The Canadian Art Database

Charlotte Townsend-Gault

Robert Davidson & Dorothy Grant

from Land Spirit Power catalogue, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992
[ 1,533 words ]

Making a Haida button blanket is a collaboration between the roles of a man and a woman, between the man who works out the elements of the design and the woman who works them onto the fabric. The making of the woven blankets that preceded the button blankets historically, was also a collaboration. So, also, was the making of Seven Ravens, designed by Robert Davidson in 1983 and made by his wife Dorothy Grant in 1989, which both see as an evolution from the earlier forms. The traditional male role of originator of designs could not become properly meaningful without the complementary female role of using exquisite skill and judgment in realising them in cloth.

Davidson, who belongs to the Eagle clan, and Grant, who is of the Raven clan, continue to collaborate on button blankets, meeting the ceremonial needs of many Haida families. (1)  They also collaborate on the fashion clothes which Grant designs and for which her husband provides the Haida motifs. Their shared sensibility is apparent from the fact that the motifs never appear to be 'stuck on,' but to be an organic part of the garment, the result of an apparently unlimited reapplication, for each garment, of a constant inventiveness with the conventions of formlines and ovoids. Grant sees these garments as an evolution of women's skills with working fabric, adapted over the generations from cedar-bark fibre, to wool, to traded stroud cloth, to felt, to silk.

As Doreen Jensen, Gitksan artist, advocate for the acknowledgment of the contributions of women to the cultures of the Northwest Coast, and co-editor of Robes of Power, to date the definitive work on button blankets, has pointed out: 'There are no divisions amongst our work.' (2)  Jensen states, with necessary vehemence, that the baskets, the quillwork boxes, the blankets, made by the grandmothers, 'the women's work, is art, absolutely.' (3)  If calling the work traditionally done by men art now is a way of validating it for new audiences, then that which is done by women should also be so validated.

Davidson himself is doing something of the sort when he says of his grandmother, Florence Edenshaw Davidson, 'I have to give Nani a lot of credit for my inspirations. I have a theory that the women always kind of kept the art alive because they always bugged their husbands to do this, do that...Every time I come home Nani bugs me about something. 'When will you do my bracelet, when will you do my ring? I need another blanket design.' Every time I come home she bugs me for a new button blanket design.' (4) 

Of button blankets Grant has written: 'These handmade valuables were ways of recording our history. By the example our elders have shown us — that appearances are very important in ceremony and self-respect a common value — the way we carry ourselves in public, appearing in a button blanket with our family crest, shows pride in where we come from.' (5)  Heirs to an exclusive cultural tradition, it is artists like Davidson and Grant who help the memories of people of Florence Davidson's generation to resurface. This also is a collaborative process. In response to their memories of Haida ceremonies he can 'create masks, rattles, and drums and bring them to life in dance and song. Florence's description and enactment of dance and song inspire the carver of the mask. The mask is the impetus for the dancer to perform, to excel, and even to innovate.' (6)  Speechmakers and storytellers, dancers and performers, those who carve, paint, or sew, all are in collaboration. And so indeed is their audience, for without those who are invited to witness the performance, and the display of rights to crests and names and masks, their meaning remains incomplete. As Davidson himself put it in his presentation to a public meeting in Masset in July 1991, 'We have many threads connecting us to the past. My grandparents were one of those threads, and when these threads come together they form a thick rope. It is that thick rope that is connecting us to our cultural past, the values which we are reclaiming.' (7) 

The work on which Grant and Davidson collaborate and the very fact of collaboration join in an important instance of the blending of tradition and innovation to the point where the two cannot be distinguished. The tradition itself was to innovate. 'The Haida were experimenting a hundred and more years ago, our art has always been in a state of progression. It is a matter of being creative within known and long-established boundaries, but not a matter of being "different". Too many people experiment before they have enough knowledge, but that is not innovation it is bastardization.' He compares the situation to learning a language: not until you speak a language can you make up new words in it and expect to be understood by other speakers, just as, without speaking Haida he would not be able to make up new Haida 'words'. Davidson, whose own work ranges from the large scale of totem poles to the small scale of gold and silver jewelry, from the 'traditional' form of the mask to the 'non-traditional' form of the silkscreen print, points out that 'every object is an experiment, and marks a progression, but each is contained within a highly stylised system. Ours is a very disciplined art form.' (8) 

If templates require as much thought and work as a painting would, it seems evident that realising them requires just as much again. Grant sees her contribution as a further evolution of the women's tradition of working in cloth with line and colour to animate the language. 'I see blanket designs in terms of what they add to our culture. They are not commodities, nor are they commercial ventures, but they are ceremonial objects.' (9)  Button blankets have been worn for generations of Haida at the potlatches and naming ceremonies which mark the stages of an individual's life, and thus the life of the community of which he or she is a member. They carry the crests to which the owner has a right; they indicate membership in a matrilineal family and a moiety. The designs are worked out in the characteristic strong contrast of red with black or dark blue. Although flat, they perpetuate the use of high contrast blocks of solid colour held together by a taut curvilinear formline within a rectilinear frame. All these features are continued in Seven Ravens, with the innovation of a third 'colour' — white, and the juxtaposition of a circle with a square.

Although now removed from the ceremonial context in which they were once danced, the two parts of Seven Ravens are more than the elegant resolution of another formal problem for the system to solve, set by having to divide seven into two. This work has a story to tell in more senses than one. Raven, the culture hero of a culture that has survived, has been given another way to carry its power far beyond Haida Gwaii.

Robert Davidson Haida, Eagle Clan, born 1946 in Hydaburg, Alaska, and raised at Masset, Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia). Lives in South Surrey, B.C. Apprenticed to Bill Reid to study Haida design and engraving; studied silkscreen printing at the Vancouver School of Art. Carver, jeweller, printmaker, painter, and ceremonial performer. Among numerous commissions are the housefront and houseposts for the Charles Edenshaw Memorial Longhouse at Masset (burned in 1981), and Raven Bringing Light to the World at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull, Quebec. Represented by the Inuit Gallery, Vancouver.


Joan Lowndes. 'Ceremonies, Alphabets, Spaces: Robert Davidson.' Artscanada, Vol. XXXIX #1 (November 1982), p. 2-9.

Hilary Stewart. Robert Davidson: Haida Printmaker. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1979.

Dorothy Grant Haida, Raven Clan, born 1955 in Hydaburg, Alaska. Lives in South Surrey, British Columbia. Studied traditional weaving of spruce root hats and baskets and the making of ceremonial button appliqué robes with Haida elder Florence Edenshaw Davidson; attended Helen Lefeaux Diploma School of Fashion Design. Has made ceremonial regalia for use by her community, for exhibition, and for the dance troupe Tuulgundlaas waal xaadaas (Rainbow Creek Dancers).


Constance Brissenden. 'The Eagle Soars.' Western Living (March 1990), p. 63-69.

from Land Spirit Power catalogue, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992

Text: © Charlotte Townsend-Gault. All rights reserved.

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