Dempsey Bob honours the ancestors with mastery of wood carving art form

·4 min read

Northwest Coast master wood carver Dempsey Bob might have an exceptional art history spanning decades back to the 1960s, but he’ll never forget the C-minus he received while attending a Catholic high school in Prince George, B.C.

Born in 1948 to parents of Tahltan and Tlingit ancestry, Bob’s work didn’t quite match the instructor’s expectations, even though he was confident in his own abilities at the time.

“I didn’t draw the way the teacher wanted me to draw. I told her ‘I’m Tahltan and Tlingit and that’s how I see it and that’s how I draw it’,” Bob recalls. “I can’t deny who my grandfathers are and who my grandmothers are… That’s who I am.' So she gave me a C-minus.”

Years later, in 2013, Bob was named as an Officer of the Order of Canada in recognition for his contributions to the wood carving community and thought back to the time he’d been given a less-than-desirable grade.

“I thought that’s pretty good for a C-minus in art,” Bob said. “I always stuck to what I believed, what was right for me, my style and way of doing my art. I’m still like that. I try to do the best I can.”

His work has been showcased in galleries in British Columbia and across Canada as a whole, including in the National Gallery located in Ottawa, and two of Bob’s pieces are showcased in one of the most visited places in the council: the Vancouver International Airport.

“It was really important for Northwest Coast art,” Bob said of getting his work displayed permanently in the heavily visited transportation hub.

“I felt really proud of that, I felt proud of my ancestors. I feel really good about that because at one point we weren’t allowed to carve. We almost lost this beautiful art form.”

While working on a totem pole in his Terrace, B.C. studio earlier this month, Bob received news that he’d been named as one of the recipients of the 2021 Governor General’s Awards for the Visual and Media Arts presented by the Canada Council for the Arts in recognition for his body of work.

“It only took me 50 years,” he said with a laugh.

Though Bob remembers the teachers who didn’t quite believe in his potential, he’s also quite grateful for the many who influenced his work and life, highlighting Freda Diesing, Earl Muldone, Walter Harris, Vernon Stephens, Kenny Mowat, Phil Janze, Victor Mowat, and Ester Shea, who he’s learned the most from, as well as his grandfather, Johnny Sincoots Carlick.

“In my whole career we’ve been trying to save (the art form of wood carving) and bring it back,” Bob said. “We were hanging on by a thread. They were the thread.”

Before going to study carving at a more formal level with Diesing, Bob said he had interest in a variety of art forms before he chose to specialize.

“We drew, we carved our own toys,” Bob said of his youth. “That’s how I started. We were always drawing. We were always making stuff.”

And once he’d started to get more practice while studying under Diesing, Bob’s career path was set.

“I had that good feeling of working with the tools,” he said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was ready and willing to learn and do whatever it took to get there.”

For each of his carvings, Bob said it can take anywhere from months to more than a year from the initial drawings to a finished product, depending on size and other factors.

“I work at it for a long time, I’ll think of things as I go,” he said. “Sometimes I see just part of it and then I try to build on that.”

Currently, Bob is working on a totem pole for Emily Carr University to be completed by 2022, as well as an upcoming exhibition of his work at the Audain Art Museum later this year when restrictions allow.

When it comes to finding inspiration for his work, Bob said he often looks to the land around him.

“Northwest Coast art is from this land. It’s from this forest. It’s from these animals, this ocean,” he said. “It didn’t come from somewhere else. It’s one of the very true Canadian arts and it’s a great art form. It didn’t come from Europe.”

Even when looking at different art styles, Bob still find inspiration for his own work.

While looking at a watercolour landscape painting by French artist Claude Monet at the Museum of Modern art in New York City he found something from home.

“What I saw in the water was masks, our masks, Northwest Coast masks… hundreds of them in the water,” he said.

“Of course, he didn’t paint masks. I saw what I knew. That’s where you get your ideas. The faces are in the land, but you gotta see them because that’s what artists train themselves to see.”

Windspeaker.com

By Adam Laskaris, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com, Windspeaker.com