For Dempsey Bob, walking into the Audain Art Museum in Whistler felt like a reunion: all of these pieces he had made over so many years, back together again.
“I looked at this one little mask, and it was just like he was saying, ‘Where you been, dad? It’s been 40 years,’” says the Tahltan-Tlingit master carver, laughing, during a Zoom call from his home in Terrace, B.C.
“You start off with a block of wood, but they end up just like your children,” he continues. “Because you know every line. You carve every line, draw the line, you craft the line, paint the line, so you know it intimately and it’s part of you. It’s like your family.”
More than 100 pieces – or, family members, if you like – have been gathered for this first, overdue retrospective of Bob’s career, Wolves: The Art of Dempsey Bob. Some had not been seen publicly for decades. They include that mask Bob was talking about – Child’s Portrait Mask (1982). There’s also The Smart One (1989), which was tracked down in private storage in the San Juan Islands. “I haven’t seen him since about ‘89, ‘90,″ Bob says. “And he’s one of my best pieces.”
The Smart One was part of Bob’s seminal first solo commercial show in 1989. The day the show was opening in Vancouver, the Grace Gallery received an early morning call from San Francisco: A collector wanted to see the works. A representative for businessman George Gund got on a plane and toured the exhibition before it opened that night. “Twenty minutes before the show opened, I sold it all,” Bob says. Gund bought every one of the show’s 32 pieces.
“That was the turning point for me,” says Bob in the Wolves exhibition’s accompanying book, Dempsey Bob In His Own Voice. “It established me.”
In Whistler, Bob’s work feels alive. These creations – such as Little Frog Sculpture (1989) – have personalities, with their expressive features emerging from Bob’s smooth surfaces. They also demonstrate the ambition of it all, the skill – the way Bob progressed from making traditional masks to contemporary asymmetrical wall sculptures.
Wolf Headdress (1988-89) greets you as you enter, with its long fur and a human figure lying back on top of the wolf’s head, nestled in between its ears. Later, another knockout work, Eagle and the Bear People (2013), features a human held in the beast’s teeth by their hair, looking down while the eagle above soars.
“The mask, it’s almost like a canvas for him; he starts building from it,” says Curtis Collins, the Audain Art Museum’s director and chief curator, who co-curated the show with Sarah Milroy, chief curator at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (and editor of the accompanying book).
Bob was born in 1948 to Flossie Carlick and Johnnie Bob in Telegraph Creek, B.C., one of 10 children. Through his mother, he is from the Wolf Clan. A country music fan, she named him after her favourite radio disc jockey.
As a child in Port Edward, B.C., Bob drew: cars, fishing boats, wildlife. He and his friends would carve toys they copied from the Simpsons-Sears catalogue – guns, swords, bows and arrows – and play with them.
At high school in Prince George one year, he received a C minus in art; Bob didn’t draw the way his teacher wanted him to, he recalls. He told her, a white woman, that he could not deny where he came from. “I got so mad and I got so determined I was going to get good, and that’s what I did,” he says. When he was named to the Order of Canada in 2013, he thought, “Gee, that’s pretty good for a C minus,” he says with a laugh.
In Prince Rupert, he enrolled in a class taught by Haida carver Freda Diesing – who made him the artist he is, he says. The similarities between Bob’s Old Woman Mask (1974) in this show and Diesing’s Old Woman with Labret (1973) in the Audain’s permanent collection are striking.
Diesing sent Bob to Alaska to study the totem poles. There, he studied Tlingit masks and the culture – and found some of his relatives.
He has also been greatly influenced by Maori carvers. One piece in the show, Hawk Human Portrait Mask (2003), is made with totara wood from New Zealand, where he has travelled a dozen times.
Bob credits the Maori influence in part for the way his work developed from contemporary but conventional masks to those wall sculptures. In New Zealand, he had been given a piece of wood to carve, but it wasn’t long enough for the scale of the design. “So when I twisted it, it worked,” he says.
Since then, in works such as the extraordinary Northern Eagles Transformation Mask (2011) and Rain Frogs (2012), he carves figures growing out of one another, sharing space in various directions.
