed Haida artist Charles Edenshaw (1839-1924) who was his great grandfather.
Despite being born into a family of highly respected and internationally renowned artists, Davidson grew up during a time when all forms of Haida cultural expression—including song, dance and ceremony—were banned and had virtually disappeared from view. From 1884 to 1951, the Canadian government through the Indian Act had banned potlatches, the foundational ceremony of the Haida people.
“Every village has its story,” says Davidson, “but when I started carving there was no sense of art in Masset where I grew up. What I had been exposed to was that the art had almost gone into extinction and only one totem pole was left standing in Skidigate.”
It wasn’t until 1965 when Davidson, who was then 18, moved to Vancouver to complete his high school education at Point Grey Secondary, that his perspective on Haida art changed. “When I went to the museums in Vancouver, I was blown away by the high standard of the art,” says Davidson. At that time, museums were one of the few places where he could view and study the art of his ancestors.
During this time, Davidson was also selling his small argillite carvings in a few local “curio shops,” including at Hudson Bay. Back then, only a handful of artists were carving argillite, which is a type of rock that found on Haida Gwaii in Northern British Columbia. “They were the thin thread connecting to the old masters, says Davidson. “But at the same time there was nothing but old photographs that they were able to copy. So they didn’t really see the standards that the old masters had created.”
As a result, museums became an important place for Davidson and other Indigenous artists. “The people in the museums were very supportive and they opened the doors for us to study the art,” says Davidson. “From there it just kept progressing.”
Davidson soon realized that they were all doing the same thing without knowing it, “We were studying the old masters, learning from them. Relearning the standards that we had been denied. Because of the laws that were governing us, The Indian Act, we were not allowed to practice our ceremonies, our art, our songs or our dances. As a result, the art fell by the wayside. But not all of it.”
One of the major exhibitions that had a huge impact on Davidson during that time was at the 1967 exhibit “Arts of the Raven” held at the Vancouver Art Gallery. “Bill Reid, Wilson Duff and Bill Holmes curated the show,” says Davidson. “They travelled many places, including Europe, to collect the finest that was stored in museums. I felt that this was one of the turning points where the art started to filter into galleries, as opposed to just being in museums and curio shops.”
Another important show for Davidson was the one held a few years later at the B.C. Provincial Museum in 1971 called “The Legacy.” It was thrilling for him to see all the different Nations represented and realize that they were all on the same page. “We wanted to learn the art of our ancestors and the show, the exhibition, allowed us to come together and to get to know each other. That was very exciting.”
Inspired by what he saw in the museums, Davidson went back to Masset to see what else he could find and learn about Haida art. “I remember going back after seeing how much art my ancestors had created,” says Davidson. “I went knocking on every door in the village to see if anyone had anything and I found one box. That was it.” So much had been taken away or lost by then.
“My parent’s generation were the ones that were kidnapped and taken to residential schools,” says Davidson. “So that link was broken. I like to say that my generation arrived in the nick of time, and we wanted more. We wanted to go beyond the laws that governed us.”
Davidson is grateful that his grandparents (Naanii and Tsinii) had a very strong sense of who they were and managed to continue many of the ceremonies and traditions, often underground disguised as birthday parties and weddings. “They were the very last link to that ancient knowledge,” says Davidson. “Fortunately, that knowledge was retained by them and now that knowledge survives with them, my generation and my parents’ generation, through many decades of wanting to reconnect.”
All of this had a profound impact on Davidson who in 1969, at 22, decided to go back home and revive a culture that had been consigned to museums by carving and raising the first totem pole in Haida Gwaii in almost 80 years. “Coming home to nothing and having seen the incredible art form that I had seen in Vancouver,” says Davidson, “I offered to carve the totem pole. I have to say though, that I was pretty naive about it.”
Even though no one had witnessed an actual pole raising, the community came together and it all fell into place. “As soon as I made the commitment,” says Davidson, “my dad called and said that he had a potential log for me. I totally forgot that I needed a log.” And at the same time without him knowing, Audrey Hawthorne who was the curator at the UBC Museum of Anthropology, had applied for a $3000 cultural grant to help support the process.
His grandparents were also instrumental to Davidson being able to take on a cultural project of this magnitude. “Naanii and Tsinii supported it through many meetings at their house,” says Davidson, “and after the meetings Tsinii would get out the drums and the songs would inspire different information coming out.” It was the first time that he had heard Haida singing. “I remember Naanii on one of the songs she got someone to hold a blanket out. There was no explanation, it was just acted out.” Part way through she stopped the song because she needed a mask and asked one of his cousins to get a brown paper bag. Davidson remembers her cutting out holes for the eyes, “That was my first experience with a Haida mask because at that time we didn’t have anything; we didn’t have any masks or anything. It had all be taken or lost.”
Another door that opened up to help with the process was that Davidson’s younger brother Reg stepped in to help carve the pole. “Reg was 14 years old and had never carved before,” says Davidson, “but he knew what to do.” Meanwhile, his grandparents, along with all the elders of that time, met many times to talk about how to raise the totem pole. They wanted to do it the old way but no one knew how to raise a pole. No one had ever witnessed it.
However, his grandfather had been able to orchestrate the raising of the pole from stories that he had heard. “A trench had to be dug,” says Davidson, “and we needed poles, three different lengths, to create an A-frame to hold the pole as it was being raised.” The pole, 40 feet high, was successfully raised and still stands in Masset to this day. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the raising of this pole, the book Four Decades, An Innocent Gesture, was published.
“So the art works hand in hand with our history,” says Davidson. “The art is a catalyst to documenting our history and the potlatch is the place to express that history.” He and his brother Reg have continued to make art respectively, now in many different mediums, which are sold to galleries, institutions and collectors worldwide. Davidson and his brother also started Rainbow Creek Dancers, and over the years have been buying or making masks for the dances. “From a paper bag to many of the masks today,” says Davidson, “it is amazing to see it all change.”
“Someone once asked me if all of this was a burden,” says Robinson who replied, “It feeds my soul. My soul is fed with our ceremonies, with our songs, and with our understanding of the universe.” He also feels that it is important that he and other Northwest Coast artists know who they are and work with each other, while also reconnecting with their own culture and history.
He continues to create incredible art, and uses projects like “Supernatural Beings” as an opportunity to share what he knows with other up-and-coming artists. “It is a great experience, sometimes a bit overwhelming,” says Saunders. “I don’t take these teachings lightly.” Saunders, as part of his apprenticeship, spends three weeks every two months learning and working with Davidson.
Art, history and culture are present, like the tall trees outside, guiding and informing Davidson and Saunders as they carve section by section, but at the same time giving them room to grow and bring themselves into the process. This is what some are calling a cultural revitalization. Contemporary Indigenous artists, with a clear sense of who they are and their art, are reconnecting with the traditions, knowledge and culture of their ancestors.
Reprinted with permission from Canadian Antiques & Vintage magazine. For subscription information to Canada’s only national antiques and vintage publication, please call toll-free 1.866.333.3397