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Features / March 30, 2017

Remembering Beau Dick (1955–2017)

On March 27, master Kwakwaka’wakw artist and chief Beau Dick died in BC. Here, some who knew him reflect on his life, art, activism and influence
Beau Dick (1955–2017) was a chief of his people, an artist, a mentor, a friend and much, much more. Photo: LaTiesha Fazakas. 
Beau Dick (1955–2017) was a chief of his people, an artist, a mentor, a friend and much, much more. Photo: LaTiesha Fazakas.

Earlier this week, Beau Dick—the revered carver, artist, storyteller and Dzawada’enuxw chief—died in BC at the age of 61.

Dick passed just as some of his most striking masks yet were being installed at the soon-to-open European art event Documenta. Also as part of Documenta, Dick was slated, in early April, to have one of the traditional Kwakwaka’wakw dances he has orchestrated be performed in front of the Parthenon in Athens.

Certainly, Beau Dick’s presence—and the loss thereof—is being felt far and wide, just as his own work has reached far and wide.

In 2013, Dick organized a collective journey from Quatsino on the northern end of Vancouver Island to the BC Parliament Building in Victoria. There, he and others enacted a copper-cutting ceremony—a form of public shaming signifying the cleaving of a relationship, in this case a break between First Nations and the government. In 2014, he led a similar journey from UBC to the steps of the Parliament building in Ottawa. In 2016, an exhibition at the Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver, titled “Lalakenis,” turned these journeys into an installation, bringing their message to another group of viewers altogether. Those were just a few of Beau Dick’s many powerful, resonant gestures.

Here, some of those who knew and were influenced by Beau Dick reflect on his life and art.

Shape-Shifting in the Fog

How does one talk about someone in the past tense, when his incredible energy still surrounds us?

Perhaps the best way I can share right now is to recall a beautiful message Beau shared with me while I was attending school in Vancouver.

Early one morning, I drove up to UBC to drop off some of my artwork at the museum gift shop. It was one of those typical Vancouver mornings—a slight chill in the air, and a hazy mist of fog; the occasional caw of the resident crows, followed by the morning calls of the seagulls. I arrived early to ensure a parking spot and to enjoy a coffee before heading to the gift shop.

The sidewalks were clear, students wouldn’t be out and about for at least another half-hour. And as I made my way across campus, I looked into the distance, and saw the unmistakeable outline of a person walking toward me. It was Beau.

As I got closer, I said, “I thought that might be you shape-shifting in the fog!” After a hug and more laughs, I asked him what he was doing at the university, and he told me that he was invited to teach, so I should stop by some time to join in on his class. I told him that I really wanted to carve again, but wasn’t entirely sure if it was okay for me to carve.

He smiled and said, “You mustn’t hesitate or be afraid to step into this role…in all the world, all the universe, there is an everlasting energy that permeates all the things we see, and all the things we don’t see; our ancestors understood this, they understood the human experience so fully, that they were unafraid, and that’s what you feel when you’re carving, or painting, or sewing…anytime you’re doing this work. It’s powerful; it’s magical.”

After a moment’s pause, he added, “You’ve heard other artists talk about ‘being in the zone’, right? Well, that’s where you want to be, because when you’re there, you don’t consciously question whether you should be carving or painting or any of that; you just create. That’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s who you’re supposed to be. Magic…see?”

Those words filled my heart with joy and hope and determination, and were enormously validating during a time when I really needed some encouragement.

From that brief conversation, I came to realize that there is no past tense when the energy you create continues to inspire, move and motivate people from all walks of life.

When I’m immersed in my work, I can still hear that beautiful message, and I can still see that unmistakable outline walking through the morning fog—shape-shifting, powerful, magic.Lou-Ann Neel

Heart Beats

I’ve had some time to catch up with my heart. Heart beats. I’m doing my best to send love to his family and his community.

I’ve had some time to think about Beau. And this is what I want to say: Beau Dick saves me.Peter Morin

A Way of Holding Space

I’m changed by knowing Beau as many, many people have been. The collective heartache of his passing is palpable. He left us all with countless gifts that take on diverse forms and are hard to begin naming. I feel blessed to call him a friend and in many ways he acted as a mentor for me.

