Encountering the art of Beau Dick is an intense and magnificent experience. In a gallery, his is the kind of work that stops even casual visitors in their fatigued, museum-legs tracks, demanding wide-eyed attention. Masterfully carved, aesthetically stunning – his masks come alive on the wall. This is art that haunts: You can't shake it, and you don't want to.
Consider the reaction of a tiny boy to the 2015 exhibition at the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver, The Box of Treasures: Gifts from the Supernatural, featuring a collection of masks and regalia created for potlatches by Mr. Dick and others.
One of a group of preschoolers to visit the show, the boy – who was three or four years old – was particularly entranced by Mr. Dick's Hamatsa masks.
"He walked around the corner and he saw the Hamatsas, and they're these incredible huge birds – they're like cannibal birds – and he screams out 'this is beautiful!'" curator Kwiaahwah Jones recalls. "And he stood underneath them and spun around and he screamed to his friends 'Do you see this?!' It was such a powerful moment, because had people actually acted like that toward us from the beginning this place would be so much richer."
Ms. Jones, a close friend to Mr. Dick, told him that story – and "he smiled really big."
A master Kwakwaka'wakw carver, Mr. Dick was a supremely talented artist who infused his work with his culture and his soul.
"When he was doing these masks and these prints and these poles, he was really breathing life into them. When he looked at the finished product, it wasn't art. It was a tradition. It had a story, it had a history," his daughter Linnea Dick says. "The things he made were really alive."
To call him an artist does not even begin to tell the story of Beau Dick. A hereditary chief, he was deeply involved in the potlatch and understood the crucial importance of ritual and culture.
If you saw the way he drummed with such devotion and intensity at the ceremony for the destruction of the residential school in Alert Bay, British Columbia, or the passion and grace with which he led a peaceful protest – the walk for reconciliation in Vancouver in 2013 and the breaking of the coppers in Victoria and Ottawa – or the way he interacted with his family, friends or students, you understood.
"Beau was an amazing, amazing man," says Robert Joseph, a hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation. "Many considered him a shaman, a spiritualist. It was even said that he had one foot in the spirit world whenever he was practising our customs and traditions."
He was a charismatic, caring man – a magnet and a mentor; a virtuoso storyteller but also a master listener, unmistakable with his long hair and beard and signature hat.
"It was quite remarkable for people to have had the Beau Dick experience," says Lakota artist Dana Claxton, a colleague at the University of British Columbia, where Mr. Dick was artist-in-residence. "He was a character, too. He was badass and a trickster and was full of medicine."
Those who knew Mr. Dick – also known as Walas Gwa'yam (Big Whale) – say he was a healer but also cheeky and very funny. And the same word is used again and again to describe him: magic.
"A cacophony of emotions," is how his dealer, LaTiesha Fazakas, describes working with him. "He could be extremely difficult and uncompromising and just when you thought the ride was going to be too much you would realize there was a bigger picture at play. That was the magic of it all. Beau made you believe in magic, destiny and the transcending value of art."
Ms. Fazakas responded in an e-mail from Greece, where she is attending the prestigious international contemporary art show Documenta 14. Mr. Dick, who has an exhibition in the show, was supposed to be there this month as well, but after suffering a heart attack and a series of strokes and other complicating health issues, he died on March 27 in Vancouver. He was 61 years old.
"I think people will eventually recognize that he really was a legend," Chief Joseph says, adding that his contributions are important not just to the Kwakwaka'wakw, "but to mankind. He was that great an artist."
Benjamin Kerry Dick was born in Alert Bay on Nov. 23, 1955, to Geraldine Dawson and Blackie Ben Dick. For the first four years of his life, he lived in Kingcome, B.C. – known as Gwa'yi in the Kwak'wala language. When he was a young boy, he and his mother moved to Vancouver. In both places, he was exposed to his culture through stories. He was smart: by the age of 13 he could recite Winston Churchill speeches by heart.
As a teenager, he returned to Alert Bay, where he learned to carve.
"He had a special knack for art," says Chief Joseph, who watched him grow up. "He would sit by his father and grandfather and other carvers and watch them whittle all day and he soon began to whittle and became the artist that he was.
"He developed his artistry from some pretty prominent other prominent Kwakwaka'wakw artists like Doug Cranmer and Tony Hunt as well as Haida artists like Bill Reid and Robert Davidson," Chief Joseph continues. "So he learned from the best and became the best."
Mr. Dick created masterworks – totem poles, masks. He was also a terrific painter.
"His creativity was unparalleled amongst the Kwakwaka'wakw people … He is widely recognized as the greatest [Northwest coast] artist since contact," says Alan Hunt, a Kwakwaka'wakw/Tlingit carver and dancer who was mentored by Mr. Dick. "His style of teaching was gentle, unique, and demonstrative. His giving nature was reflected in his openness to share his knowledge with those committed enough to learn."
Mr. Dick used his artistic talent and his special nature not only to make and teach art, but also to protest injustice – the effects of cultural suppression, the threatened environment – and bring healing.
