Saturday, September 10, 2011

DAWN OF THE EAGLE: Robert Davidson and the Northwest Coast Native Art Revival 

By William Severini Kowinski

This is the full text prior to editing of the article that appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, January 1995. Bill Reid, who was ill and unavailable when I wrote this piece, died in 1998. Robert Davidson was awarded the Order of British Columbia in 1995 and the Order of Canada in 1996.  Robert Davidson has continued to create new work and you can see some of  it on his website, and the websites of Spirit Wrestler Gallery, Inuit Gallery, and Stonington Gallery, among others.  There are more books by and about Robert Davidson published since this article--one of the more recent commemorates the raising of the totem pole in Masset in 1969 that he and his brother Reg carved, as mentioned in this piece.  It's called Four Decades: An Innocent Gesture. 




Wearing a light blue denim shirt and clean faded jeans, his black hair gently edged with gray, Robert Davidson sits on a metal-framed wicker chair, painting with a sure flowing hand the canvas that rests in front of him on the top of a short aluminum ladder. He follows and sometimes changes the pencil drawing he previously made. A goose-neck lamp illuminates his work, compensating for the dim light coming through the windows of his cedar-paneled studio on a gray late morning. A telephone is at his side, next to his paints.

Sitting nearby under the high shelves of paint cans, surrounded by the surfaces of counters and tables displaying partially completed sculptures and scattered with brushes, saws, torches and other tools, are two apprentices, Bill Kuhnley, Jr. and Gloria Godrich. Davidson keeps an eagle-eyed watch on their work as he does his own. At his back, just beyond the sign on the wall that says "If we see you SMOKING we will assume you are on fire and take appropriate measures," is a small kitchen, with refrigerator, stove and cappuccino maker. Through an open doorway is an office and the bright stare of a computer screen, where Kate Brauer, Davidson's recently hired assistant, takes faxes and phone calls concerning commissions, exhibitions, press inquiries and requests to meet the artist.

"You can put some music on if you like," Davidson says to Bill, the newer apprentice. The stereo system, fed by a cabinet full of CDs and tapes, is uncharacteristically silent.

"Okay," Bill says. "What would you like to hear?"

A pause as Davidson continues working. "Nothing," he says quietly. There is another pause before everyone laughs. His comic timing is impeccable.

"Bill is learning about bantering," Davidson remarks.

"Besides talent," Kate comments later, "The qualifications for Robert's apprentices are a quick wit and proficiency at making cappuccino."

It might be the studio of any successful contemporary artist. Except that the canvas Robert Davidson is painting is actually deerskin, stretched across the frame of a drum. His apprentice Gloria is working on the template for another drum design. Bill is carving a miniature canoe of yellow cedar. The sculptures awaiting completion include a large, elaborately painted red cedar mask of a salmon head, very much like the one that Davidson's Rainbow Dancers use in a ceremonial dance. Though the nearest town is White Rock, a beach-and-bedroom community outside of Vancouver, British Columbia, the studio itself is located on the Semiahmoo Reserve of the Salish people. The designs Davidson is painting on the drumhead are in a unique style rigorously developed over at least a thousand years by the Haida people of Haida Gwaii, the islands south of Alaska designated on maps as the Queen Charlottes.

Europeans and their American relatives praised this ancient style for its power and beauty since they first encountered it in the late eighteenth century, but few masters remained by the time Davidson was born in 1946. Today, Davidson is the most prominent working Haida artist giving new life to this art and the culture it expresses, not only by returning to past traditions and standards, but by adapting and extending both the art and culture to the contemporary world.

In the process, Davidson has become internationally known. His tall carved totem poles tower over works by Rodin and Henry Moore in Pepsico's International Sculpture Park in Westchester County, New York. Other poles grace public areas in Montreal, Toronto and Dublin as well as his home village of Masset on Haida Gwaii. A major retrospective of Davidson's carvings, prints, bronze sculptures, and gold and silver jewelry was mounted last summer by the Vancouver Art Museum and is now richly displayed at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec (just across the river from Ottawa, Ontario) until September 11, 1994. He is the subject of one recent book (Robert Davidson, edited by Ian Thom ) and the author of another forthcoming in the fall (Eagle of the Dawn, with photographs by Ulli Steltzer), both published in the U.S. by the University of Washington and in Canada by Douglas & McIntyre.

