First Nations artist Calvin Hunt’s first solo exhibition celebrates family, culture and a giving spirit.
CALVIN HUNT WAS BORN IN 1956 in Alert Bay into what has become a dynasty of renowned figures in Northwest Coast First Nations art and culture. Descended from the celebrated Tlingit ethnologist George Hunt, he is the youngest son of Kwagu’l (Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw) Hereditary Chief Thomas Hunt, and Emma, daughter of the celebrated Mowachaht (Nuu Chah Nulth) Chief and Shaman, Dr Billy, from Yuquot (Friendly Cove). His grandfather, Mungo Martin, is known to anyone who has visited the Royal BC Museum’s Thunderbird Park: from 1952, he worked there as a carver demonstrating Indigenous methods, teaching other First Nations carvers to carry on, and creating artworks, including prominent totem poles in and beyond Victoria. Two years after the potlatch ban was lifted in 1951, Martin held the first potlatch at Wawadiťła (Mungo Martin House), which is on the park grounds and is still in use for such purposes.
Calvin Hunt’s family played a key role in many potlatches and celebrations. His father was a great singer and orator who had retained knowledge passed down from his elders. “Any time there was any kind of culture going on in the city, they would phone my father to help,” Hunt says, “because a lot of families had lost that. So my father was always willing to help—with names, with singing songs, with doing dance presentations.”
The family moved to Victoria when Calvin was young. Being among friends and family of the First Nations youngsters who would hang out at Thunderbird Park, he was carving by the time he was 12—and making a bit of money to boot. “We could get 25 cents for a paddle,” he grins, “which was big money back then.” Two paddles sold equalled a ticket to the Saturday matinee, plus popcorn, pop, and money for the bus ride home. “We were rich! We just thought it was so cool,” he laughs.
It was more than that, though. Every summer, his family returned to Alert Bay for potlatches. “As a child growing up, and you’re seeing this great big mask, and some of these phenomenal dancers you just think, ‘wow, this is so cool. I want to be a part of this,’” he says.
While his three older brothers would become seine boat skippers, Calvin, at age 15 years, announced to his parents that he would become a full-time apprentice to his second cousin Tony Hunt at Arts of the Raven, a thriving Victoria gallery in its day and another of his favourite haunts. To his mother’s initial chagrin, he spent the next ten years learning from his second cousin Tony Hunt and adopted Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw carver John Livingston. They travelled all over Canada, the United States and Europe, working on countless projects and demonstrations. He enjoyed interactions with curious locals in various places: “It was just sharing. It was really pretty easy. We’d get somewhere and just start talking to people,” he relates.
In 1981, he and his wife Marie followed his parents back up Island and, just outside Port Hardy, opened a workshop called The Copper Maker, expanding it into a gallery in 1989. He has carved original poles significant to his family and community, restored aged poles and re-created historical works for important exhibitions that continue to celebrate and expand understanding of Northwest Coast First Nations artwork and culture. With his nephew Mervyn Child, he has carved several canoes as well. For 30 years, he has performed locally and worldwide with the Copper Maker Dancers, for which he also creates masks. All while also creating original contemporary artworks that celebrate the continuum of his culture.
Busy is an understatement, but Hunt is still generous with his skills and time. “A lot of people over the years have asked me to make something for a potlatch and I will gladly do that, because not everybody has a carver in their family,” he says. “It’s a really good feeling in your heart at the end of the day that you’ve helped them. Watching my parents do that growing up, it’s just my way of giving back, as my father had done.”
The joy he derives from sharing the accumulated skills of a 47-year carving career and a lifetime of cultural knowledge will be evident in the works he has done for his exhibition at Alcheringa Gallery (remarkably, his first solo show anywhere). There will be power boards, traditionally used to spectacular effect in a potlatch dance, but compelling works of art in their own right. There will be masks, including a large round moon bound in cedarbark rope, the velvety smooth curves and planes of its face adorned with the formline image of a raven. Ovoids and u-forms in sage green, black and red circle around the face of a moon with mirrored eyes. “It’s the raven releasing the sun and the moon,” Hunt explains, adding that the mirrored eyes were “just something that I wanted to try” based on a historical Tsimshian mask he always found intriguing. The rim of the moon’s glow is painted with images of salmon. “I just thought it would be appropriate to do,” he says, given the ongoing issues with fish farms and salmon habitat we are facing.
Cougar Mask, by Calvin Hunt
Komokwa Mask, by Calvin Hunt
Mourning Mask, by Calvin Hunt
The formline, colour and content are a marriage of traditional and contemporary Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw style, but as we know, Hunt’s ancestry is diverse. A Nuu Chah Nulth “spin-top” mask depicting a serpent exemplifies the flat-planed style and vivid, swirling designs distinct to the western Vancouver Island group. Giving context, Hunt explains, “In the dance presentation, when they come out to bless the floor, the wearer would pull a string that would spin the top and release eagle down, which would float up into the air and land on the floor. What it would do is bless the floor.” The mask celebrates this side of his family; in 1998, he became fourth primary chief of the Mowachaht, the hereditary chieftainship coming from his grandfather Dr Billy. His chief’s name is Nas’am’yus (Nas soom yees), meaning “the waters are always calm around you.”
Hunt’s Tlingit side are present in a large paddle and, among other works, a mask painted the blue of a September sky with delicate black formline, adorned with bear fur and synthetic hair. A feather duster replaces the traditional plume of feathers that emerges vertically from the centre of the mask for some contemporary whimsy. Called a Gitakhanees, meaning “intruder,” it represents the visitors to a potlatch. “I’ve worn this a number of times,” Hunt says, explaining, “this is the chief singer, so he would come in with other masks, strumming and singing a song, coming from another tribe for the potlatch.”
For Hunt—father of four, grandfather of eight (and counting), great-grandfather of two—the carvings, prints, masks, drums, and other unique works on offer are another opportunity to share his heritage, his culture, his family, and his art practice. His pride in doing so is expressed succinctly by the exhibition title: Yuxan’s K’is’o, a Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakword meaning, “these are our treasures.”
Yuxan’s K’is’o: These are our Treasures is at Alcheringa Gallery from August 25 to September 22, 2018. 621 Fort Street, 250-383-8224, www.alcheringa-gallery.com.
Aaren Madden feels incredibly wealthy, having learned from and about so many interesting and inspiring people by writing for Focus Magazine for over ten years. This is her last assignment for the time being, and she will miss it dearly. It has been her absolute privilege.