Eleven questions: Master artist Robert Davidson on Northwest Coast art
The renowned master artist Robert Davidson has agreed to allow Sealaska Heritage to post occasional teachings online. In this latest blog, he answers eleven questions about his evolution as an artist, an artist’s role in society and the role of critics, to name a few.
Did you know from childhood or early life that you wanted to be an artist? Or did a particular life experience lead your way towards this path?
In my childhood days, we were always making things like bow and arrows, boats to play in the water. We made our toys to play with and learned it from the older kids. When I was 13, my dad, Claude Davidson, insisted that I start carving. He cut out a chunk of wood for a miniature totem pole. He carved one side and I was to carve the other side matching what he had carved. I had a déjà vu experience when carving, “I’ve been here before.” I would also get pointers from my grandfather, Robert Davidson Sr., and visit other carvers in the village. After high school I kept carving full time. I met other artists, including Pat McGuire, Bill Reid, Doug Cranmer, Bill Holm and Wilson Duff, who all had a profound effect on me. They made me want to learn more about the old masters’ creations. All the doors kept opening for me to stay on the road to becoming an artist.
Have you worked or do you think within a political or religious framework?
The art of the Haida almost became extinct. Fortunately there are great masterpieces created by the old masters housed in many museums in North America and Europe. Their work inspired me to want to learn more. I moved away from Masset, my hometown, to the city of Vancouver. On my periodic visits back home, I saw there was absolutely nothing left of the great art of the old masters. My gift to my elders was to carve and raise a totem pole with the help of my brother Reg Davidson and my family in 1969. This idea was “so my grandparents generation can celebrate one more time in a way they knew how.”
My grandparents, Robert and Florence Davidson, hosted many meetings with the elders in the village to plan for the totem pole raising, and after their meetings they would practice their songs and dances. There was great joy in these songs and dance practices. Not one of them witnessed a totem pole raising in Massett, and the oldest person there was 90 years old. They demonstrated the importance of ceremony in raising a totem pole through the meetings and the stories they shared with each other. These stories of how people before them conducted important events such as house building, launching a new canoe or laying one to rest, guided how the totem pole was to be raised. Raising the totem pole was a testament that we are still alive and demonstrated that ceremonial knowledge was strong and ready to be practiced. I see art as a reflection of culture. My creations have subtle and sometimes direct political statements.
What do you do when nothing works?
One of the greatest pieces of advice I got from my grandfather was, “even if you don’t have orders (commissions) keep working.” I put the “mental block” into my subconscious and allow the solution to evolve. In my early learning of the art I wanted the solution right away. As I gained more experience I learned to allow the solution to evolve.
Have drugs or alcohol influenced your work or lifestyle?
I saw alcohol was destroying many people, and I was on that road, so I decided to stop drinking. Drugs are not part of my experience.
Should an artist alter his or her design at the request of a commissioning body?
I choose projects that excite me and work within the client’s budget and vision. If my first idea is not accepted, I will go back to the drawing board to work out another idea, after learning more from the client’s vision.
Who are some of the artists you admire and why?
My father Claude Davidson, grandfather Robert Davidson, uncle Victor Adams, Charles Edenshaw, Bill Reid’s sculptures, Doug Cranmer and many nameless artists whose works were collected in the mid 1800s. My father, grandfather and uncle were the thin thread connecting us to the old masters. Charles Edenshaw was one of the last of the old masters.
What is your opinion of critics? Has their opinion influenced or changed your work?
In my early learning stage my critics, mentors, were my greatest teachers. It was a challenge for me to accept their criticisms, but I later realized they wanted me to succeed. Their guidance or that of critics help to improve my creations.
What do you think of the Vancouver Art Gallery in general? Do they show and do enough for local artists? Please elaborate.
The Vancouver Art Gallery has been very supportive in showcasing First Nations art. In the 1950s and ‘60s our art was in the category of “primitive art” and sold as curios. The Vancouver Art Gallery in showing First Nations Art is putting us on the same stage as world class artists.
What is an artist’s role or function in today’s society?
The artist’s role has never changed. After 10,000 to 15,000 hours of practice, intuition kicks in. The artist’s creations give beauty to everyday experience, allow the viewer a time of reflection, give pause for contemplation, document history, add beauty to one’s life and challenges the viewer to another way of seeing.
Do you think an artist’s work will eventually be overtaken by creative thinking computers? If so what would you do?
Heaven forbid, we the First Nations have lived many generations with the colonialists doing the thinking for us, thinking what was best for us, thinking us out of existence. In the process we almost lost the connection to our spirituality. The human condition needs an outlet for creativity, whether it is through song, dance, culinary or the visual. We will lose our spirituality and creativity if we allow thinking computers to take over. What will be the purpose of our lives?
How do you see the 21st century shaping up?
The art of the Haida nearly became extinct with only a handful of part-time artists. Now we have many people practicing the art. It is exciting to see a complete turnaround. I see a change in expectation for instant success. Too much rush to innovate before understanding the medium. For one to grow and mature as an artist takes time and practice and requires one to be a life long student.
--Robert Davidson, 2018