Yet Davidson grew up in the Haida homeland without ever knowing about the masterpieces of his culture, which he discovered only after he left. It seemed the old culture had vanished as well, but as he found when he returned, it was only sleeping in the hearts of the last elders who had lived it. But it took a totem pole to awaken it.


* * *

Growing up in the mid 1950s, Robert Davidson crammed into the movie theater with the loud mass of Masset children. "You'd think the movie was a sports event happening," he recalls, "because we'd all be coaching the actors on, shouting "hurry! hurry!" when there was a suspenseful chase, cheering for the good guys, booing the bad guys." In western movies, the good guys--the winners--were the cowboys, the cavalry. The bad guys--the losers--were the Indians.

Then one day Robert's uncle took him aside and told him that he was an Indian himself. " All of a sudden, Revelation Day. I must have been ten or eleven. That was a real shattering blow to me. I didn't want to be those bad people. I wanted to win."

Until then, he was just another boy in the small fishing village of Old Masset in the north of Haida Gwaii, living with his family--parents, sister and two brothers-- in a one room house lit by Coleman lamps and heated by a wood stove. He knew he was named Robert after his grandfather, Robert Davidson, Sr., and Charles after Charles Edenshaw, the father of his grandmother, Florence Edenshaw Davidson, who he called naanii-- Haida for grandmother. But there was a pained silence and common amnesia about parts of his parents and grandparents' past, a gap that a child knows marks forbidden territory.

Still, he enjoyed the closeness of the community and his many relatives. He loved to fish with his grandfather, who sometimes pretended to be catching a big one to entertain him. At night he listened to stories on the battery-powered radio.

Though he felt no overt discrimination, there were intimations of differences in the conflict of his everyday life with the demands of formal schooling. "School was so foreign," he remembers. " I wanted to have perfect attendance, but we lived with the seasons, not by the calendar. We went clamming when the tide was right, not according to the clock. Also, at home we learned by demonstration, not by intellectualizing and hypothesizing. But there was no sensitivity to that in school, so we were always labelled as slow learners."

argulite sculpture by Charles Edenshaw

One thing he could learn by watching and repeating was carving--first from his father, who'd recently taken it up, and then from his grandfather, who'd been a carpenter and shipbuilder as well as a commercial fisherman, and carved in both wood and the soft black slate unique to Haida Gwaii called argillite. They were unusual. There weren't many other carvers in Masset anymore.

His father and grandfather carved one side of a miniature totem pole and Robert would try to carve the other side exactly the same. They were copying full-sized poles from fuzzy black and white photographs in old books published by the National Museum of Canada, taken by an indefatigable ethnologist, Marius Barbeau. There were no actual totem poles left in Masset, and few anywhere in Haida Gwaii. When he was alone, Robert also carved his own toy boats from driftwood on the beach. "It was like a real deja vu for me," Davidson says, of his first carving attempts. "It felt like I was there before."

The local schools stopped at tenth grade, so to finish high school Robert had to go to the big mainland city of Vancouver to live with relatives of the local church pastor. His fellow students were curious about him and his people, and Davidson became curious about himself. "I started to look in the Canadian history books, because I wanted to know about who we were," Davidson says. "But there was not much in them about the Haida. I didn't realize what an incredibly complicated society I came from. There were values and systems going on for centuries." But over the next few years he met anthropologists and other experts. He combined what they told him with the fragmented memories and vague references of his childhood.

He learned that for an estimated eight thousand years or more the Haida were one of a number of peoples that lived and eventually traded with one another along the coast of the present day state of Washington and province of British Columbia as well as southern Alaska and the islands in between, known collectively as the Northwest Coast. Among these peoples, the Haida were known as the best canoe-makers and the most accomplished carvers, as well as the dominant nation.

He learned that the Haida had an intricate culture, based on kinship and hereditary rights. There were two main groups, the Eagles and the Ravens. Their members chose mates from the opposite group. There were many subgroups and ranks, which determined who had the right to pass on certain names and songs and dances. They lived along a strip of land between the thick forest and the ocean in great communal houses made of giant red cedar. The totem poles in front of these houses facing the sea told their family story through the crests displayed on them, and linked their lineage to the great figures of mythtime, such as Raven and Eagle and Killer Whale.

