Creating Art and Artists

By Malcolm McColl

My first encounter with Jackson Robertson was completely by chance, a brief meeting outside an art store in the coastal city of Duncan, B.C. on Vancouver Island in 1999. Duncan is known as the City of Totems, and hosted the North American Indigenous Games in 2008 as covered by Native Journal’s Allan Beaver.

Back in 1999, Jackson Robertson was delivering a beautifully crafted talking stick about five feet tall to the art dealer at a shop downtown. I met Jackson carrying the talking stick into the store, and I asked him if I might take his picture holding the spectacular art piece.

I did a short interview and sold a story somewhere along the line. The meeting was unforgettable because of that memorable photo of a man and his art together. It stuck in my mind and never left. So imagine my surprise when I came around the corner of the Nicol Street International Hostel a couple of days ago in Nanaimo, only to meet Jackson Robertson standing with one of the guests.

It was another of those wonderful, short reunions that often occur in the way that I do this job. I told him I’d done a story about him once, but he didn’t remember me, so I tried to jog his memory. “I’m the guy with a wooden leg,” I said. “You said you would carve me a peg.” He grinned, “Still don’t know you.”

The next day, I was on my way to visit Jackson’s carving studio downtown and saw him on the sidewalk. I said again, “You must remember me.” This time he replied, “I know you.” Later, while sitting in the carving studio, Jackson’s son Satchia mentioned local carver Willy Good, a well known in the Coast Salish carving tradition from Nanaimo, and this name rang a distant bell in my head. It had been Willy Good who offered to carve me a peg leg. Willy Good had been fully prepared to do it on the spot, so to speak.

I had my interviews mixed up, no doubt about it. Jackson comes from a completely different nation (Kwaguilth), though he was born in the Nanaimo Indian Hospital on Nov. 15, 1956. “My great-grandfather was named Jackson Ford,” he said. His family members descended out of Kingcome Inlet, a long, deep inlet on the B.C. central coast. It is a vital district in the Kwak’wala speaking territory. His Kingcome Inlet roots are still as thick as giant cedar, although he currently lives in Nanaimo, where he grew up.

Jackson has a carving studio located downtown at The China Steps, a Nanaimo landmark. It’s a short walk to the Nanaimo harbour, and the studio seats half-a-dozen carvers for work. One working carver, Sammy Dawson, 32, is also a descendent of Kingcome Inlet. Sammy lives in Burnaby, B.C. and carves cedar masks that he sells at the Eagle Spirit Gallery on Granville Island. Carving is a deeply traditional craft in the hands of these people. The artists are communicators of mythological roots in the Pacific Coast. It also pays the bills.

Sammy said, “I carved my first piece with my uncle David Robertson when I was 10 years old when we were visiting Alert Bay.” Sammy said he was raised in Nanaimo, “but we always went to Campbell River, Alert Bay, and Kingcome Inlet for potlatches. Visits to family relations old and new are meaningful for him and help keep the family strong and united. “Every time I come to Nanaimo I visit Jackson’s carving studio, but I also go up to Alert Bay at least five times a year, and every time I go, I meet another close relation.”

Sammy says he enjoys living in the Vancouver metropolis. His girlfriend attended Kwantlen College’s upholstery school, then got a job at the Serta mattress factory, so they stayed in the area. Well, the job at Serta disappeared last year, even before the major downturn in the economy. Now she’s pregnant with their first child and Sammy is step-dad to a young son, so he carves in his Burnaby home through all seasons. He spends quite a bit of time outdoors in a jumpsuit because his work continues selling well at Eagle Spirit Gallery.

“I learned to carve from Alfred Robertson, David Robertson, and Jackson Robertson,” Sammy said. Behind the traditional art is the responsibility to know the meaning of the characters being carved and to study the mythologies that lie behind these surreal images of the Pacific Coast. In the animistic view, the animals in some of the images have powers and responsibilities. There are mythological creatures in this art form as well, and over the course of time, Sammy, like many coastal artists, has made contemporary expressions out of the imagery.

Sometimes the art has a political nature, so, in the political view, the clan images are composed to speak about national identity and jurisdiction. Many of the coastal images are combined into totem poles to make a “Coat of Arms” according to Beau Dick, another Northwest Coast carver of renown (also of Kingcome Inlet)

Regarding contemporary use of the coastal images, Jackson Robertson is a promoter of the unique art form on the coast. He hosts a two-day carving course at The China Steps in Nanaimo, open to the public. A session includes a pair of 5-hour sittings on consecutive Saturdays (11 A.M. to 4 P.M). Jackson makes it easy for students to explore their carving talents. “Cut-outs are distributed, and the students shape it out, and an artist is born,” he explained. The studio is located at B-22 Victoria Crescent in Nanaimo, and the current fee is $65.