The Tahltan-Tlingit sculptor’s career started quietly, but he has long proven himself a visionary of Northwest Coast art.
It's a quiet weekday morning in the newly opened wing of the Vancouver International Airport. At the head of an indoor stream, amid recorded rain-forest sounds, stands a monumental cedar sculpture of a woman and a bird. Workers at YVR refer to the female figure, whose hands and hair are filled with salmon, as Creek Woman, but the work's creator, Tahltan-Tlingit artist Dempsey Bob, says her name is Fog Woman. She had two daughters, he allows, and they are known as the Creek Women.
The title of the sculpture– Fog Woman and Raven –alludes to its inspiration, a Tlingit story in which Raven marries, exploits, and betrays Fog Woman, who is the source of great wealth in the form of salmon. In leaving him, she wraps herself in mist and takes the fish with her. "But she wasn't vengeful to the people," Bob explains. "She allowed the salmon to come back every year after that, to feed the people."
In Vancouver recently to visit his daughter and granddaughter, the Terrace, B.C.–based artist sips tea in an airport coffee shop as he reflects on his 30-year career and chuckles at Raven's exploits. The most conspicuous of Northwest Coast culture heroes, Raven embodies the best and the worst of human nature. "I think that's why our art is so creative," Bob says, "because he can be both."
Although the international terminal expansion, which opened in June, is accessible only to security-checked travellers and airport staff, it's in some ways an appropriate venue for Bob's work. Born in 1948 in Telegraph Creek, in the Stikine River area of northern British Columbia, and raised near Prince Rupert, Bob has travelled around the world with his highly acclaimed art. His totem poles, masks, and other sculptures have found homes in public, private, and corporate collections across this country and around the world, from Ketchikan, Alaska, to London, Osaka, Hamburg, and Washington, D.C. His participation in gatherings of Pacific Rim indigenous artists has taken him to New Zealand, Australia, and Hawaii. (Locally, he has forged Pacific Rim ties by participating in two exhibitions at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in which contemporary Maori artists showed work alongside their Northwest Coast colleagues.) Indeed, Bob is overdue for a major institutional retrospective.
Bob's distinctive masks, frontlets, feast bowls, bentwood boxes, and panels stand out in any exhibition space. The hallmarks of his style include a smooth and seductive surface, voluptuousness of form, and expressive shifts of scale and proportion. Lynn Maranda, curator of anthropology at the Vancouver Museum, observes that Bob creatively fuses elements from his mixed Tahltan and Tlingit backgrounds. "There are certain exaggerations," she says of his work. "Large cheeks, large forehead–and then he's got these expressive eyes that tend to be half closed, where Northwest Coast eyes tend to be wide-open normally." This combination of features can bestow a humorous expression on the faces of Bob's human, animal, and spirit creatures. "He's brought his own level of innovation to his work," Maranda says. "And he's a fine carver. There's no doubt about that."
It wasn't always so. In May, Dempsey Bob and Haida artist Robert Davidson were honoured with B.C. Lifetime Creative Achievement Awards for Aboriginal Art. Speakers and guests at the ceremony lauded Bob's accomplishments–and joked about his youthful lack of artistic promise. In 1969, before he began studying with the late Haida artist Freda Diesing, Bob was a reluctant apprentice. A friend nagged him for a month to accompany him to Diesing's carving classes in Prince Rupert. He finally gave in, borrowed some woodworking tools, and discovered his vocation.
Or rediscovered it. "When we were kids, we didn't have any money, so we carved our own toys," Bob recounts. "When I started carving again, I had that good feeling I had working with wood when I was young." Between Diesing's enlightened instruction ("She wasn't only a great artist, she was a great teacher") and the stories passed down to him by his parents, grandparents, and great-aunts, Bob became part of an intense rekindling of Northwest Coast art and culture. "We had almost lost it," he says. "Freda was our thread to our ancestors."
In the early 1970s, Bob also studied at the famed Gitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art in Hazelton, B.C., and he then spent many years teaching others, in southern Alaska and northern B.C. He learned alongside his students, he says, by looking, by doing, and through intense self-discipline. "You've got to do your homework," he says emphatically. "Talent is cheap. It's the dedication and the commitment that foster the art."
The conversation shifts back to Raven, the eternal trickster, characterized in the oral histories as curious, greedy, clever, foolish, generous, and duplicitous. "He's happy now," the artist says with a smile, alluding to the pleased expression on Raven's face as he sits opposite Fog Woman at YVR. Reunited with her in art, as he never was in legend.