Chief Beau Dick: Carver, Artist, Advocate, Mentor, Storyteller, Walks On
Chief Beau Dick, a hereditary chief of the Kwakwaka’wakw from Alert Bay (‘Yalis), ‘Namgis First Nation, British Columbia, Canada walked on March 27, 2017, at age 61. He had suffered a heart attack and a series of strokes in the past year but his passing was still sudden and a shock to his extended family, clan, and friends all over the country and around the world. He had been visiting friends and colleagues and doing his usual practices, showing up at events when asked and had been scheduled to present at Documenta 14, the prestigious international art invitational at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens, Greece.
Benjamin Kerry Dick was born on November 23, 1955, to Geraldine Dawson and Blackie Ben Dick, in Alert Bay (‘Yalis), British Columbia. The family moved to Kingcome Inlet (Gwa’yi), on the mainland northeast of Alert Bay, he and his mother later moved to Vancouver. As a teenager he went back to Alert Bay, Cormorant Island, home of the ‘Namgis First Nation on the northeastern tip of Vancouver Island, where he lived until the time of his death. There, he was taught by his father Benjamin Dick and grandfather James Dick to carve. He also apprenticed the most renowned Northwest Carvers, Henry Hunt, Doug Cranmer and later Tony Hunt, Bill Reid and Robert Davidson. He was named Gigame’ (Chief) ‘Walas Gwa’yam (Big Whale). Funeral services and a potlatch memorial were held April 2 at Alert Bay.
Chief Beau Dick got his first break as an artist in 1983 when he was commissioned to do a mask for Expo 86 in Vancouver, and it was purchased by the Canadian Museum of History. His recognition grew in 1998 when he was one of only seven Canadian artists to be invited to the reopening of Canada House in London. He was then chosen to represent on the international stage at the Sydney Biennale in 2010, and this year at Documenta in Athens. Yet his friends and colleagues say that fame and commercial success were far from his motivation or intention. His 2013 invitation as an artist-in-residence at the University of British Columbia for three months ended up lasting six years.
Chief Beau Dick organized a walk from northern Vancouver Island to Victoria and the British Columbia legislature in 2013, and then a cross-country trip from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver to Ottawa and Parliament Hill in 2014. The purpose was to challenge or shame the Canadian provincial and national governments by conducting a Copper Cutting Ceremony, an old ritual not performed in generations. In 2016, the story of these journeys were installed as an exhibit titled “Lalakenis/All Directions: A Journey of Truth and Unity” at the Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver. The exhibit recently closed, but these are powerful statements that only a leader such as Chief Beau Dick could inspire.
Reconciliation between Canada and the First Nations continues to be debated. Chief Beau Dick’s contribution was to conduct the Copper Cutting not just as a challenge but a renewal. On the journey he said, “Hopefully we can touch their conscience, so people will start caring more and work towards creating a world of well-being for all of our children and mankind. We as First Nations want to move forward together in unity with our fellow men to create a better world. I think this is where we start this notion of reconciliation and unity.”
The Documenta invitation to Athens was a recognition few artists ever receive, much less a traditional carver and trickster storyteller who drummed and sang with intensity, played guitar, was open and embracing, difficult and uncompromising, who held ceremonies and carried spirituality. He was not a formally trained artist, yet was one of the most influential artists of his time. He also would tell you that he was just one in a long line of Northwest carvers and artists. He had been preparing to drum with masks and dancers at the Parthenon, but his health prevented him from attending. His friend and gallery owner LaTiesha Fazakas represented him at Documenta in early April, along with Alexis Nolie Hunt and his apprentices Cole Speck and Alan Hunt.
ICMN reached out to Fazakas, who said: “Beau is the very essence of an artist. He was a conduit of creation. Although his medium and work is deeply rooted in Kwakwaka’wakw tradition it has a transcendence and innovation that reaches out to a broader audience. His art speaks of the past, present and future. His art is spiritual, political and aesthetic in a layered and cohesive way. Beau did not separate spirit, politics, art and life. His work reflects a unity of all those things. Although he worked in all sorts of mediums he was most famous for his masks and artistic political performance. Beau loved to perform and I think that was why he was so drawn to masks. Beau seemed to dance instead of walk, to narrate instead of speak and to beguile with all his talent and power.”
“Beau understood that changing hearts and minds was the first and most important step to reconciliation. He was powerfully gentle in his approach. He was passionate about the pain of colonization with such kindness and grace it was astonishing,” Fazakas continued. “Considering all that was and continues to happen to First Nations in our country I am always amazed at the resilience and forgiveness I witness in Beau and others.”
Sonny Assu, Kwakwaka’wakw artist said: “Beau Dick is a legend, plain and simple. As a knowledge keeper, artist and activist, I came to be inspired by his immensely powerful work. You can see Beau’s heart, commitment and passion for Kwakwaka’wakw culture in his works, and in that, he has become a mentor to me. What I love most about his activism is that you can see the desire to make sure the voices of all indigenous people are heard. He was a true leader, he was humble and beyond generous.”
The story of Beau’s life and art is being developed into a feature-length documentary produced by Fazakas. “Meet Beau Dick: Maker of Monsters” is scheduled to be released this year.
Chief Beau Dick is survived by his partner Bernadette Phan; Sherri Dick, mother to Kerry-Lynn Dick; Pamela Bevan, mother to Linnea and Geraldine; daughter Cora, and six grandchildren with a seventh expected.
Chief Beau Dick’s passing has generated many tributes about his influence, articles written about him and even videos on YouTube. To condense all his tributes, Chief Beau Dick was full of medicine and magic, he was called a storyteller but now even more stories will be told about him, he is a legend. The best tributes quote his own wisdom and knowledge, “Material wealth is easy to acquire but knowledge, that takes time,” Chief Beau Dick.