Obituary: Hereditary chief Beau Dick renowned for his art

Celebrated Kwakwaka’wakw artist Beau Dick, who has died at age of 61, is being remembered for his creative talent and for his devotion to his culture.

Dick, a hereditary chief, lived in Alert Bay for much of his life, but also spent time in Vancouver, Haida Gwaii and Kingcome Inlet, said Bill Cranmer, who chairs the board of directors at Alert Bay’s U’Mista Cultural Centre.

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“His artwork was recognized all around the world,” said Cranmer, also a hereditary chief. “Not only that, he was quite knowledgeable about our ceremonies. He not only carved masks but he knew what the masks were used for.”

Dick also carved totem poles, made drums and painted. His work is on display at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology and the Canadian Museum of History.

“Artistically, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do,” said Rande Cook, who knew Dick growing up in Alert Bay.

Lately, Dick had been in hospital after suffering a stroke, he said.

Dick’s work has been very popular, Cranmer said.

“Most of his work was by commission, and if any of his work was for sale anywhere it didn’t stay there for sale for very long.”

Dick was in the news in 2013 when he staged a symbolic “shaming” of the federal government on the lawn of the B.C. legislature after walking from Quatsino, near Port Hardy, to Victoria with family and supporters. The shaming, highlighting First Nations rights and environmental issues, involved the breaking of a copper, a metal plaque that symbolizes justice, truth and balance.

Local artist Carey Newman said that Dick, his cousin, was from the generation ahead of him as an artist.

“He was someone that I really looked up to, not just as an artist but as a person who really knew how to stand up for indigenous rights, a person who was willing to take a principled stand for the environment and to really push the conversation around what nation-to-nation means, what reconciliation means.

“He was an inspiration, not just in his art but in his thinking and his action.”

Newman said he was struck by Dick’s gentle and welcoming nature at a recent family potlatch in Alert Bay when he helped him complete a mask he had made for the occasion, then led him through the ceremony.

Dick’s art has many facets, Newman said. “You see the tradition and you see the soul, but you also see incredible innovation and vision at the same time.”

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