Bob also uses contemporary materials, such as mirrors. One of the Audain exhibition’s highlights is Raven Panel (1989), in which a mirror provides the symmetry – as still water might – reflecting the large carved panel. Bob painted the salmon in this piece black; it was the year of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
When another artist commented that the use of the mirror was not traditional, Bob responded: “If the world lasts another 100 years, that mirror is going to be traditional. And you’re not going to be here and I’m not going to be here to argue about it.”
At the Audain, ceremonial clothing is displayed using custom-made mounts, bringing the pieces to life in a way that hanging them flat on the wall would not have – Bob’s idea. “He said, ‘Curtis, you’ve got to get them off the wall. They look dead,’” Collins recalls. “He goes: ‘That’s anthropology.’” It’s very important to Bob that his work be seen for what it is: contemporary art.
Bob sketches and writes in cursive throughout many sketchbooks, where he records his thoughts. “You’ve got to be able to catch that idea before it passes. If it passes, it’s gone. You’ve got to be ready,” he says. “Inspiration has to find you working.”
Another significant collector of Bob’s work is Eric Savics, who owns Tantalus Vineyards in B.C.’s Okanagan region; Bob’s work is on the wine labels. Savics also bought out a show of Bob’s in 1993. One of those works is Wolf Chief’s Hat (circa 1993), which displays Bob’s remarkable carving skill in the way the animal emerges from the hat.
This show will travel to Ontario, Quebec and Kelowna, B.C., but Bob hopes as many people as possible will be able to see it in Whistler.
It makes good use of the space. Entering one of the large galleries, the wolf atop Wolf Chief’s Hat peers out as you turn the corner and enter the room, while in Bear Mother (2012), the young bear child pushes against his mother’s hair, twisting to look in another direction – right out the window of the gallery, as it has been installed. Some of the gallery’s windows are uncovered, reminding the visitor (and the little bear, one imagines) of the nature outside.
And, crucially, many of the pieces together now will not be travelling with the show. The touring version will include a little more than 60 works. “It’s never going to be the same again,” says Bob, noting it took about three years to track down all these pieces and bring them together. “It’s history.”
Wolves: The Art of Dempsey Bob is at the Audain Art Museum until Aug. 14; at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection from Oct. 1, 2022, to April 17, 2023; at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal from May 15, 2023, to Sept. 10, 2023; and at the Kelowna Art Gallery from Oct. 14, 2023, to Feb. 18, 2024.
Also on in B.C. right now:
Everything Under the Sun: In Memory of Andrew Gruft
It’s hard to overstate how important Andrew Gruft was in building Vancouver’s thriving visual arts scene. Collector, patron, philanthropist, pioneer, Gruft had not just a depth of understanding of visual art – photography, in particular – but a true love for it.
He and his wife Claudia Beck established the Nova Gallery in 1972, an influential commercial gallery dedicated to photography. It was the first to show the groundbreaking lightboxes of Jeff Wall. In 2004, the Vancouver Art Gallery acquired nearly 400 photographs from the couple – most of them gifts – which lifted the VAG’s collection to one of international significance, this exhibition explains.
When Gruft died last September (pneumonia, a complication of COVID-19), it was a shock – and an enormous loss. The VAG’s Grant Arnold, Audain Curator of British Columbia Art, put together an exhibition in tribute.
The photographs go back as far as 1845, with Charcoal Burners by William Henry Fox Talbot, who invented the negative/positive photographic process. There is a 1914 Edward Curtis, Crests of a Nimpkish Family, and a 1924 portrait of Diego Rivera by Edward Weston. There are several works by later masters of the art form, including Robert Frank’s Trolley – New Orleans (1955), which appeared on the dust jacket of his massive (in every way) book The Americans; and Yevgeny Khaldei’s spectacular Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag (1945) – a photo of particular meaning to Gruft, who was two years old when he and his Jewish family fled Poland on Sept. 1, 1939 – the day the Nazis invaded.
Everything Under the Sun is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Sept. 11.
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