Internationally recognized Coast Salish artists create a conversation piece with their new totem pole for the Vancouver School Board.
Beneath a steel frame canopy on lawn outside the Vancouver School Board lies a 44-foot red cedar from upper Squamish. At the top hovers a thunderbird, wings folded upwards in a full dive to deliver a message. As the carvers work, more symbols and figures emerge and the pile of wood shavings grows.
The totem is the latest project by Squamish and Kwakwaka’wakw artist Xwalacktun (born Rick Harry) and his son James Harry. Based around Truth and Reconciliation, the totem was funded by the school board to promote knowledge and learning about First Nation peoples as well as a respect for Mother Earth.
Just off Granville Street on the bike lanes of West 10th Avenue, the spot sees a high volume of foot traffic. Xwalacktun takes a rare moment to rest in a lawn chair in the sun. As people pass, they peer in curiously, or stop to chat. “A lot of interested people have been coming around,” he said.
He points out the small globe at the top of the pole, clutched between the wings of the thunderbird. “It’s coming down fast to let us know that we need to treat Mother Earth better,” said Xwalacktun as he verbally works his way down the pole. He points to the frog – the communicator and bearer of ancient knowledge and to the Coast Salish eye. “To remind us that we’re being watched by the creator, the ancestors, our community, family, friends and ourselves,” he explained.
The project holds a special place for the artist as his first big carving project with his 29-year-old son, James Harry, who is working on the pole from the opposite end. The process feels symbolic with the two generations work towards each other. His son is working on a bear holding a woman and an eagle, symbolizing power within and vision for change. The work combines a number of styles and promotes diverse perspectives and communities meeting in the middle.
The two are joined by Xwalacktun’s friend and assistant, Frank Darier Baziere, who hails from France and has been working with the artist for the past six years. “This is for Truth and Reconciliation after all,” said Xwalacktun. “It’s nice to have someone else who isn’t First Nations working on it as well.”
Xwalacktun participated in his first carving activity when he was 12 and has been pursuing the art form for over 48 years. In 1982 he graduated from Emily Carr, and today he is internationally recognized. He has received numerous awards for his contributions, including an Order of British Columbia in 2012, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Award in 2012, and BC’s Achievement Award as well as the Arthur G. Hayden Medal in 2016. In Vancouver alone he has been commissioned for countless pieces, including several notable sets of carved wooden doors at Emily Carr, the Vancouver School Board, BC Hydro and the Gordon Smith Gallery in North Vancouver.
“It’s not hard for me – I just allow myself to create and let it happen,” said Xwalacktun. “I focus on the message that I want out of it and the messages start coming out even just through talking and dialogue with other people new things and ideas come up.” Even as he speaks, another pedestrian approaches curiously.