Beau had a way of holding space for and nurturing my weird ideas I was too shy to reveal to anyone else. My work wouldn’t be the same without him. I first met him at UBC when I started my MFA, where he was a resident artist, our studios down the hall from each other. He invited me to an art show of his that same evening at Macaulay & Co Fine Arts.

We ended up jamming in the parking lot outside for a while. He played slide guitar and I sang Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy.” He’s so good at slide guitar. I made him a caribou-femur-bone slide a few months later. I’m going to miss our late-night studio jams and conversations. I feel blessed to have gotten to know such a profoundly beautiful, super human and get to witness his generous ways.

Gilasksla. Love you and your mischievous magic. It resonates in all those you have met. ????

Love, peace and bone grease to his family and those in his communities.Jeneen Frei Njootli

Once in a Century

Beau came into my life and carved a path for us to share. He has been the single most influential person for me both personally and professionally.

His contributions to this world have only just begun to be recognized. Canada has lost an artist who only comes around once in a century.—LaTiesha Fazakas

Power, Kindness and Unbreakable Determination

I only encountered Beau on a personal level a few times over the years, but the spirit of his work will resonate with me for the rest of my life.

I had a later start in learning the formal qualities of Northwest Coast art. Before I received any training I would often look at the work of Chief Henry Speck and Beau Dick. They were both able to capture the monsters in our oral stories and reveal their complexities. They were absolutely free while working in what is sometimes known as traditional art.

When I finally mustered up the courage to tell Beau that I looked up to his work, as well as Chief Henry Speck’s, his eyes lit up and he told me about being a very young boy and seeing Henry Speck around the village working on his art. He said it lifted him up as a child to see the art being made.

Beau has left a legacy of power, kindness and unbreakable determination to work in continuum with our ancestors. My heart hurts for his loved ones and his Nation. Gila’kasla.—Bracken Hanuse Corlett

Relationships Change the World

Chief Beau Dick began his artist residency at the University of British Columbia in 2013. It began with the kind of serendipity that both of us like.

During the course of organizing an exhibition on Canada’s Indian residential schools, I asked my colleague and co-curator Dana Claxton who, of all the artists in the exhibition, might be both interested in a residency and good at it. She suggested Beau Dick.

Later that day, I was visiting a local collector and supporter of our gallery. During the course of our conversation, he asked me what I thought of Beau Dick’s work. I thought very highly of it, but I also added that just that morning we had been discussing the possibility of a residency and asking Beau.

The next morning, Beau came to see me asking when his residency was to start. Of course, what must have happened is that my collector friend also saw Beau that day and commented on the possible residency. Or maybe not. It seemed as though the world was producing the residency, that it had to be—and that, in fact, it had already begun. Also by luck, we had some money (another project had collapsed) and space, and Beau was able to start immediately.

It would take many pages to relate everything he did at UBC. He was extraordinarily generous to students; he met thousands of them. He was also, as is well known, an extravagant and impressive showman in the tradition of his people, the Kwak’wakawakw of the West Coast.

At the end of the three-month residency, Beau organized a feast for several hundred, featuring more than 30 masks. But it wasn’t the end of the residency; we wanted to extend it, and we kept extending it, eventually imagining it as a six-year stint.

Beau was right: time gives us time to develop relationships, and relationships change the world, and changing the world was Beau’s mission. I’m proud that Beau launched his journey to Ottawa—for a ceremonial copper-breaking ceremony—from UBC as our artist-in-residence.

I have seen the dance work that Beau was scheduled to orchestrate on the Acropolis for Documenta on April 10th. Beau first presented this dance, which required 20 masks and took three hours to perform, at a potlatch for Chief Robert Joseph in Alert Bay three years ago. The idea of it being performed with him present, and the Parthenon in the background, was dizzyingly thrilling. Alas, that will not happen.—Scott Watson

The Unparalleled Storyteller

To witness the life of a man such as Chief Beau Dick is both an honour and a monumental task. My time spent with Beau is fleeting when compared to the many lives he has impacted, and my own memories are overwhelmed by the stories I have heard from others that speak to his deep generosity of spirit.

