(from the catalogue for Land, Spirit, Power, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992)
[ 1,943 words ]
Diana Nemiroff: Is your native identity an important factor in your artmaking? Could you describe how it affects your work?
Dempsey Bob: My native heritage is who I am, so of course it is important to my work. I am from a heritage of great art; this inspires me to do new works that are valid today. We are still here and we still have a living culture.
DN: I would like to ask you about tradition, about your own people's traditions. In contemporary art, a lot of people see themselves breaking with tradition, and I would say that you're building on tradition. Would that be a fair way of putting it?
DB: No, they're breaking traditions, but we come from a society that is very old in art. We have rules within those arts, but you have to know those rules so well that you make them your own. A long time ago, a person would be apprenticed with a master and he would study with him, and when the master died, if the student was accepted by the people as a true master, he gained certain privileges. No-one's going to come up to a master and say, hey, that's wrong! When he became a master himself, that's when he would do what he really wanted to do, and that's how the art evolved and pushed the forms. People think we repeat the same things over and over. There are stories, but we reinterpret them. Each generation validated the work that was done by that generation. That's what made it valid, that's what made it real. Otherwise it would die.
DN: What about the process of re-creating the traditions? In one of your statements you talk about losing them and then having to make them again.
DB: Well, we came pretty close to losing them. For example, I went to boarding school and we weren't allowed to speak our language, we weren't allowed to make art our way. That's why I've been teaching. I'm not trying to re-create the past, but you have to have a base of understanding from which to innovate. You can't innovate from nothing. I studied the old pieces to go ahead. You have to go back to go ahead. When I started in the late sixties, there was no one to work with. There were a few old people who were carving, and that was it, maybe six people. So I started in the wilderness.
DN: Who do you see as the primary audience for your work?
DB: The primary audience for my work is in the United States. I also have works in museums in Germany, Japan, England, and Canada. I have done a lot of work for my own people, but most of my works have gone to museums and collectors.
DN: You said that you have now made about seventy button blankets for your people. That seems like an incredible quantity.
DB: It is. I've been working on them for quite a while, and working with the children, teaching the children. We make the blankets together.
DN: So you're really passing on the tradition, then.
DB: Yes, most of our blankets are gone, so what I've done is gone back and made some new ones. They'll eventually be old, you know. What's happened is our people are starting to order things. I'm painting a drum for one of our elders now. At the last pole-raising, we got orders for four frontlets. They're ordering frontlets and blankets and aprons now, and the leggings. So it's slowly starting again.
DN: Are those all things that would be used in ceremonies?
DB: Yes, the elders are starting to use our regalia again.
DN: How does the place where you live, that is, the physical or social environment, affect your work or your way of working?
DB: Where I live, I have the materials I need to work with; I can go and get my wood any time I need it. It takes time to be creative, this place gives me the time to learn and work without distractions.
DN: Can you tell me more about what kinds of wood you use and where you get it?
DB: Well, we use alder, yellow cedar, red cedar, birch. I like alder. I like cedar too. Each one is different, each wood has its own purpose. Cedar for the canoes, for the poles, for the longhouses, because it's the longest. We use red cedar for the big panels, and yellow cedar for the fine carving, like small poles. I love the wood; it is warm and beautiful to work with. Cedar is a spiritual tree. Wood is a hard medium, but that is the attraction for me. I love sculpture. Each piece of wood is different and a challenge. I will probably use other materials, but wood is a very good medium for learning sculpture.
DN: What are some of the sources of inspiration for your art?
DB: I am inspired by the land, our people, our heritage, and the animals. This land talks to me and I am creative here, that is all that matters. We are part of the land. If man forgets the land he gets lost.
DN: I'd like you to tell me about some of the pieces we're going to use in the show. For example, the Wolf-Human Forehead Mask, can you tell me about that story?
DB: That one was danced. It's one of our stories of the woman that ridiculed the wolf. She had two sons and that's one of her sons riding on the wolf's head.
DN: What was he doing there, riding on the wolf's head?
DB: Well, you see, she married the wolf and she had children that were half-wolf and half-human. It's a long story.
DN: You're a member of the wolf clan, aren't you? This is kind of a personal piece for you.
DB: Yes, it is.
DN: And what about The Smart One! mask?
DB: There was a man who was the keeper of the stories. He was trained from childhood to memorize the stories of our clan and of our tribe. And if he couldn't say the stories word for word, he couldn't be the storyteller. They called him the smart one because if there was a dispute between the clans or in the tribe, he would settle it with a story. They would call him in, and he would relate the story and that would settle it. I thought, who's going to know there was a man like that? Nobody's going to know there was a smart one.
DN: Another piece we are including is the Raven Panel. I was interested when you were telling me the story of that panel, because it was a blend of a very contemporary event, and the old way of looking at the world. Can you tell me the story of the Raven Panel?
DB: I had seen the [Exxon] Valdez [oil] spill on TV when I was designing it. And the design began to change. That's why the salmon is black, because of the oil, and the water down at the bottom is black too. It's a story about Raven, and about how he went down to the ocean and got the salmon eggs, he's got four salmon eggs in his mouth. He went up to the four rivers, the Stikine, the Nass, all the rivers, and he dropped the salmon eggs into each of them, so that the salmon would grow there. Then he taught the people how to catch the salmon and how to preserve them in the smokehouses. Before, the people had had a hard time in the winter, because of the lack of food. In a way it was also the beginning of our art too, because it gave us time to do things, in the wintertime.
DN: What about the small human figure beside Raven?
DB: That's Raven transforming into a human form.
DN: The way you use the mirror in this piece is quite unusual.
DB: Yes, they say that there is a spirit side to this world, and I used the mirror to represent that side, as a reflection of this side. It's quite different. When I got halfway through it, I thought, well I don't know how it's going to be accepted, but that doesn't really matter. It made me see in a different way, and that's what counts. I had to invent a whole new way of carving it. I've changed the Raven, using the blue formline, and the shapes are really different, they're all my shapes. I wanted him to be different. What I thought when I saw that spill, the dead sea otters, was that Raven's going to have to come again, bring life back to the ocean.
DN: You were close to the spill, living in Prince Rupert.
DB: It's quite a way up the coast, but I've travelled up there quite a bit.
DN: One of the new pieces in the exhibition is the Frogs Mask, a big mask with two frogs coming out of the face, one out of the forehead and one out of the nose. Can you tell me about it?
DB: There were quite a few stories when I was growing up. There was one man that used to throw frogs in the fire, and when he died, all the frogs came back and they turned his body crooked like a frog. And that's to teach the children respect for frogs. You see, that's the worst thing you could do, tease the animals or treat them meanly.
DN: How does your work relate to the themes of this exhibition — land, spirit, power — as you understand them?
DB: My pieces are from the land, they're a part of it, just like the trees are part of the land. I just hope the strong feelings are there in my pieces so that they can communicate to all people. There is a spirit and power in the land that must be respected.
DN: What would you say is the central preoccupation of your recent work?
DB: I would say, to make my art work real today, with feelings and power, to show that we have a living culture and art. I want the art to speak to the people today.
Prince Rupert, British Columbia, (letter and telephone interview), April 1992.
Doreen Jensen and Polly Sargent, eds. Robes of Power: Totem Poles on Cloth. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press and UBC Museum of Anthropology, 1986.
Grace Mooney, ed. Dempsey Bob: Tahltan-Tlingit — Carver of the Wolf Clan. Vancouver: Grace Gallery, 1989.
(from the catalogue for Land, Spirit, Power, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992)gue
Text: © Diana Nemiroff. All rights reserved.
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