Songhees artist and educator Butch Dick was honoured this week with a lifetime achievement award from Leadership Victoria — the first aboriginal elder to receive the award.
He also helped unveil a massive mural at Government and Pembroke streets. The art piece is the latest in the more than two dozen public art projects that Dick has created or helped to mentor in the capital region.
Dick has been described as a bridge between Coast Salish art and culture and the many communities he works in. He says he’s motivated by the teachings he shares and, at nearly 70 years old, he has no plans to slow down.
Everyone in Victoria has likely admired a piece of art by Butch Dick, maybe without even knowing it. The Songhees elder is one of the most prolific public artists and educators in Greater Victoria.
His work, from murals to carvings, can be found throughout downtown Victoria, in James Bay, Esquimalt, at the University of Victoria, on Songhees territory and in the West Shore. Dick also plays an educational role when it comes to Coast Salish heritage and culture.
“He’s not only a master carver and artist but he is a teacher and mentor with a long history of personal commitment in this area,” said Michele Wilson, who chairs the Leadership Victoria selection committee that honoured Dick with a lifetime-achievement award this month.
“The fact that he’s so inspiring and a visionary, especially for youth, made him by far the best choice.”
Wilson said Dick is the first First Nations elder to receive the award.
In his office at the Songhees Wellness Centre, Dick said he was happy to receive recognition from the community, but said: “My greatest achievement is my family.” The 69-year-old has eight children, 31 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
He said he and his wife, Irene, look forward to large family gatherings where “everyone puts their cellphones in a box and talks to each other.”
After retiring from teaching in the public school system about nine years ago, Dick fills his days with art projects, working as the Songhees education liaison.
“I look to teachings, to portray teachings in art,” he said. “In many ways, I feel like somebody is guiding me in the background.”
Dick was born in Victoria, one of six children raised by his mother. His father died before he was born. His great-grandfather was an artist, but Dick said his interest in art stemmed mostly from drawing comic-book figures.
His education ran the gamut from residential school on Kuper (now Penelakut) Island to Indian day school and public and private school in Victoria. He studied design at the Vancouver School of Art in the 1960s — and still has the psychedelic posters to prove it. He continued his design studies at Camosun College, where an introduction to artist and hereditary chief Tony Hunt marked a turning point in his life. “I’d tried [Coast Salish art] before, but it really didn’t work,” Dick said. “He taught us the basic shapes and animal shapes and how they work together.”
Hunt, a world-renowned artist who has taught many First Nations artists throughout B.C., said Dick stood out as a skilled illustrator and was enthusiastic about learning . “At that time, there was not a lot of Coast Salish art around Victoria. Now there is, thanks to guys like Butch who also taught their children and now grandchildren,” Hunt said.
In his career, Dick worked as a gardener at the Empress Hotel, as a youth counsellor and as executive director of the Victoria Native Friendship Centre. His first paying job as an artist was designing Christmas cards. “People seemed to like the things I produced, so I thought maybe I could make a living,” he said.
He developed an interest in education when he was asked to teach a First Nations arts and culture class at Shoreline Middle School in the early 1980s. The classes were open to aboriginal and non-aboriginal students. Dick mixed making art with local storytelling and First Nations language lessons.
“It really grew on me,” he said. “I wanted to help create awareness.”
Dick went on to teach at every school in the district and helped develop First Nations curriculum used across the province and country. The first large totem pole he created was at James Bay Community School, with students watching the process. His artwork and mentored projects are at schools all over the region, from public schools to universities, as well as in public places such as the Inner Harbour, Centennial Square and the Craigflower Bridge.
Dick said he enjoys the process of collaborating on a concept with an organization and school.
“I like to sit and sketch. It’s very relaxing to me.”
Dick uses the area and its history and context to develop his creations. The loon carved from a 300-year-old red cedar that stands at the entrance of the Songhees Wellness Centre represents a helper in traditional culture. And the house poles that stand behind it tell stories about the area, such as the figure of an octopus or “devil fish” that depicts a warning about a dangerous local spot to swim.
He is working on a six-metre red cedar welcome pole for an Oak Bay community group that will stand at the new $50-million Oak Bay High School now under construction. The pole is called Sno’uyutth, meaning “bringing good energy,” and will pay tribute to the traditional territory of the Lekwungen people (Songhees and Esquimalt), as well as the natural surroundings, such as Bowker Creek and local wildlife.
Dick has been described as a bridge between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities.
“He’s a wonderful example for so many people,” said Carolyn Crippen, who was on the selection committee for the award and is an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Victoria. “He epitomizes ‘servant leadership,’ someone who works for the greater good but in their own quiet way.”
Dick said some of his most challenging and rewarding work has been as a teacher in his own community, and he has no plans to slow down.
“There’s a dilemma that kids who live off reserve tend to do better [in school]. I’m not sure why, if it’s systemic racism or the demands of home life,” he said. “I try to make sure everybody understands the systems and boundaries in First Nations communities. I try to focus on the positive.”
Dick said teaching is about getting people to recognize their own accomplishments and then building on them.
“It is always about identity.”