Robert Davidson talk inspired me

  • Apr. 26, 2010 10:00 a.m.

By Evelyn von Almassy–Last Thursday April 22, at the Queen Charlotte high school, there was a large crowd listening intently to Haida and world-famous artist Robert Davidson, and I was lucky to be one of them. Everyone was focused on the words of this soft-spoken man. He was born on November 4, 1946 in Hydaburg, Alaska. In 1947, he and his family moved to Masset and when he was thirteen he began to carve, as his father insisted he carry on the family artistic tradition. Robert’s Haida name is Guud San Glans which means Eagle of the Dawn. His great-grandfather was Charles Edenshaw and both his grandfather and his father were respected carvers in Masset. Whenever Robert is on the islands, I try to attend his seminars as I always learn something more about him. He makes me think differently about art and the world around me and that day was no exception. Robert began his talk by saying that Haida Art was a very developed form of art, even before contact. He asked us to take a good look at the pre-contact art. Haida art became more refined in the late 1800s, and you can see this in the Haida Gwaii museum and also in museums around the world. When Robert began to carve in the 60s there were only a few Haida carvers. Art was a trade item in the earlier years. He sees that Haida art developed into four types – the spiritual or sacred and the personal. (These are the types that he won’t sell.) The third type is the commercial or trade type, and the fourth type is political. Sickness in the form of tuberculosis and smallpox came to Haida Gwaii after contact and 95 percent of the population died, and then the children were taken away to residential schools. As Robert said: “Whole generations were muted.” In 1969 his grandparents, his family, his brother Reg and he, working together, carved a totem pole in Old Massett. “It helped wake up a nation, he said”It had been many years since anyone had done this. Some people found it unsettling to bring back the old ways. Robert sees an incredible resurgence in Haida Art today. In Old Massett three poles were put up and six poles were raised in Skidegate in the past few years. There’s an old prophesy amongst Aboriginal people that “When the Eagle lands, the Natives will rise again.” When the Americans landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, the sentence they used was “The Eagle has landed.” This phrase went around the world. Robert was then 23 years old. Robert asked the students “How many of you want to be an artist?” About ten students put up their hands. He then asked “How many of you are committed to being an artist?” Three students now put up their hands. He said that there was a difference between wishing and committing. He himself did not commit to being an artist until he was 19 or 20. Most of the students in the audience were not yet that old. A question from Joanne Yovanovich of “How was it when you went to grade school?” brought forth the story of him failing grade four and grade seven. He wanted to play basketball, but the principal said that his grades needed to improve. He worked on his grades, and the next year they went up, and he played basketball. The kids had free rein of the forest and the beach when he was young. “We had a movie once a week. If there was a western movie on, we’d play cowboys and Indians. My grandparents had a big influence.” and he goes on to say that “Every generation learns from the last generation.” “My dad was a fisherman, my mother worked at the cannery. My mother was a nursemaid.walked up and down in the village checking up on the kids.” His words of advice included. have a goal, focus on that goal. Things will work for you, things will open up. magic will open the door. To become a success in any profession you need to think about it: drawing, visualizing the art, memorizing the art. Robert also said “copying is the quickest way to learn the art form.” But it’s important you don’t get stuck in copying. I feel it’s very much like learning. I was watching Sarah, my daughter when she was three. She was drawing the alphabet (as opposed to printing it). When asked if he “had to do anything else but art to earn money?” by one of the students he replied “I worked in the cannery for two days.” One of his teachers wanted him to go to Vancouver for some training. My dad said I would have to raise $200. He carved argillite and raised $170 and got a job in Skidegate. He said he’s been training people to become artists since 1978. “My goal is to help to raise the standard of the art. I’ve had nine people that completed an apprenticeship with me.” When people are in my studio, I ensure they maintain a standard. He went on to say that you have an incredible museum here. You can offer to sweep up any floor of the artists in the village. He also suggested “Have a drawing book and a pencil to start.” There are some artists melding their art. He said he is “.a purist – I am not excited about the melding. I am not ready for it.” His mentor Bill Reid and he would “brainstorm on what we could do to pay the rent.” At the same time, when his son asked him for advice, Robert told him: “I would worry less about money.” One person asked him about the challenges women have. Robert said that whether you are a man or a woman, “once you commit, you will excel.” He ended by telling us the story of Isabel Rorick, now a famous Haida weaver. She was carving with me and seven other guys. Her nonni walked in and said: “You have to make up your mind what you’re going to do. Carve or weave? If you’re going to weave, come with me right now.” Isabel put down what she was doing, and went with her and never looked back. I know every person at QCSS who listened to Robert that day learned something. As always he was inspirational, and he inspired me to write about him. Thanks, Robert Davidson.