He curated a cultural and artistic element to the 2013 Walk for Reconciliation in Vancouver, beginning with a toss of eagle down into the air. "It created this really magical experience for everyone who was there," Ms. Dick says.
Also that year, he led a walk from northern Vancouver Island to Victoria, where on the steps of the B.C. Legislature, he performed a copper-breaking ceremony – a traditional form of shaming an opponent. He said he was acting on a vision he'd had 20 years earlier, compelled by his daughters and the Idle No More movement.
"Our people have endured near annihilation, subject to poverty, diseases inflicted upon us, homelessness, alcoholism, drug addiction. Now they're poisoning our waters, destroying our homelands. Our old growth forests are disappearing," he said.
The following year, he led a copper-breaking ceremony on Parliament Hill – this time travelling to Ottawa from UBC in Vancouver, with stops in First Nations communities along the way.
"He regarded those trips as works of art, as well as political interventions," says Scott Watson, head of UBC's Visual Art Department and director/curator of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery.
When Prof. Watson was looking for an artist-in-residence in 2013, Ms. Claxton suggested Mr. Dick. It was supposed to be a three-month residency, but Mr. Dick proposed it be extended. They ultimately agreed on a six-year term – highly unusual.
"I could see the effects on the students," Prof. Watson says. "Six students went to his funeral. And several of them helped shovel dirt into the grave. There were emotional bonds, but he taught them about his knowledge, the knowledge of his culture. Also the thing about Beau that just made him an ideal person to be at a university was his total commitment to his work."
He was extremely knowledgeable and a voracious reader. Bookseller David Ellis, who travels often to remote First Nations communities, supplied Mr. Dick with rare Kwakwaka'wakw books.
"He cut through both worlds and worked with utter sincerity and also accuracy," Mr. Ellis says. "But also huge enthusiasm and huge good spirit."
The real estate developer, art collector and philanthropist Michael Audain – who owns a number of Mr. Dick's works – recalls the first time he had the artist over to his home. For more than a year, Mr. Audain had been puzzling over a mysterious 19th-century Nuu-chah-nulth mask with a sort of crown of lattice. "No one could identify or explain it," Mr. Audain recalls. "Then Beau Dick saw it. 'Oh,' he says, 'you have that mask, do you?' He says, 'That's great. That's a fish trap mask.' And he immediately said 'You should know about the rattle that goes with it is in the Museum of Natural History in New York.' … That's an example of his great knowledge of the art-making on the coast."
In 2012, Mr. Dick received the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Foundation's VIVA Award for Visual Arts. His work has been exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada, the Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver's Contemporary Art Gallery and the Sydney Biennale. The 2015 show at the Bill Reid Gallery led to a huge boost in attendance at the gallery.
He is the subject of a forthcoming feature-length documentary, Meet Beau Dick: Maker of Monsters, that Ms. Fazakas calls her love letter to him. "I wanted everyone to meet him and know him," she says. "I felt from the beginning that he was Canada's greatest artist, our legend."
Mr. Dick, who did not carry a passport or have a social insurance number, was a devoted father. He had four daughters – Kerri-Lynne, Linnea, Geraldine – and Cora, who came into his life as an adult; she and Mr. Dick met in about 2011.
"When he was younger, before he had any children, he said that he had wanted four boys," Linnea Dick says. "And he always joked and said 'but I'm so happy that I had daughters because you made a gentleman out of me.'"
She says he had a special relationship with each child and was hugely supportive – particularly when she went through some very troubled times with alcohol as a teenager and was able to trace her pain back to being sexually abused as a child. "He taught me to have strength; that these things weren't things that defined me.
"He was such an advocate for change and also not holding onto the past," she adds. "'I think it's good to acknowledge the past but not to live there.' That's what he'd always say to me."
Ms. Dick, 25, says her father – who for the past two years had been in a happy, loving relationship with Bernadette Phan – remained friendly with his former partners, in particular Sherri Dick, mother to Kerri-Lynn; and Pamela Bevan, mother to Linnea and Geraldine.
"A lot of times all of them were in the same room, supporting one of my dad's ventures," Ms. Dick says.
His last venture was Documenta 14, where his installation at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens has drawn a tremendous response, according to Mr. Hunt. "Some are awestruck by the visual beauty, some have cried, and many can physically feel the power in the room."
"The magic of him continues on and visitors feel it," writes Ms. Fazakas, also from Athens.
Mr. Dick had mixed emotions about attending, initially turning down the offer to represent Canada at the event.
"When they first asked him he was not very interested," says Prof. Watson. "The notion that it would bestow more fame on him as an artist did not interest him. That was not the draw. In the end he came to see that it would further the visibility of his message and his culture."
In addition to installing his work, he was to perform a ceremonial dance on the Acropolis with other dancers and many masks.
This was not to be. Instead his body was taken to Alert Bay for his April 2 funeral, escorted home by dancers he had trained and mentored.
"He's made such a profound impact," says Ms. Jones, who attended the funeral. "The ripple effect is going to go on for a long time. He planted a lot of magic around the world."
Beau Dick leaves his companion, Ms. Phan; his four daughters ; and six grandchildren; he had a seventh on the way.
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