Putting Coast Salish art on the map, globally
Artist Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw Rick Harry is mentoring a new generation of Indigenous artists.
He was the youngest in the whole class. Decades ago, when Rick Harry (Xwalacktun) first became interested in art, his mother took him to Howe Sound Secondary in Squamish for an after-school painting class.
The precocious five-year-old had been doodling ever since he was inspired by his older brother’s drawings, but hadn’t yet decided to make art his life’s work. His mother thought it was time for him to learn some new skills, so she enrolled him in a course that she thought would challenge him.
As Harry settled into the classroom, he realized that he was completely surrounded by adults. This wasn’t a class for children, he realized – this was something serious. He immediately understood that his mother had high expectations of him and, as a devoted son, he was determined to meet them.
Looking back on that moment, the 64-year-old Coast Salish artist credits this Howe Sound class with launching his decades-long quest to become one of the most celebrated Canadian artists of his generation: Xwalacktun , an ancestral surname he received from his father.
“I feel real pride in this name. When I received it, my whole family received names. We stood on blankets and agreed that when we leave these blankets, we will walk in a different way. We were told, ‘Don’t smear this name that has passed through many generations before you.’ With that came the responsibility of behaving in the best way possible, doing good,” Harry said.
This awareness of his place in a multi-generational lineage was crucial in informing Harry’s life work, with each story he uses in his carvings or drawings creating a connection between him and the oral storytellers of the past. Early in his career he was producing work in a more Nordic style, as that was all he had discovered, but that was before he encountered the work of Charles Elliott (Temosen) in 1990.
Harry had never seen Coast Salish art before, and Elliott’s work resonated deeply with him. He immediately began producing works exclusively in this style, and it was these designs that would eventually be mass-produced when selected to help celebrate the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Suddenly, his work had reached a global reach he had never dreamed of.
“Our merchandising for The Bay has really stood out around the world. My designs were on everything: towels, tea towels, t-shirts, jackets, decorative coins. I felt so proud to see Salish art on the world stage, and it really uplifted me and the Salish people,” Harry says, noting that the event sparked an avalanche of interest in the works of art. Coast Salish art and a significant increase in the number of artists working within this genre.
It’s hard to sum up a multi-faceted career like Harry’s. One of the first major projects he worked on was at Expo 86, when he collaborated with another artist to create a giant metal thunderbird with a wingspan of 40 feet. Locally, he has collaborated with nearly 10 school boards on various artistic projects, and he also takes the time to meet students and share his skills. If you visit Vancouver General Hospital, you’ll find one of Harry’s intricately carved totem poles that is illuminated from within and towers above your head. He installed a metal sculpture that frames the sunset at Ambleside Beach and created a concrete support for a pedestrian crossing carved with animals. The mayor of West Vancouver is set to present him with an award for his contributions to art and culture, which he can add to a collection that includes a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal.
“I work with wood, stone, jewellery, glass and metal. I just love making art, whether I’m tasked with working with someone and designing something or doing it entirely for myself. What we need to make sure of is to bring it to life. It’s not just something beautiful that you can hang on the wall. He must have a backbone,” said Harry.
“And that’s the story. History can unite past, present and future. It conveys messages that can help future generations. My messages are directed to human unity, spirituality and the environment. Because we need all of these things to survive.
Harry is a member of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw, or Squamish Nation, and belongs to one of its most important families. Her brother is chancellor at Quest University, her mother just received an honorary degree, and her sister is a well-known drum maker, blogger, and oral storyteller. He is well aware that his family environment has played an important role in his development as an artist, as has his community. He learned first-hand from a number of generous Indigenous artists growing up, which is why he is so passionate about passing on his knowledge.
These days, Harry has a custom-designed studio in his North Shore home, but he travels all over the Lower Mainland collaborating on art projects, working on installations and teaching classes. On May 11, he received an honorary doctorate from the Emily Carr University of Art and Design.
When he got on stage, he knew he wasn’t the only one who put it there: it takes a whole village to raise an artist.
“I said, ‘I’m so honored to be in front of you. I’m also so happy to have so many people behind me and around me who have helped me get to where I am today, like my primary, secondary and college teachers, people from my community. There were so many people who helped me get here, including my mother,” he says.
“I want to lead the way for others to follow, to some degree, but then I want them to lead their own. other young people who are doing very well in the art world now, so it’s creating a nice wave of artwork coming ashore.