He learned that at first the appearance of European ships eager to trade for sea otter pelts urged the Haida to new heights of wealth and artistic expression. The foreign ships brought the first iron tools (in fact the Haida word for the white traders meant "Iron Men"), which they used to carve larger and more intricate objects. The Haida melted down the gold coins and American silver dollars to make bracelets and other jewelry. And when they saw the sailors' whalebone scrimshaw, they began carving small objects in their own idiom out of the local argillite for sale to the foreigners.

But after the traders came missionaries, miners and other settlers. The Christian missionaries taught that totem poles and potlatches were evil. The settlers brought new diseases, and a series of smallpox epidemics almost wiped out the Haida completely. From an estimated 7,000 at the time of first contact, they were down to as few as 350 by the early twentieth century. The survivors gave in to the European religion and culture, which seemed to have so much power. The villages were abandoned except for Masset in the north and Skidegate in the south. The last totem poles were chopped down for firewood. The potlatches--essential ceremonies of self government in which hosts gave gifts to witnesses to validate new rights such as rank, names and marriages --were eventually forbidden by law. The last Haida took European names and lived in European family houses.

Charles Edenshaw

But before all the old ways were lost, a chief who came to Masset from his abandoned home village was determined to use his carving skills to leave a legacy in wood, argillite, silver and gold. Europeans marvelled at his artistry. He was Charles Edenshaw, Robert's great-grandfather.

Robert learned that his grandparents'generation was the last to learn the old names, the songs and the dances; the last to speak the Haida language. His parents were forced off to boarding schools, as were the rest of their generation, where the last remnants of their Haida lives were wiped out. "Their identity, their being, their spirit, their dignity, and their self-esteem were beaten out of them," Davidson later wrote.

They returned home confused and disoriented. "It must have been devastating that all of a sudden you can't speak your own language," he says. "These beliefs that had lasted centuries were suddenly stripped from everybody." When Robert asked his grandmother why he was told so little as a child, she replied, "We didn't want you to go through the same thing that our children went through, so we didn't speak Haida to you." But now he knew that he was Haida, an Eagle who had been given a Haida name which he translates as "Eagle of the Dawn."


Early in his Vancouver days, Robert at last saw the artistic evidence of this culture, when one Sunday he walked into the city museum, which in those years was tucked into a Carnegie Library. What he saw bears little resemblance to most other Native American art, especially the naturalistic paintings, turquoise jewelry and ceramics the U.S. southwest.

The art of the Haida and other native peoples of the Northwest was a response to their lives and their environment, which was characterized by sea, rivers, rain and forests. They made canoes for fishing and seafaring, houses and boxes to protect themselves and their possessions from the rain and damp, and the other ordinary implements of daily life--spoons, bowls, ladles--as well as ceremonial masks and rattles--from the best and most abundant material of their world: wood.

Though they used alder, yellow cedar and other woods, the best for most purposes came from the giant red cedars, which grow slowly for centuries, tall and straight, yielding soft wood that is relatively easy to carve but cuts cleanly across the grain. It is light in weight and very flexible but strong, with excellent insulating properties and imbued with natural oils that preserve the cut wood.

Besides shaping the wood into elegant and useful objects, the Haida carved stylized depictions of animals imbued with mythic dimensions, portraying the power of these creatures and forces in their lives, both to give life and take it away. Using the red of red ocre, black from charcoal and green from copper oxide or clay, they often painted the carved and uncarved surfaces.

When Davidson first saw these objects he realized this was "art beyond my wildest dreams, art done by my ancestors, art I did not know how to relate to, art whose purpose and meaning I knew nothing about." But it's power spoke to him. "I was in dreamland. I was in the spirit world: images were alive..."

Inspired by these past creations, Robert Davidson set out to master these arts. He continued carving in wood and argillite, he learned silkscreen printing, and after completing high school he enrolled in the Vancouver School of Art where he took classes in painting, sculpting and design, and especially drawing. He also became an apprentice to the most famous artist then working in the Northwest idiom: Bill Reid. An artist of enormous accomplishments, Reid was another link from the Haida past to its future.

