With the sharp blue of a late autumn sky overhead and the gentle sound of ocean water on wooden hulls in the air, I step into Arthur Vickers’s gallery in the Cowichan Bay Shipyard buildings. His artistic home for the last ten years, its walls house a lifetime of experiences captured in ink, paint, gold dust and ancestor-cedar.
My research has told me Arthur himself is a renowned First Nations artist, a recipient of the Order of British Columbia, a holder of several honorary doctorates and a philanthropist who through his art has helped to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for more than a dozen charities and organizations. But he doesn’t dwell on any of that.
Instead, he greets me with a warm smile and sparkling eyes, and slips into the role of storyteller as soon as I compliment him on the space.
“I love it,” he says, his face shining. Years ago, he’d been in the early process of trying to build a longhouse-style gallery in Cowichan Valley, and when it wasn’t working out, a friend suggested he look into the shipyards.
“I went down the stairs. I put my face to the window, and I could smell the oakum and cedar, and it reminded me of being a little boy with my grandfather,” he says, the timbre of his voice bringing those memories to life as he goes back to that time to when he lived in Kitkatla, a small Tsimshian village southwest of Prince Rupert.
“My grandfather was probably the biggest influence creatively,” says Arthur. He holds his hands wide. “He carved big ocean canoes, and would sketch his designs out beforehand on paper. It felt so real, like I could almost pick it up off the paper.”
“Grandpa was sketching and carving, and I always wanted to be just like him,” he says. “I would hold my pencil just like him.”
When Arthur moved away from Kitkatla at the age of seven, he was devastated to lose that daily interaction.
“[Grandpa] stressed the importance of staying creative,” says Arthur, and so he continued to sketch and record what he saw and felt.
Adolescence and young adulthood passed in Hazelton and then Victoria, and Arthur continued to sketch and paint and carve, and he grew into another passion as he trained to become a journeyman carpenter.
“I found through the construction industry that I loved to build,” he says. “I loved working with my hands.”
In 1985/86, he designed and built his brother Roy’s gallery in Tofino, in the fashion of a longhouse, and found the experience immensely gratifying.
It was around the same time he was introduced to screen printing: “My paintbrush turned into a squeegee fairly early,” he says with a smile.
It opened up a world of possibilities artistically, but the aspect that most entranced him was the ability to capture light.
He motions for me to stand in front of the piece “Eternity” and moves to the light switches. As the overhead lights dim, so does the brilliance of the sun’s rays over the darkening hilltops in front of me. The shadow over the water grows until all that remains is a silhouette. Arthur calls over to me to keep my gaze steady on the picture and raises the lights again slowly. The golds and burning oranges return to the sky, the details of the waves emerge as the shadows recede and I am left in awe at his artistry.
I have seen a thousand ocean sunsets on this island, and it feels as though Arthur has discovered a way to capture the transience and splendour of each of them on canvas.
“And every single one of them do it,” he says with a knowing smile.
Except for several pieces created in low-relief 24-karat gold leafing — themselves an entirely new art-form Arthur developed years ago — they’re almost all screen prints.
His process involves working with transparency to achieve the ephemeral quality of light that imbues each piece. Each layer of ink he pulls over the screen has to be so precise, just the right thickness to allow the light through the colour.
“If I can see it, I’ve gone too far. You have to feel it, and just trust that it’s there.” he explains, adding that it’s an incredibly physically demanding process. Arthur does everything himself, starting with the line drawings, then hand-cutting all the stencils — one for every colour he uses — then mixing his ink and pulling the squeegee by hand.
“I’m both the technician and the artist,” he says. “That’s the how, but the why is so much more important.”
He points to a piece hanging nearby, “Mount Baker,” with an expansive blue sky that deepens in colour the higher it rises. I step to the side, looking slantwise at the piece, and the head and neck of a great eagle appear to float in the sky, impassive, noble and certain of her dominion.
And then Arthur’s voice slows almost imperceptibly, his breathing evens, his grandfatherly eyebrows rise at all the right moments as he tells me the story.
He’d been waiting just before sunrise at the lookout on the Malahat to get the perfect view of Mount Baker. Absorbed by the scene, he was startled when a wide-winged bald eagle swooped down directly in front of him and snapped off a dead branch from a tree. Realizing she was building her nest, Arthur turned and followed, crossing the highway and bushwhacking through the scrub until he finally came to rest at the base of an enormous hemlock. High above, the eagle’s nest consumed the uppermost branches of the tree, and he sat back, resting against the roughened bark, looking out at the mountain.
“I thought, you sit here every morning, watching that sun rise, and waiting for your young to be born,” he says. It’s her sky, and so she took over the blue of the painting.
Looking around at the pieces that fill the gallery’s walls, he says, “You may be affected by a certain place you’ve seen, or where you’ve been. In many of the cases, it’s where I’ve been.”
Each image has a story behind it, but so too do Arthur’s other works: his collection of bent-corner boxes. Made from single planks of ancient cedar using traditional methods, the boxes are a breathtaking tribute to both the centuries-old trees of which they are a part, and the familial and community histories Arthur captures within them.
“I’ve never knowingly created anything in wood that was made with something that was cut by the hand of humanity,” he says seriously.
|First nations artist Arthur Vickers looks over a mask in his Cowichan Bay studio (Don Denton photography)
All the wood he’s ever worked with has come from fallen old-growth, sometimes taking years before the pieces make it into his hands.
The box that sits in its high place of honour in the gallery is engraved with a copper inlay, its sides and top polished to a silk-smoothness. Arthur lifts the lid and invites me to sniff the unfinished inside as he tells me each cedar has its own scent, like a person.
Downstairs in his workshop, I stick my nose into three more boxes-in-progress: one is dusty as an autumn forest floor littered with decaying leaves, another is light and green and tangy like the hour after a rainstorm. The largest is all spice and smooth edges and I can’t keep my fingertips from trailing the curved corners. It carries the majesty of the towering cedar it once was.
Arthur is reverent as he walks a circuit around the wood.
“Every single time I cut it, I’m terrified,” he says. “I love trees. They are so precious to me. I feel so blessed to work with these ancient pieces.”
These days, he spends most of his time with cedar dust on his hands as he sands and smooths down in the workshop. As the days grow ever shorter, he settles into an introspective hibernation, stretching his artistic boundaries, telling his stories.
“Now is when I’m immersed in my work,” he says. “I record through my pieces, what I hear, see and feel. The only way I can effect change is by telling my stories, and passing them on to whoever connects with them.”
Arthur pauses for a few moments. “My whole creative life has been the why, not the how. Ask me why and I can tell you a story.”
- Story by Angela Cowan