Together, they have a combined experience of more than seven decades, some notable awards under their belt, and pieces that have been shown both across the world and in some of the most esteemed galleries on home soil.
Yet for Xwalacktun (Rick Harry) and Klatle-Bhi, an impressive repertoire doesn’t make an immodest artist: neither had been expecting to take home wins this year, not least for BC Achievement Foundation's Polygon Award in First Nations Art.
“This was a very, very pleasant surprise. It was almost a bit surreal,” said Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) and Kwakwaka’wakw artist Klatle-bhi.
“I don’t even know how to describe it, the feeling. It’s just nice to be standing alongside so many other great artists, and so many that have come before me.”
North-Vancouver based Klatle-Bhi and West Vancouver residing Xwalacktun were selected alongside Musqueam artist Brent Sparrow and emerging Victoria artist Shawna Kiesman for their commitment and contribution to First Nations Art.
Now in its 17th year, the award applauds artists who have accumulated a body of work that honours Indigenous artistic traditions, and have demonstrated a commitment to their art practice, so much so they are recognized within their communities.
Klatle-Bhi’s artistic resume includes a totem pole for the 2010 Olympic Games, large-scale commissions for corporate offices across Canada, and exhibits at the likes of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City and the Burke Memorial Museum of Natural History in Seattle. Xwalacktun’s highlights comprise a 2022 Honorary Doctorate from Emily Carr University, the 2016 First Nations Art Award and a number of varied carving projects in Scotland.
For both, the desire to educate on Indigenous design and traditions is what drives much of their work, and, while all winning artists have their own unique styles, Xwalacktun said collectively they come together as one, working towards the same mission.
“If we think about stories, a lot of stories overlap. We use different imagery and tell the story differently, but the messages are all the same,” he said.
Klatle-Bhi, who hopes to bring “more light into the world” with his artworks, said much of his success can be credited to the mentors and fellow artists who encouraged him to embark on a career in carving.
“One time I was inspired by many, many artists, some of those guys that really paved the path for us to be here today,” he said.
“Now it feels like I’m in that position where perhaps my body of work, over the last 33 years, has inspired people to maybe pick up a knife, or pick up a drum, or go to a Potlatch. Just awaken somebody somehow,” he said.
For that next generation of artists, both Xwalacktun and Klatle-Bhi have a word of advice.
“Continue on doing the work the best you can, and think about the ones that aren’t here yet, that example you can set” said Xwalacktun.
“Don’t give up. If you feel it, just keep going,” adds Klatle-Bhi. “If you feel that passion, that fire in your heart and spirit for the artwork, don’t give up. And learn from every piece. Always ask for more teachings, always keep on learning, that’s something that I still apply to myself today.”
Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.