* * *

With a U.S.-born father of Scottish and German parents, and a devoutly Anglican mother, Bill Reid had acquired a taste for English and American literature, and studied the paintings of Cezanne and Picasso long before he immersed himself in Haida art. He didn't learn of his mother's Haida roots until he was a teenager, for a familiar reason. "My mother had learned the major lesson taught the native peoples of our hemisphere during the first half of this century, that it was somehow sinful and debased to be, in white terms, an Indian," he said much later, adding that she "certainly saw no reason to pass any pride in that part of their heritage on to her children."

Reid was 23 and beginning his career as a radio broadcaster when he visited his mother's home village of Skidegate on Haida Gwaii, and met his Haida grandfather, Charles Gladstone. There he saw the carving and engraving tools that Gladstone had inherited from his uncle and mentor, Charles Edenshaw of Masset. It was 1943, and Reid had begun the slow journey that would eventually lead famed anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss to write: "We are indebted to Bill Reid, that incomparable artist, for having tended and revived a flame that was so close to dying..."

By 1966, when Robert Davidson looked up from the argillite he was carving as a demonstration in a Vancouver department store to see him watching, Reid had studied jewelry-making, both of Europe and of Edenshaw, and was already a master and innovator in silver and gold. He had studied Haida carvings in museums, and at the side of an elder carver, learned to sing to the wood he carved. For the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, he had just completed restoring and carving five totem poles, and helped to build two Haida houses.

Robert in 1960s
 

Reid invited Davidson to be his apprentice, and then to live in his studio. "He gave me direction on all the pieces I was working on at the time," Davidson says now. "It really changed my style. It helped to refine my understanding of the art form." Reid also helped Davidson find work as a teacher, and otherwise encouraged his career. Eventually they carved a 12 foot totem pole together for a private client. "It's quite a unique pole," Davidson says. "It has two figures of very different styles. He carved the Raven on the bottom, I carved the Killer Whale on the top."

Though Reid was already established when Davidson met him, much of his most important work was still ahead: the yellow cedar sculpture, The Raven and the First Men (now at UBC), and the first large bronze sculptures in Haida style, including the Killer Whale at the entrance of the Vancouver Aquarium. Though afflicted with Huntington's Disease, he designed and supervised the construction of what may very well be his masterpiece from 1986 to 1992. It is the dazzling black bronze Spirit of Haida Gwaii--mythic Haida sojourners in a black canoe--which greets visitors to the new Canadian Embassy in Washington, and as such is an official symbol of Canada as well as the first outdoor sculpture in Washington by a Native American artist.


Reid's Spirit of Haida Gwaii, jade version at Vancouver Intl Airport

Reid's Raven and the First Men 


Relations between Reid and Davidson were sometimes strained in later years, although mutual respect and cooperation remain. But in 1989, Reid made an uncharacteristic appearance at the opening of a Davidson exhibit at the Inuit Gallery in Vancouver, and spoke to the assembled throng. Although his Huntington's had weakened his voice, at least some witnesses remember his remarks as a passing of the torch to his one-time apprentice. Reid joined Davidson and other revelers for a celebration well into the night.

Differences in style and approach between them were inevitable. "Both are meticulous workmen--their craft is what I respect the most," says Marjorie Halpin, UBC Museum of Anthropology curator of ethnology. "Bill is much more traditionalist. Robert is bolder in his work, more experimental." Or as Ulli Steltzer, who has photographed both artists and their works for more than twenty years, puts it, "Bill is the Bach, and Robert is the Mozart."


For all Reid's achievements (now in his seventies, he designs smaller works) he became only minimally involved in Haida ceremony. Yet this aspect of culture turned out to be the key to Robert Davidson's artistic growth, and to an awakening in his homeland as well as in himself.

