I grew up with art, it was just something I did and enjoyed since childhood. Painting, drawing, making things out of clay and other materials had always been pleasurable, absorbing and unpretentious activities for me. I also loved looking at art books and going to see art in museums, whenever my parents took me. This all changed after I got to art college. What had until then been a spontaneous, creative and hopeful activity in which I could lose myself for hours now took place in an environment filled with anxiety, insecurity and competitiveness.
Much of the contemporary art I saw celebrated around me, in magazines and galleries seemed shallow, market-driven and uninteresting. Rather than a gratifying and intuitive activity I felt a lot of art to be anecdotal, full of artifice and self-indulgent. I searched through the history and sociology of art for reasons of why this had come to be, writing my masters thesis on the emergence of the cult of the artist and the contemporary institutions of aesthetic contemplation (museums, galleries and so on). I was curious of how the idea and practice of the ‘art object’, as that which is removed from the flow of day to day life and social activity to become its own separate domain, had been achieved.
I did not have the language then, nor the experiences or the readings, to appreciate and describe the role of art in different cultures. I could not see then how good, or great, art is grounded in place, in the people and culture, in history, and how it is nourished by these ingredients. This is one of the important things I learnt whilst in Terrace and especially in conversations with Dempsey.
Dempsey’s art is grounded in the grammatical forms and stories of the Northwest coast. It is also an art that emerges from this place, from the shapes of the mountains, the winding curves of the rivers, the ovoid shapes of the pebbles by the streams, the towering cedars and the animals that populate this region.
We spent a lot of time with Dempsey driving to the Nisga’a museum, going to the Kitselas Canyon, strolling across the dry river by Terrace and eating together on various occasions. Often Dempsey would point out features of the landscape guiding our eyes to the shapes he saw in the mountains, or the swirl of the flowing river, or the roundness of a stone. These, he said, are where the grammar of Northwest coast art comes from, the ovoid shapes which we then began to see everywhere.
Grounded in this grammar of this region Dempsey, like a number of other accomplished artists from the Northwest coast, innovates and pushes the boundaries of this art form creating more intricate designs and forms, stretching his skills as a carver. But Dempsey is also an artist between worlds, that of his Tahltan Nation for whom he continues to make ceremonial objects, totems and carvings that become part of a living cultural practice, and that of the international art market, where his objects come to acquire another set of meanings, values and functions.
In Dempsey’s studio we saw the piece he is working on now, a beautiful face with smaller figures emerging from it. The sleeping unfinished sculpture is surrounded by hundreds of chisels, waiting to wake it up. Around the walls of the studios dozens of images serve as inspiration, many of these are of old pieces from the Northwest coast, but as many are of European art, especially Van Gogh and Modigliani.
My time in Terrace was also a kind of healing from my falling out of love with art that happened in art college. I loved being here and talking to such committed artists who came from a place where art still felt very alive. I loved the generosity of these artists, and especially Dempsey, who shared with us their stories, inspiration, and aspiration for their communities and this art form. Art comes from place, Dempsey would say. And he was not just referring to the art of this region but also that of his favourite artist Van Gogh who drew his energy from the landscapes and people of southern Europe. Through teaching others at the School, Dempsey, Ken, Stan and Dean are opening up the path for a new generation to also connect to place and to its stories (and to culture, history and identity) through a particular way of seeing and making.