Ben Davidson grew up not in the shadow of his world-renowned father, but under his wing. From the time he was about four, Ben and his older sister Sara would join their father, Robert Davidson, in his studio near White Rock, B.C., watching him create artwork that would travel to museums and collectors around the globe. They would learn as they watched; Ben, already a whiz with Lego, would sit with a tool and something to carve, anchored to the work bench. His father taught him to do it safely, to carve away from himself.
“The first scars I have are from four or five years old,” Ben Davidson recalled in an interview for a 2014 exhibition at the Haida Gwaii Museum. “I would be in his studio and he would give me a tool. I would think I was carving, but obviously I was just making fire starter.”
An interest had been ignited. And Ben demonstrated real talent. After high school, he was hoping to apprentice formally under his father – but he was too shy to ask. Robert had had the same idea – but was also too shy to ask. He was delighted when Ben had Sara ask for him.
“That was a dream come true for me. Because I wanted to give him everything I had, that I learned,” Robert Davidson says.
During Ben’s formal apprenticeship, which began when he was 16 – and also under guidance from his uncle Reg Davidson – Ben became not just a skilled carver, but a devoted student of Haida culture. The two – the art, the culture – are intertwined, essential to one another.
Robert says Ben was a committed student and took direction well. Over the years, their artistic relationship evolved – they were father and son, but became very good friends, and artistic colleagues, bouncing ideas off one another.
“He was the next generation. But at the same time we were equals,” Robert Davidson says.
In their final collaboration, Ben helped his father with a commission for a 22-foot totem pole. Ben, with his tremendous power saw skills, roughed out the pole – a skill he had learned from another artist, John Livingston. Ben had said he wanted to honour Mr. Livingston, who died last year, by roughing out the pole, and honour his father for teaching him to carve. It was Robert Davidson’s commission, but it became a real family project; Ben started it in the spring of 2019 and Sara Davidson helped finish it this summer, doing much of the painting.
The totem was finished at Robert Davidson’s studio on the Semiahmoo Reserve near White Rock, B.C. in August. Shortly after it was completed, Ben died – suddenly, unexpectedly, from a heart attack on Haida Gwaii, where he lived and owned a gallery and studio. Ben Davidson, Tlanang nang kingaas – “the one who is known far away;” stlaay q’aalaagaas – “ambitious hands” – was 44.
“His creativity far surpassed mine when I was at the same age,” Robert Davidson says. “I’m so grateful for having acknowledged that to him.”
Benjamin Ray Davidson was born April 6, 1976, in Mission, B.C. He lived in Whonnock and then Aldergrove, B.C., with his mother, Susan Davidson. When he was 10, he moved to South Surrey and lived with his father.
In 2001, after his formal apprenticeship, he moved to Haida Gwaii. That is where he met Tawni Jones. They married in a small ceremony – but only after Ben approached her mother and asked for permission. It was a real love match; their 16-year marriage was a great partnership.
Mr. Davidson was a devoted husband and father, with five children. The kids were always around – in his studio, in the stroller, on the trailer hitched to the back of his bike. Mr. Davidson was athletic; he kept a set of weights in a back room at his gallery.
He was an avid cyclist and participated in charity rides between Haida Gwaii and Alberta. His first, in 2014, accompanied a totem pole he made for the Stollery Children’s Hospital as it travelled 1,760 kilometres from Masset in northern Haida Gwaii to Edmonton. Another fundraising ride the following year supported CASA Child, Adolescent and Family Mental Health, serving Edmonton and Central and Northern Alberta.
Active in the Haida community, he volunteered and spoke at schools, including the secondary school in Queen Charlotte City, where he lived.
In the summer of 2010, Ben led an eight-day painting course at Swan Bay Discovery Camp, where youth learn Haida skills and knowledge, with youth aged 13 to 18 (as well as his son, Gavin and his apprentice Raven). He created a lasting legacy – for the kids and at the site. They collaboratively painted three longhouse fronts.
“One of my visions as an artist is to continue to pass on our traditional values. I am proud to be part of a project that will give our youth a chance to participate and learn more about their Haida culture and grow as individual artists,” he wrote in a letter supporting the program.
He was generous in every way. His father remembers travelling to New York with him for a totem pole raising when Ben was about 10. They took a taxi somewhere; little Ben offered to chip in for the cab fare.
His culture was a central part of his life and practice; he was an original member of the Rainbow Creek Dancers, with his father, from a very young age.
By the time he began selling his artwork, it already exhibited a sophistication far beyond that of an emerging artist, says Vancouver gallerist Douglas Reynolds, who sells work by both father and son.
“He had a level of craftsmanship that very few artists possess. This comes from years of training under his father, and there is an elegance and reverence in his work, as every object he created held the highest level of craftsmanship,” Mr. Reynolds wrote in an email.
“The time and detail that he takes on each piece is incredible. It’s magnificent; you look at it with a sense of awe,” he said in a separate conversation.
Ben Davidson was following in his father’s footsteps, but creating his own path.
“He had a lot of his dad’s talent. His dad’s flair. “It really showed that he had spent time studying his father’s work. But he also had his own voice,” says Vancouver gallerist LaTiesha Fazakas, who also sold his work.
His work, described by Ms. Fazakas as “very sophisticated, very contemporary, and dynamic,” was elegantly displayed at the gallery he built on Haida Gwaii.
He bought a derelict building on the coastal road in Skidegate to use as a carving shed. It evolved into a proper studio; people kept dropping by. Finally, he moved his carving shed out back and turned the space into a gallery to showcase Haida art – primarily his own, but also that of his father and other Haida artists. With its clean lines, white walls, shiny wood floors and work tastefully installed, the All About U Gallery could be at home in any major city, but at the same time could only exist on Haida Gwaii – with the nature surrounding it on all sides; that island light pouring in through the windows. And the friendly greeting that visitors would receive from Ben himself.
“I would describe it as magical, honestly,” Ms. Fazakas says. The gallery offers both a contemporary and modern aesthetic, she says, while at the same time embodies “the continuation and the life that is still there in Haida Gwaii.”
Tlanang nang kingaas was indeed also known far away, held in high regard by museums and collectors. He was commissioned by the superstar British artist Damien Hirst to carve a 30-foot totem pole; Mr. Hirst also commissioned a 30-foot pole by Robert Davidson and collected other works by Ben.
In 2014, Ben won a Fulmer Award in First Nations Art from the B.C. Achievement Foundation.
Ben Davidson was carrying a torch. His family hopes that what he lit in others – the Haida youth, the artists he mentored, visitors to his gallery, collectors near and far, and anyone on Haida Gwaii who would see him out and about with his beloved Tawni and the kids – will endure.
“We have lost Ben and all his efforts to reclaim our history, our knowledge of our culture, and I want the momentum he created to be carried on by the next generation,” Robert Davidson says. “That’s what we need: someone dedicated like him to continue the inspiration that he fostered.”
Ben Davidson leaves his wife, Tawni; his children, Gavin, Dustin, Jayde, Juno and Jasper; his mother, Susan, and stepfather, Dave McCandless; his father, Robert, and stepmother, Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson; his sister, Sara, and her partner, Angus Wilson.