Snuneymuxw First Nation
Coast Salish Territory
Mediums: carving in red and yellow cedar.
Richard “Tomahawk” Thomas grew up outside Nanaimo in Cedar with the Snuneymux First Nation. His memory of that time is filled with bitter-sweet fondness. “We were poor. My dad was a fisherman, a gill-netter, but we made the most of it. I remember my dad taking me fishing in Alert Bay one year on the fishing boat, and seeing all the carvings along the shore. It was beautiful. That was a good memory. I wanted to know more of that side of our culture, but it would be years before I really got to explore why I was so attracted to those pieces.”
When Richard was 15 he was sent to Residential school, “I hated it. I didn’t last long at the school; I ran away after I was physically abused which caused me to lose my hearing – one of my ear drums actually ruptured. I came back to Nanaimo, and tried to get into the school system, but it was a different time then and I wasn’t welcome.
“I guess you could say I used up all my options at that time, and at 17 I started to get into trouble with the law. It was never anything serious – but again it was a different time, and while I saw it as surviving, the law saw it as petty theft. And it was. I was in and out of prison for a few years, and in total spent more than 7 years there.”
“If there was any rehabilitation, I taught it to myself. I began to take magazines out of the library and started painting the pictures I saw of First Nation art all over my cell walls. Every week the guards would come by and paint over the piece, giving me a fresh canvas for the following week. I honed my skills, and became a pretty good painter!”
When Richard was in his early 20’s he was cast to play a small part in the great Canadian classic film The Shadow of The Hawk starring Chief Dan George. “It was a small part, but it was fun. I got to know Chief Dan George during filming. I didn’t realize it then, but it was a blessing because during my next stay in prison I managed to invite Chief Dan George to come and speak to all the First Nation men. He inspired us to find meaning in our lives, and to be proud of where we came from. He talked to us about getting to know who we truly were. It meant a great deal to us.
“After I left prison for the very last time, I knew I had to make a living. I didn’t have any education, or job prospects, but I did have a talent for art. I moved to Vancouver and my brothers introduced me to Maury Clark, he became my mentor and taught me how to carve. Everything from how to hold the knife, to how to see a piece of wood and let the art emerge. He was a big influence on me.”
Richard began to sell his artwork one piece at a time. “Every piece I sold meant I was a step further ahead on my travels across the country – I eventually made it to Ontario, all thanks to my carvings! It wasn’t hard to sell my pieces; most of the time I would be working away on a piece and someone would come up to me and say “Hey! I want to buy that!” or “Did you do that?”. I’ve been really fortunate, and I love that people are so captivated by my work.
“Carving helped me find my path in life. It is who I am, and I love my life because of it.”
“I created my own style of carving. No one else carves like I do, and I think that’s part of my identity as a First Nation carver – I carve like I have been taught, but with my own artistic nature which I think comes from being a painter first. I love it, it is my greatest passion, and believe it or not it kept me going throughout my whole life. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I kept carving. It was therapeutic, and it kept my mind busy. I pour out my passion into the wood, and it keeps me alive. I can proudly say that I have been cancer free for more than 10 years.”
Richard carves an average of nine hours a day. “I love to be able to take a piece of wood and make something out of it. It’s taken me 42 years to get to this stage, and I couldn’t be happier.
“I will keep creating art until my time comes, and get as many new pieces out as I can.”
Richard has sold his art all over the world. He works with yellow cedar, and most of his pieces are carved using one piece of wood. Richard is showing his work at the Identity: Art as Life art show at The View Gallery, Vancouver Island University from September 14th to November 3rd.
Richard is the proud father of six children; his four daughters, and his two sons who have sadly passed. Richard makes his home in Comox, BC with his partner Donna.