In Whistler, the Wolf Clan is here

The Audain Art Museum in Whistler is worth seeing. As well as the building itself, which is notable enough, is the art inside.

It is always a strange experience to see paintings in person, especially images that are long-familiar, such as the work of Emily Carr or EJ Hughes. When you view art up close and can see brushstrokes or the way the artist’s arm moves while sketching or painting, the work takes on a physical, bodily resonance that simply doesn’t exist in the digital or printed realm.

That’s why we physical beings, aka humans, still wander into galleries and museums to look at things other humans have made, even though there are so many choices and different perspectives on art.

All of which brings me to the work of Dempsey Bob. The Tahltan and Tlingit artist is the focus of a sweeping new show at Audain: Wolves: The Art of Dempsey Bob. The exhibition is the artist’s first major retrospective, featuring more than 100 works from the past four decades.

The Whistler show is a co-production of the Audain Art Museum and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and will travel to Whistler to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Kelowna Art Gallery. But the traveling exhibition will feature a smaller, more transportable work. So, whether or not you’re near Whistler, drive up the highway and check out this show.

A wooden sculpture of a wolf uses golden alder wood and black and red acrylic paint.  The wolf's head and teeth are on the left side of the frame.  His sharp teeth are visible, accented by black paint on his lips.

Dempsey Bobs Wolf bowl a work of art from 1991 made of alder wood, acrylic paint and lid shell. From the collection of Eric Savics.
Photo by Scott Brammer Photography

The level of craftsmanship in Dempsey Bob’s work is evident, but what’s even more surprising is the humor, eroticism, and experimentation that manifests itself in the various mediums, whether wood, bronze, gold, or plain old paper.

Some of the most interesting pieces are also the most disturbing, although maybe that’s not quite the right word. Perhaps alive is better, imbued with a fleeting sparkle of animus that moves her from something that needs to be seen to something that requires direct engagement.

A case in point is an alder mask titled The smart one. In the text that accompanies the work, the artist explains his relationship to the work—equal parts collaboration, challenge, and something else, more indescribably mysterious. Sometimes a piece almost comes naturally and demands the artist to bring it to life. This experience is often described by artists as feeling like a channel or channel for works that want/need to come into this world.

In an early interview with Diana Nemiroff, published in the catalog for the landmark 1992 exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, entitled ” land, spirit, powerDempsey Bob explained the origins of The smart one.

“There was a man who was the keeper of the stories. He was trained from childhood to memorize the stories of our clan and tribe. And if he couldn’t recite 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 within the tribe, he would settle it with a story. They would bring him in and he would tell the story and that would be the end of it. I thought, who knows there is such a man? Nobody will know that there was a clever one.”

The inclusion of the piece in the Audain exhibition came about through a rather fortuitous path. The piece was purchased by a collector in 1989 after one of Dempsey Bob’s first major solo shows and has not even been seen by the artist himself since. But here it is in the Audain, in all its uniqueness.

Ein Schwarz-Weiß-Foto von Dempsey Bob zeigt den Künstler, der drei seiner Werke von 1987 trägt und hält. Er steht in einem karierten Hemd.  Er trägt <em>Killer Whale Headdress</em> and holds <em>eagle man mask</em> and <em>Eagle Bear Mask</em>.  He is looking to the left of the frame with trees behind him. “/><figcaption class=

An undated photo of artist Dempsey Bob wearing and holding three of his 1987 artworks. He wears Killer Whale Headdress and hold Eagle human mask and Eagle Bear Mask. All three pieces are part of the collection of the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology.
Photo via Dempsey and Margaret Bob.

The play feels alive, full of humour, mischievousness and razor-sharp intelligence. It’s worth the trip to Whistler just to stand near him and let his spirit radiate around you. But there are also many other things to see. Masks, plaques, regalia, bronze and gold ornaments. The wealth of different materials that are part of the artist’s work is diverse and innumerable, whether yellow cedar, alder, shell, fabric, glass mirror or even sea lion whiskers. Each carries its own meaning, tactility and deep underlying beauty.

The female figures in wolves are particularly powerful, resonant, full of sensuality and cheekiness. It’s impossible not to look at these characters and marvel at the artist who created them. Luckily the man likes to talk. The book for the broadcast Dempsey Bob: In his own voice, is filled with stories from the artist, drawn from interviews with co-curator Sarah Milroy. It’s a wealth of information about the process, history and life of the artist.

An alder wood sculpture of a woman lying face up on the back of a wolf.  The wolf looks to the right side of the frame.  Its snout and sharp teeth are prominent.

Dempsey Bobs “wolf and woman”an alder wood sculpture circa 1997. From the collection of Eric Savics.
Photo by Scott Brammer Photography.

Artist Dempsey Bob was born in Telegraph Creek, northwest BC, one of 10 children and grew up in Port Edward. He drew and carved whatever he could get his hands on, whether it was Sears catalog items or more traditional items. His family was part of the Wolf Clan, a matrilineal line. The artist regularly collaborates with his sisters. The influence of Haida carver Freda Diesing had a profound impact on his work. He credits Diesing with helping to shape him as an artist, but other cultures (the Maori people of New Zealand) as well as more contemporary art practices also influenced his practice.

Like other Indigenous artists (Robert Davidson springs to mind), Dempsey Bob began his career after the era of cultural extinction, when finding traditional art objects was often a daunting challenge. Those were the dark days when traditional practices like potlatch were outlawed by the federal government and reinforced by boarding schools. The potlatch ban was not lifted until 1951, and by that time there were few elders who remembered singing and dancing. Events such as Davidson’s carving of a totem pole in 1969, the first in almost 100 years, marked a resurgence of interest in traditional forms.

Bob has been outspoken about the precarious place of indigenous art production and has stated in numerous interviews that traditional carving is hanging by a thread. Part of ensuring the old ways were maintained was looking back at what previous artists had achieved. Bob studied traditional Tlingit work in the 1970s and 1980s and expanded his career with solo exhibitions in the 1990s.

After completing his education at the Gitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art near the ‘Ksan Historical Village and Museum, Bob also taught in communities across the United States and Canada, mentoring a number of emerging artists and passing on the skills that became part of the ongoing Renaissance of Indigenous Art.

In addition to major commissions for Vancouver Airport and exhibitions in galleries around the world, he has received honorary degrees from the University of British Columbia and Emily Carr University of Art + Design, an appointment to the Officer of the Order of Canada, and a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2021.

Dempsey Bob currently resides in Terrace, BC where he continues to do his amazing work. go and see it

Wolves: The Art of Dempsey Bob runs through August 14 at the Audain Art Museum in Whistler.  [Tyee]

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