After learning from Reid and from studying and copying the work of his own great-grandfather, Charles Edenshaw, 23 year old Robert Davidson returned home on one of his periodic visits. Making his customary rounds of the elders' homes to say hello and help with the firewood, he entered one house to find a group of his grandparents' generation gathered in an uncomfortable row, attending a church service. He had been thinking about carving a real totem pole, but the haunting emptiness he felt there convinced him to carve it for Masset, so the elders could experience once more some part of the old ways.


pole erected in Masset in 1969 with 40th anniversary celebration in 2009 
 No totem pole had been erected in Masset in the twentieth century, perhaps not in a hundred years. But the pole itself--which Davidson based on another Barbeau photograph-- turned out to be secondary. The pole-raising would be accompanied by a celebration, and for that the old songs and dances would be recalled and resurrected. Not everyone in the village was happy with the idea, but many responded to Davidson's patient interest. His grandparents were the most important. Though 89 years old and with fading eyesight, Robert Davidson, Sr. wanted to help carve the pole. Though he couldn't continue, his effort inspired his grandson to complete the arduous work. His grandmother, herself a pillar of the local church, nevertheless sang the old Haida songs she remembered and led the dance at the celebration.

The 1969 pole-raising became the first of several events Davidson organized in Masset over the years--feasts, potlatches and memorials, or what his Naanii simply called "doings." They each inspired new artworks and gave him new sources of knowledge. He had learned much from the anthropologists, even though some of their tendencies annoyed him. (Once an anthropologist showed Davidson an old Haida tool, saying he didn't know what it was for. Davidson recognized it as something the Haida still used. He put it together, showed the anthropologist how it worked, and said, "Why don't you people ask us once in awhile?") But now he had a richer base--experience. "I learned very quickly from my own involvement in feasts and potlatches that a lot of that information wasn't even in writing, it had to be demonstrated or performed," he says. " It's something you have to witness, and then it becomes part of you."

His grandfather died shortly after the pole-raising. But Florence Davidson became even more active, making Haida button blankets from Robert's designs and becoming the most respected elder of the village, as well as Naanii to everyone she met. Through the years she became Robert Davidson's cultural guru, instructing and correcting him. When he asked her how to carve a mask that went with a particular song she said, "Make it smile." Later he realized that the Haida words of the song meant "I'm in awe," and that's why she said the mask should smile.

Davidson marks 1980 as the beginning of his mature work--the year he started the Rainbow Dancers. He learned songs, first from tape recordings of his grandmother and others made in 1969. He began learning the Haida language. He now made masks not just as art objects but to be worn for specific dances. For example, the salmon mask.

Once when he returned to Masset to go fishing, Davidson found himself silently thanking the salmon for returning and for giving up their lives for human nourishment, just as his ancestors had. But few others were continuing this old and profound custom. "It seemed like we were on the path very much like the rest of western civilization, of continual taking without putting something back," he remembers. "Even if you say 'thank you' that's putting something back--you're acknowledging the gift."

This was the inspiration for a feast he gave in Masset and also for the salmon mask (above) , which his dancers used along with a new song composed for that occasion. Culture and art again became intertwined.

At the same time, his art work became more colorful, more daring and even more playful, as in the painting punningly entitled, Put Your Complaints 'Ere (right) "Yeah, it's just a big ear," he admits. "One day I was feeling excited about something, but everybody I visited had some kind of complaint. Later I thought it would be really neat to have a big ear that people could go to and complain."

He remains not only a contemporary artist, but a contemporary Haida artist, using the ancient forms and convention as the basis for his work. "Once you learn the form, there's freedom," he says. "It's amazing, there's so much freedom. Like once you learn the alphabet, you can create any book you want."

Davidson learned these forms from studying and copying classic works, as well as from the analysis of scholars Bill Holm and Wilson Duff and fellow artists like Bill Reid and Doug Cramner. By using a flowing and connecting line called the form line and the basic shapes called the U and the ovoid (a kind of rounded rectangle), the faces and bodies of familiar and mythic creatures are portrayed or suggested by the creative use of a set of conventions: the Eagle's beak usually curves downward, for example, while Raven's stands straight out. The Bear stands upright like the human figure, but Bear has ears and the human doesn't. When hands appear (as in Davidson's Raven Finned Killer Whale (below left) they symbolize the creature's humanness. "The Haida believe everything is human," he says. "In their own worlds, creatures look human. They only put on their animal forms when they are in our world."

Sometimes just a head and an identifying feature (like the dorsal fin of the Killer Whale) are enough to symbolize a creature. The body parts don't even have to be in the correct places, and images may be repeated or "split." Add to that the "visual punning" that permits part of one creature to also form a different part of another creature. For the viewer it all becomes a gigantic puzzle of images, a game of separating field from ground, or what is sometimes called positive and negative space.

At it happens, Davidson likes to play with negative space, too--creating images in the areas that are left over from forming other images. He even pokes fun at the western idea of "negative" as bad. In his bracelet  Happy Negative Spaces, it is the negative spaces (where the silver isn't) that seem to smile.

Davidson relishes the complexities. "I love to do subtleties, to bring the viewer in. The element of surprise is always motivating." Although a knowledge of the alphabet of the art is helpful as is an idea of the creatures, Davidson maintains that "you don't need to have a B.A. or M.A. in Northwest Coast art to appreciate it. I want that sculpture or that painting to grab a person and bring them into it."

Some of Davidson's images are classically simple (such as the gold pendant Moon) but no matter how much or how many of the intended images the viewer perceives in the more complex works, the intensity of the images as well as the tension, flow, balance and elegance of the composition often has an awe-inspiring effect, as it does with the best Haida art. There is no sentimentality about nature--it can be fierce and implacable as well as inscrutably giving. The sense of mystery and power in this art is immediate.

Many of Davidson's images come from Haida myth. Raven Bringing Light to the World reflects an important one: in a world still dark, the trickster and culture hero Raven steals the light held captive by a selfish man and frees the sun, moon and stars. This old tale was first illustrated by Charles Edenshaw, and is charmingly retold by Bill Reid and the poet Robert Bringhurst in their book, "The Raven Steals The Light."

Like Raven Bringing Light to the World--which he worked large in red cedar, yellow cedar, bronze and gold and small as a pendant, as well as a painting, screenprints and a drum-- many of Davidson's most striking images are repeated and worked out in different media and sometimes in vastly different scales. "Sometimes I get stuck on an idea, and I really want to explore it to its fullest."

Some images combine mythic and personal experience, like the screenprint (and drum) Southeast Wind Foam Woman,[left] which embodies so much motion it seems to jump off the surface. "I always look forward to being back in Masset when there's a southeast wind--it's a really powerful wind, it just dwarfs you," he recalls. " Once when I was there the wind was so strong the foam was blowing right over the road from the sea. Foam Woman is a term that's used for foam. So I got all excited, and that's where that image came from."

He also finds that some mythological figures unconsciously call up personal meaning. Early on, for example, the frog came to symbolize his spirit helper, the guide of the heart. "I don't know how exactly--the image just kept showing up at important moments in my life. My first real direct association was when I carved the Frog Soapberry Spoon. I finished it sitting outside. I was satisfied with it and happy. I put it down on the steps to admire it and just as I did, a frog croaked."

But the unconscious can be a key to cultural meaning as well--as in his terrifying mask of Gagit. [left] "Gagit is the wild man in our culture--a person whose spirit was too strong to die." No images of Gagit had survived from the past, so Davidson imagined what the wild man would look like. "In the old days, if a canoe capsized at sea, whoever made it to shore alive might turn into Gagit. So I made him blue-green from the cold water." After he carved his first Gagit mask, someone showed him a description of a Gagit image made by an ethnologist in 1908. "I was really amazed at how close I was in creating it. It shows that we all have that cosmic memory, that we are connected to our cultural past in some way."

He is even able to use the traditional forms to look inward. Eagle Transforming Into Itself  [below] is really me, becoming who I am," he says, referring to several works--screenprints, a painting, a mask. "You live most of your life in fear. You'll do anything in your power to please someone, even sacrifice your own values or your identity to appease the gods or please your peers. So that's me becoming myself. It's okay to be who you are, to have weaknesses, to have strengths and acknowledge them...Transforming into yourself is really becoming honest, becoming true to your heart. The Haida believed that your mind was really here in your chest because that's where you felt everything. That's the meaning of the spirit helper, too--it's your heart. When you follow your heart all the doors open. Sometimes you might not be happy about what they open to, but that is your path."

Davidson has sometimes been criticized for going too far beyond tradition in his art. But by personally tapping into the kind of cultural experience his ancestors had, Davidson learned viscerally that culture is a process, a stimulus and response to both the timeless and the times. Those who were too rigid about Haida art were wrong. Culture is a dance of the eternal with the now. "As I learned the songs from my grandparents, I realized that as much as they gave meaning to those songs from their lives, it was equally our responsibility to give meaning to them for today." That responsibility goes both ways: as Davidson once put it, "The only way tradition can be carried on is to keep inventing new things."

