Station: the art of creation

Arthur Vickers - Andrew Leong
Arthur Vickers
— image credit: Andrew Leong

On a sunny, crisp November morning I fell under the spell of First Nations oral tradition, and time stood still.

I was sitting with Arthur Vickers in his gallery, beside the Masthead Restaurant in Cowichan Bay. With thick, old wooden beams overhead, and white walls covered in the finest works of art depicting haunting West Coast First Nations imagery, Vickers talked with me about his creative process and shared stories his grandfather told him when he was growing up.

Vickers was born in the coastal Tsimshian village of Kitkatla on Dolphin Island off the north coast of British Columbia. His mother was English Canadian, his father was of Heiltsuk, Tsimshian and Haida First Nations ancestry. He spent many of his younger days with his grandfather, a carver and fisherman, and the man who inspired Vickers to live a creative life.

Though recognized at an early age for his talent, it wasn’t until his mid-40s that Vickers put down his construction tools and became a full-time artist. He works primarily in serigraph, pencil sketching, carving, and low-relief 24-karat gold leaf — a technique he developed, creating designs influenced by his First Nations heritage.

He and his wife Jessica — who manages the administrative aspects of his business — converted the old boat-building house in Cowichan Bay into the Arthur Vickers Gallery, where they show his work in a comfortable and inviting space.

He received the Order of British Columbia in 2008 in recognition of his original artwork and for his charitable efforts with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, among others. He has also received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the University of Victoria and a Distinguished Alumni award from Camosun College.

One of his most famous pieces is the Leadership Desk, commissioned by Gordon Campbell for the premier’s office in Victoria, where it resides today. The desk is in the form of a bentwood box, and is made from red cedar found — after an exhaustive search everywhere else — in the boathouse that now houses his gallery.

Vickers is an enchanting storyteller. He tells stories at a natural and deliberate slow pace so his audience can absorb the meaning in each phrase. He keeps eye contact and smiles often.

The stories he shares reveal the source of his values, rooted in the natural order and symbiotic relationship humans have with each other and the environment.

The lunch hour passed us by without notice. Nearly four hours later, I remembered I had responsibilities outside of the gallery. In that magical setting, in the presence of a great man, discussing the intimate topics of family, honesty, and connectedness, it’s a wonder my eyes welled up only twice.

What follows is a short excerpt of our meeting that day.


MM: What’s your creative process?

AV: My creative time is now. It’s early in the morning. By the time afternoon is here, I’m done. I wake up with a head and heart full of dreams of what I’m going to create. It’s going from that dream state, if you will, to, “Oh, I better hurry up and get this done before it’s gone.”

MM: So you roll out of bed in your pajamas and bedhead and get straight to work?

AV: No, I sit. For an hour or maybe two hours before I wake Jessica up and talk to her about what I just dreamt. It’s through the subconscious state — which is the dream state — that we acquire what it is we’re going to do. It’s the wisdom in being able to achieve that. Sometimes when we’re awake you think, “Well, I can’t do that.”

MM: Logic kicks in.

AV: Well, have I tried? Wisdom and knowledge come through experience, as well. If I don’t expand my creative process then I become stagnant. Just doing the same thing over and over again.

MM. Do you go through periods of that? Like there is writer’s block, is there artist’s block?

AV: No.

MM: Never?

AV: Never. I always have six or eight pieces going at the same time. It’s really hard to turn it off.

MM: If you could work harder and faster you would still have more to do?

AV: Absolutely. Anytime you reach a point of stopping in the creative process, it’s usually when you think. The creative process doesn’t come from my head it comes from my heart. It’s all feel. So my intellect doesn’t have a part in the process. I’m working with feeling when I’m creating.

MM: How did you start working with gold leaf?

AV: It goes way, way back to seeing a King Tut exhibition in Seattle in the late ‘70s. Going in and viewing pieces that were over 2,000 years old and they were busts and pieces carved out of wood, then sized and gold-leafed and burnished.

MM: Burnished means?

AV: Using tools to make it look like a pure piece of gold.

MM: I didn’t know it wasn’t solid gold.

AV: See? Neither did I. At the time, the curator was talking about these pieces and I was sort of a smart-alecky builder and I said, “That looks like it was done yesterday.” And he looked at me and said, “Well, this piece is over 2,000 years old. And if it’s kept in this condition it will look like this 20,000 years from now.”

MM: Wow.

