Inspiration of Robert Davidson

“The art became the vehicle for cultural knowledge to become part of us.”

Robert Davidson (2007-2020 – personal conversations)

Robert Davidson – a leading figure in the renaissance of Haifa art and culture – Wyatt 2022

I am not a grand fan of notifications that flip across my computer screen and distract me from the task at hand.  But sometimes, just sometimes, these notices are perfectly timed flashes of brilliance. A notice flashed across the screen announcing additional tickets were being offered for the book launch of Echoes of the Supernatural:  The Graphic Art of Robert Davidson and a dialogue between Guud san glans Robert Davidson and the Richard Hill, a curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery.  I jumped.  

My first year of university at UBC, many moons ago as my mother would say, I was attending Ryerson United Church in Kerrisdale.  I traveled to the Haida Gwaii, still called the Queen Charlotte Islands, to learn about the Haida and make connections.  All of the other people on the church tour had white hair. And had time on their hands.   I suppose I was selected and paid for because I was representing “youth”.  We traveled up the inside passage via B.C. Ferries and were hosted by people on the Skidegate Reserve and in the town beside it.  I remember being disappointed that I was staying in town.   I remember three things very clearly from that experience.  Actually four, but the married crew member anxious to cheat on his wife is a story for another time.  

Even in the small community of Skidegate, cultural dividing lines existed.   People were friendly with one another but not actually friends.  One night we were invited to “a mixer” at the Skidegate reserve for dinner, a performance of traditional dance, and stories.  After dinner and the dancing with amazing masks, regalia, drumming, and singing, I had lots of questions.  So I got up from my table, coffee in hand, and walked over to a guy that I thought looked like he’d know the answers.

“Well, aren’t you the brave one.  Have a seat.” He gestured with his hand across from him.

“Thanks.  You mean I’m brave to go on a trip with all these old people?” I said with a smile.

“Well, maybe that too.  No, I mean you crossed into Indian territory.”  He glanced at the other side of the room.

At that moment that I understood what he was talking about.  There was a white side and brown side.  

“Well, it’s just that I was wondering…”

And I went on to ask my questions.  People from both sides of the great divide joined us and we laughed and talked for the rest of the night.  All it took was a healthy dose of curiosity and willingness to venture into the unfamiliar.

The second thing I noticed were more eagles than I’d even seen in my life.  In those days, eagles were not as plentiful in the lower mainland of Vancouver.  The eagles were big and powerful and radiated intelligence.  They came close enough that I could imagine them scooping up a person and continuing up into the clouds.  All the legends I was familiar with seemed more like possibilities than imagination.  I would go to the beach early in the morning and stare up in awe as the eagles hunted until the mud threatened to swallow me whole.  I experienced the fear of being alone at the beach and unable to lift my boots with my legs.  I took a big rock.  A big stick and the willingness to sacrifice my boots.  I was surrounded by forces much stronger than I.  

The other thing I noticed was the quantity and the diversity of the art in Skidegate and Old Masset.  Sometimes it was a long house.  Sometimes there would be a half-fallen pole alive with faces making its way back into the forest.  I wondered if preserving it or leaving it was the right thing to do.  Everywhere we went there were carvings, poles, jewelry made from precious metals and argillite, prints, and paintings.  I had recently returned from a 6-week trip to Europe as a high school graduation present from my father.  I had been exposed to lots of classical art.  This art was different and for the first time, I realized how much Indigenous art I was surround with growing up in Vancouver.  Art that was put in a lesser category than European art of even the art of Emily Carr or the Group of Seven.  The Indigenous art was different but the quest to communicate inspiration was the same.  It was art with secrets.  That trip included many visits to studios and makeshift stores.  My big splurge was a small carved argillite pendant.  I discovered the difference between the cool stone on my neck and the black synthetic poles sold to tourists in Stanley Park.  The carving was intricate.  And there was a story.

By that time Bill Reid, and then Robert Davidson were well on their ways to personal discoveries and skill development that would rock not only the art world but society’s perception of what it is to be Indigenous.  Robert Davidson was raising his first pole in Old Masset in 1969 and credited with being “a leading figure in the renaissance of Haida art and culture”(2022).  His work has been prolific and crosses mediums.  Renown totem poles and masks.  Ceremonial and fine art pieces.  Sculpted wood, argillite and jewelry in precious metals.  Bronze and aluminum sculpture.  Complex 2D painted design known as formline.  Being present at a discussion with Robert Davidson provides the opportunity for us to stand on the shoulder of a giant.  As an educator, I have engaged in experiences and done reading to present important ideas to my students in public school and at Simon Fraser University.  Yet, nothing compares to that face-to-face interaction with someone with well-developed background knowledge.  On Monday night, Robert Davidson likened the bending a stick until just the point before if breaks, being like the tension of the bending line in the ovid in Northwest Coast art.  A significant form in the Northwest Coast alphabet of art.  I’ve read these words before but this time he used his hands and body to show the bending of the stick.  I could see the tension in his hands, his shoulders, and the tension in the imaginary stick.  I know that point of just before the stick snaps.  I’ve lived that experience.  My eureka moment.  The intersection of knowing information and understanding meaning.  The title for the recent exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery, “A Line that Bends but Does Not Break”.  It’s perfect.

As well as the talk, Robert Davidson was also signing the recently released book,  Echoes of the Supernatural.  The Graphic Art of Robert Davidson by Garry Wyatt with Robert Davidson (2022).  All of us in the line had to tell him our connection to him.  The Haida Gwaii.  Relatives or friends.  Past Interactions.  Inspirations.  He listens.  Smiles. Sits with all the patience in the world in his now iconic “brightly coloured shirt” and takes care to spell names correctly.  His continued desire to push and expand his understanding of the art form is mirrored with our desire to come with him on the journey.  

Robert Davidson talks about the importance of studying the Old Masters and copying their work to learn.  Just as in any art course, the basics must be practiced until the learning flows fluidly into your own work.  He has been able to communicate that the Old Masters were not just inspired by nature but in relationship with nature.  This has allowed his work to ask important questions.  His daughter Sarah Florence Davidson articulates this eloquently and I will continue to search for the quote.  She points to the looming question of what kind of environment will be there for our children if we continue on the same trajectory.   Robert Davidson’s work provides a call to both #getOUTdoors and #getINvolved to better understand the art, perhaps create art, but also to better understand our place and perhaps our role in our environment.  I’m so grateful I got that ticket!



A Wild About Wednesday post – Wild About Outdoor Learning Society is a non-profit committed to supporting the people of British Columbia to #getOUTdoors and #getINvolved.

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