World-renowned master carver Dempsey Bob recently visited the North Pacific Cannery Historic Site to photograph the site for a coming book, to bestow a $1,000 donation to the organization, and to announce his coming artist residency at the Port Edward museum.
“Dempsey Bob is truly a national treasure,” says Ann Leach, general manager of the cannery. “The cannery is operated by the Port Edward Historical Society and as a non-profit, any donation means the world to us, but a donation from Dempsey Bob is quite important. It’s very significant because he truly embodies the North Coast. He also embodies the history of canneries and the people who lived and worked here for so so long.”
The Tahltan-Tlingit artist has collections exhibited all over the world, including the Columbia Museum of Ethnology, the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Ethnology in Japan, and Canada House in London.
In 2013, he was appointed Officer of the Order of Canada – one of the nation’s highest civilian honours – and in 2021 received the Governor General’s Award for Artistic Achievement in Visual and Media Arts.
“We are excited to welcome Dempsey Bob working on-site likely in 2022, so visitors and guests of the community can witness a master carver at work,” Leach says.
Bob told The Northern View that he aspires to do a show on the cannery days and working with salmon to be created at the location where he grew up in the 1950s.
“I want to record this because we are the last cannery generation of people who worked there, fished there, lived there. I realized that some day people wouldn’t even know that history. Our people have been working in the canneries for more than 100 years.”
Constructed in 1889, the North Pacific Cannery is the last remaining historical cannery and will undergo some renovations to the boat repair shop for Dempsey to set up his carving studio.
Listing almost every member in his family, from grandparents down to cousins and himself, he says everyone worked in the cannery and it’s important to document through art the culture of the North Coast.
“I want to do some statements about our salmon because we are losing it. The salmon are becoming less and less. I want to do some installation pieces,” he says, describing how he’ll use an old suitcase with fishing elements as the central theme to a carving surrounding it while featuring different styles and elements of the Northwest coast.
“(Carving) is very critical, we almost lost it as a whole art form because we were not allowed to do it,” Bob says. “… It is critical now to retain it. Culture is so important. Culture is what makes us human. Culture makes us civilized.”
Currently, Bob is working on a book catalogue of his collection pieces. An author is documenting his artistic career which started in 1969 when he was about 20 years old. He learned his craft from Haida artist Freda Diesing, and Bob was a founding member of the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art.
Starting in 2022, a 60- to 70-piece touring selection of Bob’s work will start in the Audian Museum in Whistler and travel to Toronto, Montreal and back to Kelowna.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but the revival of the Northwest Coast – a lot came from Port Edward because we had about 20 artists who came from the cannery village,” Bob says. “Top artists like Freda Deising, Bob Yeomans, Norman Tait, Bob Jackson, Linda Bob, Virginia Bob, Dale Campbell, Terry Campbell all of these artists are still carving today. They all came out of that village. It is really important that history is not forgotten.”
“I’m thankful for the people working here (at NPC) for doing a good job trying to save the cannery and preserve it for the future. It’s going to be important in the future for our people, not only us – it’s our history.”
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