To those who knew her, Haida artist Hazel Wilson had a stature far greater than her diminutive 5-foot-1 frame would suggest. "For such a tiny person, she had a big presence," grandson Jacob Simeon recalls. Whenever she entered a room, he says, she would naturally become the centre of people's interest, before saying a word. When she spoke, in her calm and measured voice, her words would resonate deeply. And when she unveiled her creations, she would enrapture viewers with beautiful imagery that told haunting and sometimes discomfiting stories. When she died in Vancouver last month at the age of 75, both the Haida community and national visual arts scene lost a vital cultural champion.
Ms. Wilson's artistic output included woven hats and baskets, but she was best known for her elaborate button blankets illustrating family crests and clans, and, later, multilayered narratives with political undertones. Traditional in conception but contemporary in their materials and imagery, the strikingly beautiful blankets have played a role in the modern reaffirmation of Haida culture and identity.
"She used very humble materials and transformed them into something very powerful," Mr. Simeon says.
Haida button blankets – ceremonial robes created from woollen felt and decorated with buttons made of mother-of-pearl, copper or other materials – are best understood within the context of the culture's rich matrix of oral histories, clans, crests and cultural traditions. Stories relayed on one of these blankets might also be carved into a giant cedar totem, recounted in an oral tale or represented in song, dance and drumming. For Ms. Wilson, a blanket could take months to complete.
In 2006, the Vancouver Art Gallery landmark exhibition Raven Travelling: Two Centuries of Haida Art displayed Ms. Wilson's intricately beaded Together ceremonial blanket near an installation of historic chiefly regalia. The gallery's chief curator, Daina Augaitis, notes that the blankets, robes and weaving of Haida women constituted a key component of the show.
"Their artistic production may not have been monumental in scale but it was equally rigorous in its creativity, skill and its importance, both in ceremony and everyday life," Ms. Augaitis says. Ms. Wilson's work "stood out because it incorporated difficult social/historical narratives, and showed the continuation of Haida culture into contemporary times, making a tangible link from past to present."
Ms. Wilson's two most ambitious series of button blankets are trenchant examples of difficult narratives. One, titled The Story of K'iid K'iyaas, conveys in 17 separate blankets the story of the magnificent 300-year-old Golden Spruce of Haida Gwaii, which was cut down by a vandal in 1997. Ms. Wilson captured its history and recent destruction, a devastating event for people throughout Haida Gwaii and beyond, through bold appliqué designs. Her K'iid K'iyaas series was unveiled in 2005 at the Marion Scott Gallery in Vancouver to a rapturous reception.
Her most epic button-blanket series relays the entire history of Haida civilization in 50 blankets. Among other historic scenes, the series includes a blanket titled The Mistake, which depicts a shipload of European explorers approaching the shores of Haida Gwaii as skiffloads of Haida people reach out amicably to the newcomers.
"You can read the title in many ways," says Robert Kardosh, Ms. Wilson's primary dealer at the Marion Scott Gallery. One reading is that the Haida thought the newcomers were supernatural beings. The other possible reading is more concrete: that it was a mistake to welcome them. "I take her reading literally," Mr. Kardosh says. The scene marks a moment in history when the Haida people numbered roughly 10,000, though the population was soon to be stricken with a smallpox plague carried by European ships, leaving fewer than 1,000 survivors. (The Haida population has been slowly recovering since then.) After European contact, many expressions of Haida culture were suppressed, including its language. The Mistake depicts an initial encounter that is not overtly threatening or violent, and yet certain elements of the scene – the jarringly slanted perspective, the rose-tinged clouds that evoke predatory birds – hint at something ominous.
Hazel Anna Wilson was born on Jan. 5, 1941, in Old Massett, to Augustus and Grace Bell Wilson, from the Duugwaa St'Langng 7laanaas clan on the Raven side. (Every Haida is born either an Eagle or Raven, following the mother's lineage.) Her Haida name was Jut-ke-Nay. "She wanted it written phonetically so that people could could pronounce it properly," her daughter Dana Simeon explains. Hazel's mother was a talented weaver of cedar-bark hats and lampshades. Her father died when she was a young girl; her mother eventually married a man named Forest DeWitt, who became a second father to her.
Ms. Wilson would often say that her artistic destiny was foretold at the age of 9 when she was strolling on North Beach, the luxuriant arc of sand that defines the northern edge of Haida Gwaii. A group of elders from her extended family, including her mother and nonnie (grandmother), approached her there and told her that her destiny was to be a creator of button blankets, using the luminous abalone shells and other bounty harvested from the sea. "She felt very chosen to do this," Ms. Simeon says.
Like most aboriginal children of that era, young Hazel was sent far away to a residential school – to St. Michael's Indian Residential School in Alert Bay, near Vancouver Island, in her case. But unlike many of her peers, she found the experience relatively benign, and with some positive moments. "My grandmother said: no matter what happens to you, take whatever good there is out of any situation. I liked the other kids," she recalled in a 2006 interview with television host Wayne Rostad on the CBC program On the Road Again.
There would be many more dark challenges in the years ahead to test her grandmother's directive. In 1960, at 19, she married Daniel Simeon, eventually bearing 10 children. By 1972, she left her beloved Haida Gwaii and her husband, who had been abusing their children. With her children in tow, she moved south – first to Port Moody, then Coquitlam and finally, East Vancouver, moving each time as her estranged husband stalked the family. "Once he located us, we would move," she recalled in the CBC interview. He was finally charged and convicted in connection with the past abuse and spent a few years in prison, but Ms. Wilson suggested in the interview that the punishment was vastly insufficient to compensate for the harm he had done. He died the day before the 2005 opening of her Golden Spruce exhibition in Vancouver. At that point, she decided to revert from Hazel Simeon to her maiden name.
Ms. Wilson had worked at whatever jobs she could to pay the bills while crafting button blankets in her rare moments of free time. The blankets found an appreciative market. "When Hazel moved to Vancouver, she started to make button blankets for sale, and with the earnings she and her family travelled around North America," recalls Karen Duffek, a curator at the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology (MOA). "She told about this in Doreen Jensen's 1986 MOA book Robes of Power, and called her family trips 'travelling on blanket power.'"
In keeping with the matriarchal culture of the Haida, Ms. Wilson devoted much of her life to family, not only raising her children but also serving as primary caregiver for her grandson Jacob. Her daughter Dana Simeon also took up the creation of button blankets, crediting her mother's encouragement in her own artistic endeavours and those of her brothers Shane and Duane and her sisters Desiree and Avis. In later years, Ms. Wilson sported a chin piercing fitted with a striking abalone-shell labret – a historic signifier of high birth in the Pacific Northwest Coast aboriginal communities.
"I always told my children: the important thing is, even though I'm not on-island, I live a Haida life," she said in the 2006 CBC interview. "Any kind of sorrow that would come into my life, I would turn around and just continue working on my blankets."
Hazel Wilson was predeceased by her children Daniel Louie, Roxanne and Duane, and leaves daughters Valerie, Susan, Desiree, Dana and Avis; sons Troy and Shane; and a vast extended family of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews.