Dempsey Bob has evolved one of the most distinctive carving styles of any artist working on the Northwest Coast. Although he has made chiefs’ hats and boxes, speakers’ staffs, monumental wall panels, memorial poles, rattles, jewellery and free-standing figures, many of his works, especially those executed in fine-grained alder wood, riff on the format of the ceremonial masks of his ancestors. These, the Tahltan-Tlingit artist has developed in increasingly complex and deeply sculptural ways. He spins aspects of the “traditional” carving of the northern Northwest Coast First Nations— frontality, bilateral symmetry, the use of shallowly incised form lines and ovoids—to highly individualistic ends. While this extensive solo exhibition, “Wolves: The Art of Dempsey Bob,” is organized thematically rather than chronologically, it is fascinating to pick out the formal devices and sculptural innovations that have come to characterize his art over the years.
Such innovations include the articulation of human and animal features through deeper, finer and more smoothly polished carving rather than through the application of paint; the asymmetrical torqueing of form towards a three-quarters view of his subjects; and what Curtis Collins, who co-curated the show with Sarah Milroy, describes as the “baroque” complexity of many transforming faces and intertwined figures. Bob has also put his personal stamp upon the diagnostic features of the ancestral beings he depicts, whether Wolf, Eagle, Bear or Raven. Particularly notable is his treatment of the eyes, which are heavylidded and half-closed, imbuing his subjects with a curiously withholding expression. More recently, the eyes are narrowed and upwardslanted. Both treatments remind me of the way cats will very slowly blink at you as they suss you out, deciding whether or not to trust you. The natural and supernatural characters Bob carves regard you with the same guarded scrutiny, with a gaze that seems to be sleepy or sly but is, paradoxically, aware and judicious—and a little bit amused.
The title “Wolves” alludes not only to a frequent subject of Dempsey Bob but also, and significantly, to the clan to which he belongs through matrilineal descent. The exhibition was jointly organized by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and the Audain Art Museum (AAM), and is the most comprehensive survey of this artist’s career to date, covering the years 1974 to 2022. A handsome publication, Dempsey Bob In His Own Voice, accompanies the show, its text composed of autobiographical anecdotes, personal observations and cultural commentary by the artist rather than interpretative or analytical essays by curators and academics. It is richly illustrated with images of Bob’s work along with historic and contemporary photos of people and places meaningful to him. Born in Telegraph Creek, on the Stikine River in northern British Columbia, Bob did most of his growing up in or near Prince Rupert and currently lives in Terrace, BC.
Bob is succinct about the devastating impacts of colonization, missionizing, disease, residential schools and cultural theft that occurred on the Northwest Coast after the arrival of Europeans. He also describes the complete absence from his community of the historical and traditional art of his people during his early years, and the struggles he and other Indigenous artists of his generation had in recovering the teachings embedded in their material culture. Bob’s formal art education began almost incidentally: a friend persuaded him—nagged him, really—to attend carving classes led by the renowned Haida artist and teacher Freda Diesing at the Friendship House in Prince Rupert. Previously, he had enjoyed working with wood in a practical way, but it had not occurred to him that he might be an artist. Diesing, it seems, called his vocation into being. She became not only Bob’s mentor but also his advocate, friend and important early influence, as seen in his 1974 Old Woman Mask. Diesing’s handling of both the subject and form can be seen in her 1973 mask, Old Woman with Labret, which is on display in one of the AAM’s permanent collection galleries and is also illustrated, in miniature, in the book. Encouraged by Diesing, Bob went on to study at the Gitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art in ‘Ksan with Gitxsan artists Earl Muldon, Walter Harris and Victor Mowatt. Diesing also directed Bob to take up a teaching position in Ketchikan, Alaska, where he could connect with his Tlingit heritage and study old Tlingit poles first-hand rather than through photographs in books.
Perhaps the greatest influences on his art, however, were the oral histories told to him by his elders—his mother, grandfather and great-aunts. Only a few of the works in the show, such as his 1989 Mosquito Mask, with its red-stained features, are explicitly linked to Tahltan and Tlingit stories, either by didactic panels or by Bob’s recollections in the book. However, the works themselves are suggestive of narratives through the interactions and transformations of the characters depicted. Much is revealed, too, in the unusual portrait mask The Smart One. This personage is described by Bob as the keeper of the stories, esteemed by his fellow villagers for his powerful memory and predilection for learning. He is also, it seems, a character who commanded his own realization in mask form through a voice in the artist’s head. Reading Bob’s account of creating this work, it is as if his subject talked himself into existence. Bob doesn’t go as far as claiming “The Smart One” as a name for himself, but he does recount that, in his own family, his elders chose him, even as a young boy, to carry the stories forward. “I see now that those stories all fit together,” he says. “I was lucky, and I was ready.”
Other influences, events and congruities are revealed in the show. Bob’s Hawk Human Portrait Mask, for instance, was inspired by his many trips to New Zealand to visit and work with Maori artists. Carved in totara wood, the mask is notable for its references to Maori facial tattoos, incised and painted a deep aquamarine on the character’s chin and head. The treatment of the lips is also quite distinct from the characteristic broad red mouths of northern Northwest Coast design. Also interesting is Bob’s study of cubism and his fondness for the art of Pablo Picasso, as seen in the 2011 work Transformation. Here, profile and frontal forms are fitted tightly against each other, suggesting changing perspectives and points of view, and facial features are faceted, skewed and asymmetrical. At the same time, this and other recent works of Bob’s—Frog’s World and Eagle, Hawk, and Humans Mask, for instance—seem to allude, in their intricacy and complexity, to those same qualities in Tlingit masks and poles of the late 19th century—what used to be called the “classic” period of northern Northwest Coast art. Whether “classic” or, as Collins would say, “baroque,” they are mesmerizing works in a thoroughly engaging exhibition. ❚
“Wolves: The Art of Dempsey Bob” was at the Audain Art Museum, Whistler, from April 2, 2022, to August 14, 2022. It is scheduled to travel to the Glenbow Museum, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Kelowna Art Gallery.
Robin Laurence is an independent writer, critic and curator, based in Vancouver. She has written essays, reviews and feature articles for local, national and international publications, and is a long-time contributing editor to Border Crossings. She is the 2021 winner of the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing.