This Northern B.C. high school is honouring community elders through portraits

·3 min read
Kalem Nelson, left, then a Grade 12 student of Smithers Secondary School, attended the unveiling ceremony of the late MLA Bill Goodacre's portrait in October 2019, which they painted. Also at the ceremony were Sarah Puentes-Goodacre (right), Goodacre's daughter, and her son Murray Goodacre. (Submitted by Perry Rath - image credit)
Kalem Nelson, left, then a Grade 12 student of Smithers Secondary School, attended the unveiling ceremony of the late MLA Bill Goodacre's portrait in October 2019, which they painted. Also at the ceremony were Sarah Puentes-Goodacre (right), Goodacre's daughter, and her son Murray Goodacre. (Submitted by Perry Rath - image credit)

Kalem Nelson will never forget one of their artistic achievements from their final year of high school in the North Coast community of Smithers, B.C.

For several months during the 2018-2019 academic year, Nelson painted a portrait of the late MLA Bill Goodacre as part of Smithers Secondary School's Honouring Our Elders Legacy Portrait Project.

The project, which has been running for 15 years, aims to honour individuals and their contributions to the northwestern community of more than 5,000 residents. Since 2006, a committee at the school selects who to portray, with input from the community.

Goodacre, who graduated from the school in 1969, served as Smithers councillor in the 1990s and 2000s, then as MLA for Bulkley Valley-Stikine from 1996 to 2001. He was also the president of the Dze L' Kant Friendship Centre and was heavily involved in the Shared Histories project with the Wet'suwet'en.

He died in January 2019, several months after his selection by the committee.

Last month, his portrait — as well as that of Likhts'amisyu Wing Chief Hagwilowh (Antoinette Austin) — became the latest additions to the series of portraits publicly displayed on the side of the school building.

Nelson, now a first-year visual arts student at the University of Victoria, says they have wanted to paint an elder's portrait since they were in Grade 8 and felt honoured when they were selected to do the job.

LISTEN︱Art teacher Perry Rath on the Honouring Our Elders Legacy Portrait Project

Originally completed in October 2019, the portrait's display was delayed due to limited wall space and human resources, according to a school representative.

Though they aren't happy about the belated display, Nelson says they're glad to know their effort has paid off and that the public appreciates their representation of Goodacre, who is also a longtime friend of Nelson's father.

"Being [part of] such an important project, I knew I had to keep going, and I'm really happy with the outcome," they said. "Everybody was really enthusiastic with their praise in the likeness of it, seeing how realistic he looks."

Submitted by Perry Rath
Submitted by Perry Rath

Perry Rath, Nelson's art teacher, says it's not easy to capture character in a portrait.

"We do a bunch of preliminary sketches, we look at a bunch of photos of the person, also sometimes we try different styles," he told host Carolina de Ryk on CBCs's Daybreak North.

"I'm helping students move through, like 'how can I let this flow out of me?' and 'how can I capture this person's character?'"

Bringing family and community together

Sarah Puentes-Goodacre, Bill Goodacre's daughter, says she's grateful for Nelson's tribute to her father, which she says is meaningful both to her family and the Smithers community.

"[The portrait] was a testament to how much he had contributed to the town, that the town was recognizing the impact of his presence and his contribution to helping the town see more inclusion of all of the peoples that make [it] up," Puentes-Goodacre said.

"Everything that he stood for was to try to have a more harmonious relationship ... He would have been really proud of that portrait that he wasn't actually able to see."

Submitted by Perry Rath
Submitted by Perry Rath

Birdy Markert, Indigenous education principal at School District 54, who oversees the project, says she has attended many portrait unveiling ceremonies over the years — including that of her own grandmother, Likhsilyu clan elder Josephine Michell, in 2006. Michell died in 2008.

Markert says the portrait and its unveiling ceremony helped bring her family together.

"To talk about her stories and why we were honouring her ... was just so powerful," she said.

"All of the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren really appreciated being able to honour her and have her be part of that conversation."

Markert says she's considering donating Michell's portrait, which was taken down early this month to make room for new portraits, to a local museum.

Other elders portrayed over the years include former Wet'suwet'en chief Alfred Joseph, and Jim Davidson, who served as Smithers mayor from 1988 to 2008.

Subscribe to Daybreak North on CBC Listen or your favourite podcast app, and connect with CBC Northern British Columbia on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting