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Archive for January 7th, 2009

One reason why Northwest Coast art thrives is the strong tradition of teaching among the artists. Artists regularly take on apprentices, and many regularly assist younger artists in their struggles to establish themselves. One of the newer artists who has benefited from the tradition of teaching and plans to teach others himself one day is John Paul Wilson, a member of the Blackfish clan of the Haisla nation for whom carving masks is both personally satisfying and a means of rediscovering his culture.

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Wilson was born in Kitimat in 1973, but grew up and lives in Terrace, and is currently learning northern carving styles. “I have been taught little things about my culture as I was growing up,” he says, “But I didn’t go to my village. I am now really trying to find my culture as an artist.”

After what he describes as a hard-living youth, Wilson worked in a variety of jobs, including carpentry, forestry, and sales. “Now that I look back on my life,” he says, “I see that what I was doing was training myself to be an artist, whether I knew it or not.” All his work, he believes, helped him to prepare for both the techniques and business of being a carver.

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Although Wilson says that “I have always been doing art,” he only began focusing on carving in 2002, when he began studying under Tsimshian artist Heber Reece. After he “took some time away” from Reece, Wilson continued to return to him for help, and later took a course Reece taught at the local college in 2004. “He always had his doors open for me,” Wilson says of Reece.

More recently, Wilson has been receiving informal advice from Nisga’a carver Ron Telek, especially on the finer points of finishing, and attending the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art at Northwest Community College, where he is being taught by Stan Bevan, Dempsey Bob and Ken McNeill. In fact, this is the second time he has enrolled in the Freda Diesing School, after a burglary of his home forced him to withdraw the first time for lack of funds.

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Other artists whose work Wilson admires include Robert Davidson, Norman Tait, Klatle-Bhi, and Henry Green.

“The senior artists have given me the drive to to get to where I am as an artist,” Wilson says. He is particularly enthusiastic about the Freda Diesing School, which, although he has only just started the second semester, he describes as having “helped so much that I advise anybody to take the course if they want to get serious about being an artist as a living.”

Rediscovering culture

At first, Wilson admits, his interest about carving was as much about making a living as about art. However, under the influences of his teachers and education, he finds his motivations shifting. “I now realize that it is our culture,” he says. “That means a lot to me, knowing that I am going to help keep our culture alive.”

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As Wilson reconnects with his culture, one of his most personally meaningful discoveries was that his great-great-grandfather was also an artist. The discovery, he says, has made him realize that “without knowing the history, I don’t think I could go forward as an artist.”

He now plans to return to his village to familiarize himself with his culture, and dreams of one day teaching there. “Our culture is our way of telling stories to hand down to the next generation,” he says. “And art is a big part of our culture. It is something we were so close to losing, but I did not find that out until I talked to senior artists at the Fred Diesing School.”

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Learning the life and passing it on

At the same time, Wilson finds his carving, which he describes as “contemporary Haisla,” becoming central to his life. “The art is very important,” he says. “It has changed my life for the better. I have a strong feeling that [art] is the right path, like it is what I was brought on earth to do.”

Besides the technique of carving and his reconnection to his history, one of the things that bemuses Wilson about his chosen career is the need to market himself. “When you finish a piece it’s like creating a kid of your own. Sending a piece out for sale is one of the hardest things to get used to. And I’m still learning how to market myself. A lot of people think that when you’re done your piece that it’s time to rest, but they forget the time and effort it takes to sell the piece. You have to really study the way to market yourself as an artist if you want to make a living doing the arts.”

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Now selling regularly to galleries, Wilson is currently able to support himself as an artist. “Some times are better than most,” he observes, “but it still gets me by comfortably.”

All in all, art has become so central to Wilson’s identity and life that he is now starting to pass on the encouragement he received from senior artists to others. “Just try it,” he advises. “You never know what will happen. Look at Freda Diesing – she didn’t start until she was in her forties, and she won a lifetime achievement award for her efforts at learning and teaching the arts.”

(John Wilson’s work is available in the Black Tusk and Path Gallery in Whistler, The Edzerza Gallery in Vancouver, The Art of Man in Victoria, The Stonington and Steinbrueck galleries in Seattle, the Arctic Raven Gallery in the San Juan Islands, and Neo Concept in White Rock).

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