Leaning over his work, Squamish Nation artist Xwa-lack-tun, also known as Rick Harry, peels back layers of wood on an eagle head carving, all the while explaining the nuances of the craft. A rapt audience of 13 people of all ages and backgrounds hang onto his every word, eager to try their own hand at carving at the Brackendale Art Gallery last Sunday.
Xwa-lack-tun describes how, for him, carving is intricately linked to spirituality.
"It is all part of one, and once you get into [carving], you are being creative and you are getting lost," he says, adding that he is often triggered into a "shaman-state" while engrossed in a project.
His personal journey as a wood carver began when he was 12-years-old. Born and raised in Squamish, he attended carving classes at Totem Hall. This experience sparked an interest in the craft, yet it was not always a smooth ride — he gave up a few times before dedicating himself to the art. After graduating from the Emily Carr College of Art in 1982, he has honed his skills and is now a renowned artist in the region.
Xwa-lack-tun's list of achievements is enormous, including designs for the The Bay's 2010 Winter Olympic clothing-line and the carving of relief poles for several exclusive homes in Whistler. There are more than 80 of his art pieces in schools in the Lower Mainland. One of his most notable works is the council table for the sixteen chiefs at the Squamish Nation band office, and he is currently working on artwork for the new pedestrian overpass project in Squamish.
But for Xwa-lack-tun, a true highlight in his work is education. He has taught many workshops and is involved with the summer camp Artists for Kids, which takes place at the North Vancouver Outdoor School in Paradise Valley. Xwa-lack-tun says that the giving out of positive energy and seeing it come back through the kids is the reward that continues to feed his spirit.
When asked if it is possible to earn a living off his artwork, Xwa-lack-tun chuckled and replies, "I am doing really well in the art world right now and I am never short of money. I always invest in myself and the art work — I always keep up with technology."
He says there has been a noticeable expansion in First Nation art during his time in the industry, citing artist Bill Reid as a catalyst for the growth. Reid (1920 – 1998) was an acclaimed Haida master carver whose passion for Haida art was ignited in 1954 by a visit to Haida Gwaii, the land of his ancestors.
Xwa-lack-tun also found himself turning to his Coast Salish heritage after experimenting with different designs.
"Eventually I learned what Coast Salish people artwork looked like and I started doing that around 1990 and focused on pushing that more," he says, "so we can tie in our stories with those designs."
Over the years Xwa-lack-tun has taught many artists who are now his competition, yet they all remain good friends.
Murray McCorriston agrees that there has been an increase in the number of Squamish Nation artists in the corridor. Owner of the Squamish Native Art Store, McCorriston says he has developed a great working relationship with local artists in the past 12 years.
In his opinion there have been more artists coming on board and more young people taking an interest.
"There are young guys picking it up, learning the ways," McCorriston says.
An evolvement has taken place in the art and artists in the past decade, says Kim Stanger, manager of retail sales at Whistler's Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre.
"Over the years, the art forms have really evolved and they're meshing and the artists are becoming stronger and more able to support themselves solely on their art work," she says. "For the most part, it is handed down through generations. We have a lot of father-son carving teams that we work with at the cultural centre."
The historical significance of First Nations art is important to Xwa-lack-tun — he explains how, according to their traditional belief system, everything was made for a reason. When people attended a wedding, feast or potlatch they took home a piece of artwork such as a ladle, which would trigger a memory every time it was used.
"It was a means of recording historical events," he says. "Art is like a message keeper — it passes on messages and tells stories."
See www.xwalacktun.ca to find out more about Xwa-lack-tun's work.