YVR unveils Davidson masterworks

Standing in the Vancouver Airport, Davidson’s cedar pole, two sculptures and bentwood box will be seen by up to 100,000 travellers a day.


Reg Davidson enjoys sky light a lot more than spotlights.

The celebrated Haida carver likes to get up and working in his Old Massett studio around 3 a.m., well before dawn, and way before his phone gets a chance to ring.

The studio has no windows, so Davidson can work without waking his neighbours.

“Nobody’s complained yet, and I’ve been here 20 years,” he says, laughing.

Instead of windows, the studio has skylights — meaning the only ones likely to get a peek at Davidson’s latest work are the eagles and ravens that fly overhead.

But after an unveiling last Tuesday, a whole new flock of high-fliers will get to see the four red-cedar works that make up Davidson’s first public art outside Old Massett.

Standing in the domestic terminal of the Vancouver International Airport, Davidson’s 24-foot cedar pole, two sculptures and monumental bentwood box will be seen by up to 100,000 air travellers a day.

The unveiling made headlines in Vancouver and across the country.

Here on Haida Gwaii, Davidson’s Facebook lit up with local shout-outs of “beautiful!” and “stunning!”

One person said the Vancouver airport is looking pretty siijuu (classy) with all its Haida art — Reg’s four sculptures join works by his brother Robert Davidson, and others by Bill Reid.

Robert was on hand at the opening, where he sang a Haida song to commemorate his younger brother, who he taught to carve when Reg was in his late teens.

Later, the brothers co-founded Tuul Gundlas Cyaal Xaada, or the Rainbow Creek Dancers, named for a creek that flows at the north end of Old Massett in the rainy winter season, the traditional time for potlatches.

“I got kind of embarrassed the last couple days, because it’s so overloaded with the whole project and that video,” said Reg Davidson, talking about the ‘likes’ on his Facebook page and a behind-the-scenes video that the Vancouver Airport posted online.

“This my home, you know, so it makes me feel good because I look at everybody as my friends,” he said, adding that whenever a local person succeeds in something, everyone here shares in his or her accomplishment.

“We’re a small community, helping each other.”

Davidson hired several other carvers to help with the large-scale project, much as his brother once took him on as an apprentice when they carved a housefront and houseposts to honour Charles Edenshaw, the father of their grandmother, Florence Davidson.

Oliver Bell and Cori Savard worked with Reg Davidson full-time on the project, and were joined by carvers Tyson Brown and Sgwaayaans Young. Even Robert did a little work.

“He’ll be mad I mentioned his name, but it’s okay,” said Reg. “He’ll say, ‘I didn’t do that much,’ but he helped.”

The 24-foot totem pole in the airport display is called Raven Stealing the Beaver Lake, and it tells the story of how Raven rolled up the salmon lake of the Beaver people and flew it to the Haida along with a fish trap and a great house.

Asked when he first heard the story, Mr. Davidson laughed and said, “Oh, that’s been around forever.”

Two sculptures, The Blind Halibut Fisherman and Raven with a Broken Beak, tell another Raven tale — the story of a blind fisherman who happens to yank off Raven’s beak just as the prankster tries to steal halibut off the old man’s line.

Standing just behind the sculptures is a huge bentwood box made from a single, steam-bent cedar board. Relief carvings on the front and back show Raven stealing the moon from a great Chief as a gift to the Haida people.

Mr. Davidson said the pole was carved from a 500-year-old red cedar that grew by the Awun River, close to Juskatla.

“This is some of the nicest wood I’ve carved in a long time,” he said, noting its very tight grain. Every foot of width represents about 100 years.

At 61, Mr. Davidson is enjoying where his art has taken him: home.

From the beginning, he said it was always his goal to be established enough that he could live and work in Old Massett.

That hasn’t changed, and the wider art world is having no trouble finding him.

The English artist Damien Hirst ordered a 40-foot pole a few years ago (“I’m just fascinated by him — I mean, who makes a formaldehyde shark and sells it for $18 million?”), and Mr. Davidson’s website brings loads of questions from art students keen on Haida style (For the record, Mr. Davidson said he is happy to point out books to read, but won’t do anyone’s homework).

“When I’m recognized, it makes me happy, but I’m not looking for that,” Mr. Davidson said.

“I’m happy where I’m at today.”