AV: That’s exactly what I said. I’m looking at these pieces and thinking somebody created these over 2,000 years ago. It was a recording of their period of time and here it is today. We’re witnessing something created that long ago. They are recording their history, as far as I’m concerned. That stuck with me. Working in the building industry, I got to work creatively with my hands and loved it. But I’ve done my art ever since I was a little boy.

MM: Do you have an idea how a piece is going to look?

AV: Feel. The look comes from the feel, I believe. Of course, when you’re creating the piece it comes from what you’re taught. In my head, I have to look at it and think it’s going to encompass a scene of what I envisioned. Once I have that, the area I’m going to produce this piece in, whether it’s a scene or First Nations design, or a carving, it comes from within.

MM: Is that part of the feeling?

AV: Absolutely. The first time you do it, you have no idea. You just have a feeling that it’s going to be able to do this. If you look at the low relief work of the gold, if it was just gold leafed flat on a piece of paper, it doesn’t have the feeling of depth. When the light hits the edges, you all of a sudden feel the depth. You have people walk around the gallery and they may glance at things and maybe they’ll stop at a piece and look at it — spend some time really looking at the piece of art. What has happened is they have connected with the feeling and intent the creator of the piece had. There is a connection that completes the cycle of the creation of art.

MM: How did your parents meet?

AV: My mother went up north to Prince Rupert to a doctor’s office and asked if she could be of assistance in a First Nations community. She had two sisters who were missionaries; one in China and the other in Borneo.

MM: Did she ever explain what drew her to that?

AV: I think she wanted some experience in the First Nations communities before she went abroad, to follow her sister to China but….

MM: …that turned out different.

AV: Turned out different (laughs). Mom stepped off the boat in the little village of Kikatla on Sept. 3, 1943 and met a whole lot of children — from those too young to walk, up to about nine or 10 years old. She was a little taken aback so she asked, “Where are your parents?” They were working in the canneries along the Skeena River, and some were out in the fall camps catching fish to smoke and dry for food for the winter. “Who is looking after you?” “Ya-a and Ts’i’i.” Grandpa and Granny.

MM: Back in the good old days when grandparents were taking care of the kids.

AV: And she thought it was really strange at first but then you realize you have the wisdom of the elders and the preciousness of the young minds and children. It was perfect. This was something mom realized was really quite amazing. I remember this really clearly from when I was a child: a mom and dad with children have this emotional roller coaster that’s happening all the time, but when Granny and Grandpa come around, you sure don’t want to upset them.

MM: They have this sense of authority.

AV: It’s wonderful. At the time, the teacher really didn’t want to stay in such a remote community, so she left. The chief of the council at the time asked mom if she could teach. Mom said, “Yes, I can, but I don’t have my teaching certificate.” “But can you teach?” “Yes, I can.” “Will you teach?” So Mom took on the duties of teaching in the community Grade 1 to Grade 7. She eventually met dad and they were married and eldest brother Roy came along.

MM: How many siblings do you have?

AV: There are six of us. For me, my grandfather and uncles and aunts were real supporters. My grandpa was a canoe carver, so I was raised in quite a creative life. His encouragement for me was unbelievable. As I’m growing up, I’m starting to learn from him. He sketched with a pencil before he carved. I used to hold my pencil — I still do — the way he held his because he had a very light hand, and I do in my sketches as well. He used to carve little canoes. I always thought he was carving them for me. I would put a nail in them and tie a string on them and put a stick and tow them around the beaches and proceed to lose them. What he was actually doing was carving models, scale models of the huge ocean-going canoes.

MM: And did he carve the large canoes as well?

AV: Absolutely, until they put motors in boats. When they put motors in boats, his purpose in life changed forever. Nobody needed canoes anymore. He just adjusted by learning how to be a fisherman, where I learned a lot as well. As a young boy I just wanted to go out fishing with him all the time, and did so. His stories of the history of the coast of British Columbia and all the places he had been were unbelievable, and he’d repeat them and say, “You must remember these so you can tell other people.” I loved it.

MM: Did your siblings feel the same?

AV: I think so. But I kind of felt like he was mine so I hoarded the time as much as I could. He really encouraged the creative process. He’d have stories like, “We born with only one thing: feeling. We hungry, we cry. We happy, we laugh.” Intellect comes in our pre-teens and we start thinking. If we’re hungry we have to learn how to cook and fish. But the creative process we’re all born with, it’s feeling. And he always encouraged education. “Today the world is changing so you have to learn as much as you can but keep your creative side alive.”

MM: When did you leave Kikatla?

AV: Grade two. We moved to Hazelton, which is in the interior of the north, incredibly cold.

MM: For work?

