Assistant conservator Nicola Murray speaks to students in the library at Gudangaay Tlaats’gaa Naay, where she has revealed a mural painted by a young Robert Davidson, Medric Jones, and Gilbert Kelly. Painted in 1963, the mural was covered up a decade later by grey and white wall paint. (Andrew Hudson/Haida Gwaii Observer)

Conservators restore Shark House pole, reveal long-hidden mural by Robert Davidson

One stands in the open, facing the wind, rain and birds.

The other is slowly re-appearing from a library wall.

This fall, a team of conservators restored two works by artists Reg and Robert Davidson that say a lot about how Haida culture is reviving.

Assistant conservator Jeremy Jaud re-sets the dorsal fin on the dogfish that tops Reg Davidson’s Shark House pole in Old Massett. Raised for his father’s chieftanship potlatch in 1986, the pole was recently repaired and refinished to better withstand the sun, rain, moss, lichen, and birds. (Andrew Hudson/Haida Gwaii Observer)

Perched on a scaffold high above the rooftops in Old Massett, conservator Andrew Todd and his assistant Jeremy Jaud used epoxy and yellow-cedar dowels to re-attach the dogfish tail and fin at the top of Reg Davidson’s Shark House pole.

Raised 31 years ago this month, the pole was commissioned by Reg’s father, Claude Davidson, for the potlatch where he became chief of the Haida village of Dadens, on Langara Island.

It was the first pole raised by a newly potlatched chief in Old Massett for over 100 years.

“I’m glad it’s done,” says Reg Davidson.

Besides re-finning the dogfish up top — one of Claude Davidson’s several clan crests — the conservators also repainted the pole, sealed rainwater cracks, and cleaned off lichen, moss, insects and plants that were eating away at the wood.

The restored Shark House pole stands outside Sarah Hillis’ Haida Arts. “I wondered if they would ever figure out if you could do that or not,” said Hillis, who kept pieces of the Shark House pole in safekeeping for several years until they could be repaired. (Andrew Hudson/Haida Gwaii Observer)

“To me, it’s a very important piece of history,” said Robert Davidson, who was just 22 when he carved the first pole raised in Old Massett in recent times. Raised in 1969, it was the first raised after the potlatch ban.

Standing just down the road from the Shark House pole and carved with his younger brother’s help, it too was restored by Andrew Todd and his colleagues in 2009.

This year, Haida carvers Gidansda, Christian White, and Jim Hart each led the raising of a Haida pole, marking a chieftanship, a pole made with several women carvers, and a future reconciliation with Canada.

With several new works of Haida art going up on and off Haida Gwaii, it is easy to forget just how little remained in Old Massett when Robert and Reg Davidson were getting started.

“I literally knocked on every door in the village, just to see if they had anything, if anything survived,” said Robert. All the Haida art he could gather fit into a single storage box.

Reg also remembers how sparse it was.

“There was nothing here,” he said.

Old Massett had just one silver engraver, and four people who wove cedar. And it wasn’t only art that was missing.

Before he and Robert started the Rainbow Creek Dancers in 1980, the only time Reg saw Haida dancing was at Robert’s pole raising and at church fundraisers in the community hall, where he remembers his grandfather and Amanda Edgars singing a money song.

“They put a basket out with a blanket and they were singing a Haida song,” he said.

“I had no clue what the song was. People sat there for a long time, and then they realized they wanted people to put money in the basket.”

Look at the photos in An Innocent Gesture, the book commemorating the pole raising in 1969, said Robert. “You’ll see some of the women wearing cardboard pieces. You’ll see my grandfather using a toy drum.”

“That gives you an idea of how much was lost,” he added.

“And yet so much was gained on that day.”

A George M. Dawson yearbook photo shows the floor hockey team of 1973, who played against the team from Tasu. (Haida Gwaii School District)

Years before that day, Robert was asked to do something smaller, but significant at the time— to paint a series of Haida murals in what was then the gym at George M. Dawson Secondary.

He was 16, and while he had already started carving argillite, he had never done a painting before.

But he was encouraged by the school principal, Garth Barnes, who organized the project, and by his classmates Gilbert Kelly and Medric Jones, who helped him paint the series every morning before school in the winter of 1963.

They adapted the Haida designs from photos of argillite plates in a book by Marius Barbeau — about the only source that local Haida carvers had to go on in those days. It was a challenge transposing the grizzly bear and other designs from the oval plates onto the rectangular gym walls.

“I used a ruler,” said Robert. “That’s sacrilege, to use a ruler today.”

For a decade after, old yearbooks from George M. Dawson Secondary show floor hockey and basketball teams posing proudly in front of Robert’s grizzly bear mural.

But after another year, Robert had to leave the school. Like any other student who wanted to graduate at the time, he had to leave Haida Gwaii for Grades 11 and 12.

It wasn’t until he left Masset and saw the Haida art collection at the Vancouver Museum that he saw the full measure of what Haida art had achieved.

“I was totally blown away,” he said.

At the same time Robert and others were reviving Haida art as something much more than curio or museum pieces, his murals at the high school were painted over with flat grey and white wall paint. The last yearbook to show them dates to 1973.

“I was shocked to know that it was painted over,” Robert said. “I think it was also the time — we were starting to regain our place in the world.”

“I always find when things happen like that, it’s the lack of knowledge,” said Reg, noting how missionaries assumed they understood Haida art when they sought to wipe it out.

Over the next four and a half decades, the GMD gym became the GMD library, and then the library of Gudangaay Tlaats’gaa Naay when the school was renamed last year.

This fall, thanks to fundraising work by school administrator Johanne Young and a private donor, Andrew Todd’s conservator group was hired to recover Robert’s mural from the wall.

A detail shows ongoing restoration work on the mural that was painted over in 1973. (Andrew Hudson/Haida Gwaii Observer)

Speaking to a group of students as she worked on the mural, conservator Nicola Murray explained how she started removing the top layers of grey and white paint with a heat gun and scalpel. Looking through a magnifying loupe, she was careful not to go too deep and remove the white, black, red, and green that make up the teeth and face of the grizzly bear.

“That was just a bit too slow-going,” she said, adding that despite what most people think of conservators, she’s not particularly patient.

Murray then tested a series of solvents until she found one that could remove just the covering layers of paint. She then touched up the rough edges of the original work, repainted some of the most glaring gaps, and brushed the whole thing with a protective coating.

“We don’t want to make it look brand-new again, that’s really not our job,” she said.

Although it is marked by the 45 years it was hidden away, the mural is now revealed.

“It was pretty wild that they’re able to do that,” said Reg, who finished at GMD not long before the mural got covered up.

Nearly half a century into the revival of Haida art, Reg sounds confident it will continue to take surprising new turns.

“As long as we keep learning instead of being stubborn, saying ‘No, we can’t do it that way,’” he said, laughing.

“That’s human nature.”

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