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A conversation with Richard Hunt, Kwaguilth artist

FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. - It's a Saturday afternoon at Arctic Raven Gallery
and Kwaguilth artist Richard Hunt is visiting from Victoria, B.C., to help
open the gallery at its new location.

There is much symbolism this day.

Arctic Raven Gallery, the region's premier gallery of Northwest Native art,
has moved to a larger location. It's symbolic of the growing interest in
the timeless beauty and cultural significance of Northwest Native art.

Gallery owner Lee Brooks explained to visitors some of the latest additions
of Yup'ik and Inupiat carvings of fossilized whalebone. The pieces are
symbolic of the revival of Alaska Native art.

Hunt interacted with visitors as he carefully brings a frog helmet to life
from a block of cedar. It's symbolic of his devotion to teaching others
about his culture - his Kwaguilth name, Gwe-la-yo-gwe-la-gya-lis, means "a
man that travels and wherever he goes, he potlatchs."

Hunt quizzed a little girl on what he's making (she answered correctly),
and he answered questions from visitors. He took breaks to shake hands and
autograph his work. Visitors picked up cedar chips for souvenirs.

The crowded gallery is an ideal forum for Hunt; he uses Kwaguilth art to
teach people about his culture and about art versus cultural property. He
also takes the opportunity to talk about golf, a favorite pastime depicted
in two of his prints (he shot a hole-in-one at Cedar Hill Golf & Country
Club in Victoria on his 50th birthday).

Hunt, 53, comes from a family of internationally-respected artists, which
include his father, Henry Hunt and his grandfather, Mungo Martin. Richard
Hunt began carving with his father at age 13. At 21, he became chief carver
in the Thunderbird Park Carving Program at the Royal BC Museum; he served
in that capacity for 12 years.

Hunt later resigned to begin a career as a freelance artist. For 20 years,
his work has included poles, serigraphs, carvings, jewelry and a line of
clothing decorated with his designs. He has received the Order of British
Columbia and the Order of Canada, both in recognition of his artistic and
cultural contributions to British Columbia and Canada.

Hunt shared some views during his carving.

The importance of teaching children art: Children are inherently interested
in their culture, and they can learn about their culture through art. "A
lot of young kids want to learn carving, but there is no outlet," he said.

If a child has a father that is a carver, the child will learn, he said.
Each child needs to have the interest and a mentor. "It's up to our kids"
to want to learn, he said.

How he learned: "By trial and error." And patience. When he began carving
with his father at 13, the elder Hunt gave him small projects to work on
until he had it perfected. "By the time I was done, I knew all the steps,"
he said. When he was 21, he became an apprentice carver under his father at
the Royal British Columbia Museum.

Art as a career: "What a great way to go through life, doing what belongs
to you."

Art from other cultures he enjoys: Aztec, Inca, the pyramids.

Cultural significance of art: What an artist does - be it carving or
ceremonial dance - is earned or passed on through family, "what we refer to
as ownership," he said. Many of the designs featured in Hunt's artwork were
passed on to him through his father; Hunt is his father's artistic
successor.

Likewise, Hunt said the frog helmet he carved belongs to his sister, a frog
dancer. He can carve the helmet because he is a carver, but he cannot wear
the helmet because the ceremonial dance belongs in this way to his sister.

He explained on his Web site www.richardhunt.com: "We go to our elders to
ask them what we can do, and we don't do dances, animals or mythical
creatures that don't belong to us. If we did that the elders could cause us
shame, or the owners of these could come and cause us shame and we'd have
to rectify the situation."

Art as cultural property: Hunt believes art should be recognized as
cultural property because the art comes from the artist's culture.

"When I travel I talk to people and I always talk about art versus cultural
property," Hunt wrote on his Web site. "I think that if you call it art,
you give everyone a chance to do what belongs to us ... I think that has to
be stopped, because the last thing our people have is our culture.

"... if we have our culture, I see it as a way people can make a good
living, or maybe at least a half-decent living, and all they're doing is
making it out of something that they already own. It was always here before
the Europeans showed up and it'll be here forever."

Hunt continued, "When I do something, I don't give the person the right to
dance this mask or the right to claim it as his own. All he can do is claim
the mask; he doesn't claim the culture that goes with it. I've given him
the right to display what is mine."

Forty to 60 percent of what is sold as indigenous art is fake, Hunt said.
Many photographs of indigenous art do not identify the artist and are taken
without the artist's permission. Unfortunately for indigenous artists,
"many galleries look the other way," he said.

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash.
Contact him at irishmex2000@yahoo.com.

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