* * *

When Robert Davidson walked into the Canadian Museum of Civilization last December on the opening day of his retrospective, he felt as if a circle was being closed. True, in some ways he wished this event was taking place down the street in the National Gallery where living artists are usually shown, to validate this art form as contemporary. But here he was literally among his ancestors: near the entrance to his exhibit was the canoe his grandfather Robert Sr. had carved, which had been painted by Charles Edenshaw. There were echoes of other aspects of his life: under the soaring canoe-shaped ceiling of the Grand Hall was the very totem pole he'd copied from a book and carved for Masset in 1969--it had been in England then. Nearby was the white plaster casting of Bill Reid's "Spirit of Haida Gwaii."

"This is a history of Robert," said his brother Reg, himself an artist and primary dancer in the Rainbow Dancers, looking around the galleries of the retrospective. There was the Killer Whale rattle Robert's son Benjamin had played with. When they were younger, Ben and sister Sara had crawled all over the large red cedar frog that now bore the sign "Do Not Touch." There was the first Eagle mask he made, so powerful that he couldn't look at it for a year. There was the large red cedar Thunderbird panel, with the scratch where his knife had slipped, drawing blood.

Although he did not know it until morning, another circle was closed that night. In introducing the Rainbow Dancers before their performance, Davidson said, "Our elders are dying faster than we can learn what they have to tell us." As he spoke, his grandmother had passed away in Masset at the age of 99.

Today Haida art is known around the world, and Davidson's work fetches high prices. The Northwest Coast style, glimpsed on the Northern Exposure television series, the movie Free Willy or even as adapted on the helmets of the National Football League's Seattle Seahawks, is becoming popularly known, and increasingly fashionable among collectors. It is already deeply embedded in the general culture of the Pacific Northwest, with galleries specializing in it, and major permanent exhibits at the glorious UBC Museum of Anthropology, the expanded Vancouver Museum and the user-friendly Seattle Art Museum.

Artists from other Northwest peoples, each with their distinctive styles, are becoming prominent: among them, Joe David, Ron Hamilton and Art Thompson (of the West Coast peoples of Vancouver Island, formerly called Nootka); Richard Hunt (Southern Kwakiutl), Ken Mowatt and Norman Tait (Tshimshian). Women artists have begun working in media previously restricted to men. But for some if not most of these peoples, there has been at least a thread of tradition holding together art and culture, linking the past to the present. Ironically, it was among the Haida--believed by Europeans to have the most refined art and advanced culture--that this thread was most profoundly broken.

Raven Stealing the Moon (1981) by Reg Davidson

So in some ways it is Reg Davidson rather than Robert who completes a certain cultural circle. After living for awhile in Vancouver, Reg has returned to Masset, where he continues to make and sell his masks, prints and other artworks through galleries in the city. He also lives something of the traditional life of fishing and hunting in Haida Gwaii.

But Robert Davidson has found yet another new avenue for expanding that culture--of making another circle. Late last year he hosted a two-day feast for a thousand "urban Haida" living in Vancouver. They gathered at the Aboriginal Friendship Center to witness dances, get and bestow names, and trace genealogies on charts on the walls--with pencils attached for corrections--while salmon grilled outside the fire doors. "It was a real high, a spiritual experience," Davidson remarks. "It filled an emptiness many felt, to see that they weren't alone in the city... It freed me of Masset, "he adds. "Vancouver has become my home."

Davidson puts down his brushes, and looks at the drum he's been painting. New creatures have been emerging lately in his work--some of them on this drum. "I don't know what they are yet." He stands and stretches and groans. "I should get back to my yoga," he says. He's driving into Vancouver for a Haida lesson; he also teaches Haida dance there. But first he must change into his sweats, so he can head out to the rocky beach of gray sand for his afternoon run.


"The World Is As Sharp As the Edge of A Knife" by Robert Davidson.  It seems odd now that this article doesn't mention this work because I seem to remember we talked about it. He said (and wrote) that it is a significant Haida saying.