Haida Master Artist Robert Davidson gives a talk about his personal journey of discovery through Haida art and ceremony on Tuesday at the Soboleff Center as part of a lecture series to celebrate Native American Heritage Month. The series is sponsored by the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

Haida Master Artist Robert Davidson gives a talk about his personal journey of discovery through Haida art and ceremony on Tuesday at the Soboleff Center as part of a lecture series to celebrate Native American Heritage Month. The series is sponsored by the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

‘Discovering Haida Art’ with Robert Davidson

When renowned Haida artist Robert Davidson was a kid, he used to root for the cowboys while watching old Westerns, cheering with his friends when the “bad guys” — the Indians — were killed. Then his uncle took him aside and explained that he and his family were “Indians” themselves.

“When he told me, I cried,” Davidson recalled last week during a Native American Heritage Month talk hosted by Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau.

The process of discovering his identity as a Haida man went forward from there, quickly picking up speed as he began immersing himself in Northwest Coast art. It’s a trajectory that is still moving forward, one that has placed him among the most celebrated and influential Northwest Coast artists working today.

Davidson’s exploration of Haida art and culture as a young man came at a time when the art had nearly disappeared from his hometown of Masset, British Columbia. Somewhat ironically, he was first introduced to old pieces from his region while visiting museums as a teenager in Vancouver, where art from Haida Gwaii was prominently displayed.

“When I went to the city, people knew more about us than I did,” Davidson, now 69, recalled.

Curious about where the art had gone in Masset, and driven to study as much of it as he could, Davidson said he returned to his village to look for examples.

“I knocked on every door to ask if there was any art left,” Davidson said. “I found one box.”

Though concrete examples were scarce in Masset, Davidson was able to draw on the knowledge and support of his family, many of whom were artists themselves, including his father, Claude Davidson, and his grandfather, Robert Davidson Sr. (whom he referred to in last week’s talk as “tsinii,” the Haida word for grandfather). Davidson’s great grandfather was the celebrated Haida artist Charles Edenshaw.

Davidson himself began learning to carve argillite from his father when he was 13.

“I feel my success (as an artist) came from my grandfather, my uncles, my parents,” Davidson said.

His forward momentum reached its first dramatic peak in August 1969, at the age of 22, when he carved and raised the first totem pole in Masset in nearly 90 years, with the help of his brother Reg and others. The raising of Davidson’s “Bear Mother” pole proved to be a watershed event for Masset, invigorating the town, and spurring elders to remember parts of ceremonial dances and songs. In a previous interview, Davidson compared each person to a thin thread that united to form a strong rope, pulling the knowledge back from the brink of a void into which it might have disappeared forever.

“People had never experienced anything like (the totem raising), myself included,” Davidson said.

Davidson’s grandfather, then in his late 80s, was one of the leaders of the raising. Three weeks later he died peacefully, telling his daughter, “My job is done.”

After the raising, Davidson devoted himself to studying Haida art and culture, learning from experts including Bill Reid and Bill Holm. Now known for his contemporary interpretations of traditional formline, Davidson said creativity within the art form has to happen in the context of traditional knowledge.

“Creating was key in the culture but it had to be with the foundation of knowledge,” Davidson said. “The real key is to learn the foundation from the old masters and to expand on that.”

Davidson said such expansion is also a part of Haida tradition.

“The art was always moving forward,” he said. “There was always a progression.”

One of the important things an artist learns from studying old pieces is a sense of intuition about qualities such as balance and proportion, which are key to understanding Northwest Coast design. We all know what is beautiful, Davidson said, even if we don’t understand why. Study allows creative decision-making to become more automatic.

“Intuitive creativity happens after 10,000 hours of practice,” he said.

Davidson works in many different media, and is known for his carvings, sculpture and paintings. His work has been exhibited at museums including Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and the Vancouver Art Gallery, and he is widely recognized as one of the most accomplished artists in Canada.

Juneau residents will recognize him as the artist behind one of the most prominent pieces of public art in the city, the huge red metal panels on the Water Soboleff Building. Davidson is one of three artists who created major art pieces for the building, along with Tlingit artist Preston Singletary and Tsimshian artist David Boxley.

Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, said Davidson’s widespread influence on the region goes far beyond his physical artwork. Davidson inspired SHI to create its art department years ago, she said, after telling her that traditional art was deteriorating due to a lack of knowledge about formline.

“It was from that teaching, from those words, that we began our art department,” Worl said after Davidson’s presentation. “He was the impetus for us to really concentrate on our art.”

SHI’s art department now includes outreach to villages around the region, as well as to schools and Lemon Creek Correctional Center.

Worl said in a previous Empire interview that Northwest Coast art can be understood as a “very overt manifestation of our culture.”

Davidson’s talk, “Discovering Haida Art: A Personal Journey with Haida Master Artist Robert Davidson” was part of SHI’s Native American Heritage Month series, which continues next week with “Northwest Coast Art Into the Future,” featuring young artists Alison Bremner, David R. Boxley, Rico Worl and Nick Galanin. The presentation will be at noon Thursday, Dec. 3, at the Walter Soboleff Building on the second floor. It is free and open to the public.

For more, visit www.sealaskaheritage.org.

Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, offers a public thank you to Haida Master Artist Robert Davidson after his talk about his personal journey of discovery through Haida art and ceremony Tuesday at the Soboleff Center as part of a lecture series to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, offers a public thank you to Haida Master Artist Robert Davidson after his talk about his personal journey of discovery through Haida art and ceremony Tuesday at the Soboleff Center as part of a lecture series to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

SHI president Rosita Worl, center wearing a Chilkat robe, dances at the very end of the 10-hour grand opening ceremony for the Walter Soboleff Building Friday in Juneau.

SHI president Rosita Worl, center wearing a Chilkat robe, dances at the very end of the 10-hour grand opening ceremony for the Walter Soboleff Building Friday in Juneau.

More in Neighbors

Maj. Gina Halverson is co-leader of The Salvation Army Juneau Corps. (Robert DeBerry/The Salvation Army)
Living and Growing: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

Ever have to say goodbye unexpectedly? A car accident, a drug overdose,… Continue reading

Visitors look at an art exhibit by Eric and Pam Bealer at Alaska Robotics that is on display until Sunday. (Photo courtesy of the Sitka Conservation Society)
Neighbors briefs

Art show fundraiser features works from Alaska Folk Festival The Sitka Conservation… Continue reading

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski meets with Thunder Mountain High School senior Elizabeth Djajalie in March in Washington, D.C., when Djajalie was one of two Alaskans chosen as delegates for the Senate Youth Program. (Photo courtesy U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office)
Neighbors: Juneau student among four National Honor Society Scholarship Award winners

TMHS senior Elizabeth Djajalie selected from among nearly 17,000 applicants.

The 2024 Alaska Junior Duck Stamp Contest winning painting of an American Wigeon titled “Perusing in the Pond” by Jade Hicks, a student at Thunder Mountain High School. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
THMS student Jade Hicks wins 2024 Alaska Junior Duck Stamp Contest

Jade Hicks, 18, a student at Thunder Mountain High School, took top… Continue reading

(Photo courtesy of The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska)
Neighbors: Tunic returned to the Dakhl’aweidí clan

After more than 50 years, the Wooch dakádin kéet koodás’ (Killerwhales Facing… Continue reading

A handmade ornament from a previous U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree)
Neighbors briefs

Ornaments sought for 2024 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree The Alaska Region of… Continue reading

(Photo by Gina Delrosario)
Living and Growing: Divine Mercy Sunday

Part one of a two-part series

(City and Borough of Juneau photo)
Neighbors Briefs

Registration for Parks & Rec summer camps opens April 1 The City… Continue reading

Easter eggs in their celebratory stage, before figuring out what to do once people have eaten their fill. (Photo by Depositphotos via AP)
Gimme A Smile: Easter Eggs — what to do with them now?

From Little League practice to practicing being POTUS, there’s many ways to get cracking.

A fruit salad that can be adjusted to fit the foods of the season. (Photo by Patty Schied)
Cooking for Pleasure: A Glorious Fruit Salad for a Company Dinner

Most people don’t think of a fruit salad as a dessert. This… Continue reading