AV: For work and mom teaching. With that many kids, seasonal work, fishing on the coast, is a little challenging. I was devastated because I didn’t have my grandpa and family. But I saw a lot of new things. I’d sketch all the new things I had never seen. Horses.

MM: Snow.

AV: Snow. Vehicles, not boats. There were new things to capture on paper.

MM: Were you a good student?

AV: I think so. Having the support of educators in school was amazing to me. I sketched a band of horses and my Grade 4 teacher said, “Who did this?” I said, “I did.” He said, “Where’s your mom?” “Home.” He needed to find the truth in it so went to Mom and Mom said, “Yes he did.” He said, “This boy’s going to be an artist.” Mom said, “You never know.”

MM: She was leaving your options open.

AV: My Grade 7 industrial arts teacher was a German pilot who was shot down and imprisoned in Africa, had one eye, was a painter, incredibly creative. He wanted to go hunting and saw that my dad had a .22 and said, “How about I trade you a painting of that mountain for the .22 rifle?” And I’m just thinking: please do it. Dad did, so he brought his easel and paints and canvas and painted the Roche De Boule out of our living room window and I was overwhelmed by what he was doing. I wanted to know more about it.

One day in school he said to a few of us, “Would you like to carve? I have a Zulu chief’s mask and you can carve it.” OK. So he proceeded to cut these pieces of Honduras mahogany, these beautiful pieces of Honduras mahogany, into a 2 by 10. He put the mask up and gave us the carving tools and said go ahead. Because I witnessed my grandfather carving, I got really excited about it. Sat there and worked the whole year carving this Zulu chief’s mask and finishing it. I had no idea what I did with it. But I got to do this and I loved it.

We lost mom in 1995 to ovarian cancer and I was privileged to have her at the house because she wanted to stay at home to pass away. And she said, “I have something for you.”

MM: No.

AV: She said I have a box with your name on it. So I went and got this box and there was this carving of this Zulu chief’s mask from when I was 12 years old. I turned into a 12-year-old on the spot because you remember what you did in the process. I was really, really grateful for that. When I’m asked to go to schools, I take my Zulu chief’s mask. I encourage parents who have children who are creative to just keep the pieces and put them away.

MM: Raising children, we’re waiting to see what their “thing” is.

AV: Absolutely, and it’s supporting the good in it.

MM: The challenge is supporting it even though it’s something we don’t understand.

AV: They’re going to go through their experience in life no matter what the rest of us think or see or feel. I think the blessing for me was that I had so much support in what I was doing. My grandfather would never say to me, “No, no, no, don’t hold the knife like that.” He would just say, “Maybe if you held the knife like this it would work a little bit better.”

MM: He let you make the choice.

AV: He could very caringly show me without telling me.

MM: He knew the art to parenting.

AV: The creative process that he relayed is completely reverse to how we learn today. I was never, ever given anything that I hadn’t accomplished before. So, if we took this bowl, you see the hook-knifing detail on the outside? It’s a finishing texture. Well, before this was hook-knifed, it was smooth. When my grandfather had almost completely finished carving the bowl, he would give me a hook knife and say, “Just take it and go like this all the way around. When you finish, just bring it to me.”

And I’d take it to him and he’d pick it up and go, “Grandson, look what you made! This is beautiful. It’s finished.” The next time, the outside wouldn’t quite be done, and he’d be sketching the lines in it. He’d say, “You take this adze, and chip like this all the way around. Try not to go over the line. You can feel when there’s bumps. When you feel that bump, just chip it off.” I’d go do it and take it back to him and he’d say, “Now you just take that little hook knife, and you make those little marks all the way around.” I’d take it back to him again, finished. He’d just teach in reverse.

MM: So smart.

AV: We’re not given the problem to solve, something that we hadn’t accomplished and pushed. It was something that you’d done. A child says, “Oh I don’t know how to do this.” “Well you can figure it out.” We’re already putting that amazing amount of pressure on, right? Rather than just the tiniest little thing that encourages that development in the creative process. If we did that intellectually as well, there would be huge changes.

MM: I see there are empty spaces on the walls.

AV: Yeah, those pieces found homes.

MM: How do you feel when one leaves?

AV: My purpose in this is done.

MM: Do you feel that way when it’s finished? Or do you feel that way once it’s left?

AV: When it’s done. A lot of people struggle with the creative process but if your purpose is to create, then you need to create. You don’t hold on to creations, because they’re not yours when they are done. They go on a whole new journey in life and you never know where it’s going to end. You’re always honoured that someone collects your work.

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