As a co-curator of “Witnesses: Art and Canada’s Indian Residential Schools” (2013) at the Belkin Art Gallery, I was fortunate to meet Beau after just completing my graduate studies. His contribution to that exhibition, The Ghost Con-fined to the Chair (2012), marked a new direction in his practice in its combination of his mask-making with found and altered materials.

The Ghost Con-fined to the Chair included a ghost mask, a woven cedar rose and a copy of the Indian Act placed upon a red vinyl chair that Beau found in a carving studio in the building that formerly housed the Alert Bay residential school. Beau used the chair in his own studio for a time, and when it began to deteriorate, he envisioned a new life for it. Painted with a treasure-box design on the backrest, the chair that at one time was the artist’s favourite carving seat now expressed a ghostly vision of himself.

This collection of materials in this work signalled, in my mind, those things or experiences we gather around us, sometimes through happenstance, and those we are forced to carry. In constellation with one another, these things act upon us and are transformational. The ghost in this artwork is a reminder that the outcome is unwritten (or perhaps just unfinished), though I think Beau cherished the complex entirety of life—why else would he have painted the treasure box design to contain the work?

That work became a catalyst of many discussions, and during the run of “Witnesses,” Beau often went out into the community to speak with secondary students, and many times he toured visitors through the exhibition space.

I recall him telling a story in the gallery one day about Dzunuk´wa, the cannibal—a figure that he inherited the right to represent in his work through his family. Outstretching his arms and shaking his hands, he emitted a low, shaking moan: “Oo-oo-oo-oo-oo.” Then, he winked at me.

This was characteristically Beau—the unparalleled storyteller, full of mischief and humour and warmth. His presence and way of being in relation to others is what those of us who were fortunate enough to walk with him for a time will continue to carry with us. And we, too, will be transformed. Thank you, Beau.—Tarah Hogue

Making You Feel Welcomed

Beau was an inspiration to many, myself included. When I moved back to BC after nearly 5 years in Montreal, I reached out to Beau to talk about a concept I had been working on. I wanted his perspective on it, and I knew that he’d lay it out to me honestly and compassionately.

I had met Beau a number of times over the years. But I was too shy to truly connect with him. When I called him that afternoon, I was nervous. This was Beau Dick we’re talking about here, a legend, a rock-star! I ended up having to leave a message. That same afternoon, my phone rang. I looked at the call display. “Be cool,” I said to myself, knowing full well who was calling.

“Hello?”

“Yo! Sonny, this is Beau.”

In my mind, I thought it would be a quick conversation, a reaching out to ask if he’d be able to attend a talk I was hosting. I wanted to get a true Kwakwaka’wakw perspective on this project. I ran it down for him, thinking I’d get a simple yes or no to his attendance.

What I ended up getting was a world of wealth. His voice was strong and proud. I could hear his smile and the words emerging like the wind, rustling his moustache with the thoughtful and considerate knowledge of our ancestors.

At the end of our conversation, I asked if it would be ok if I came by his studio for a visit.

“Anytime, brother, anytime.”

This was his true soul. His true beauty. Making you feel welcomed and part of his community. He called me brother and I felt whole. Thank you, Beau, for your beauty and creativity. Gila’kasla.—Sonny Assu

No Compromise

Beau had the power to let people into his life, and into the life of his people.

He took this power very seriously, and he didn’t mind showing how, and where, it had grown.

He didn’t mind showing where it came from either. The power in his hands brought it alive.

His generosity was legendary and makes the clichés about “sharing” look thin by comparison.

Others will commend his courage, his resilience and resolve faced with opposition of all kinds.

I would just add that in the eternal, often hideous, but necessary battle between compromise and no-compromise he showed himself an uncompromising leader.—Charlotte Townsend-Gault

According to the CBC, a service and memorial potlatch in Alert Bay is being planned in memory of Beau Dick.