ḥyuu ma ʔin – Vince Smith
Mediums: painting, sketching, and carving.
When Vince Smith was a boy all he wanted to do was to paint and draw, and learn as much as he could from his brothers and sister. “I longed for the days when my brothers and sister would come home from Residential school so they could teach me everything they knew. I would watch my brothers, and then do what they did, and that is how I first learned how to draw.
“I was six when I was sent to Residential school, and I kept drawing. In my mind it connected me to my family. Of course, one of the hardest things about Residential school was coming home. I never learnt my grandmothers language, and coming home to spend time with her was tough because she didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand her.
“That was hard. I didn’t feel like I belonged with my family because of our differences. But she was good to me, she kept trying with me and we would spend time together, with her telling me stories about our people, and me drawing the characters she spoke about.
“I entered the Fine Arts program at Malaspina College – now Vancouver Island University – and developed my illustrating skills. I started working for a publishing house in Nanaimo, where I got to illustrate a book for Ellen White, an author of kid’s books about the story of the Coast Salish people. I loved that I was drawing something that connected me to my First Nation identity. This began my quest to learn how to carve.
“My mentors were Tim Paul of Hesquiaht and Ron Hamilton of Hupetchasaht. They taught me everything I know about carving: how to choose the right piece of wood, what kind of tools are needed, and when to stop carving – when to listen to the piece and know it is finished.
“I love carving because it can always come along with me. It helped me stay focused on my sobriety when I was in rehabilitation.”
Back in the ‘80’s, Vince began to struggle with alcohol. “I got myself into a rehabilitation facility in Vernon, and that is where I discovered my anger towards my loss of cultural identity – it had been taken from me as a child, and I was angry.
“The support I got at the facility allowed me to work through those feelings, and share those feelings with other First Nations people who were also on the same journey as I was. I began my journey of healing, and I carved and painted to express myself.
“I am proud of where I have come from, and the journey I have taken. And I am thankful that every day I get to practice my gratitude to the Creator. I feel closer to my cultural identity now, because I listen to what my Elders tell me, and because I know that spiritually is a big part of our culture.
“I am spiritually more aware when I am sober, and my soul is happy when I give thanks for my gifts and talent as an artist. I want to be a good role model for our young people, and the best way I can do that is to be proud of where I come from, acknowledge the struggles I have had, and be grateful every day for the gift of Creation.”
Vince has been a successful artist for many years, and he is regularly commissioned to create custom carvings and paintings. “I have been commissioned by so many different people and groups, it’s hard to remember them all. But each piece I have been asked to make is unique, and I am very proud to see many of my carvings around Zeballos, the town I live in.”
Vince’s work can be found carved into the impressive pillars at the local school, and in the intricate wood carvings of the town homes, and carved into the huge cedar door at the Ehattesaht Band Office. Most impressively, his work is the massive welcome piece outside the Ehattesaht Band Office, carved with a giant Thunderbird, arching its wings over the land, water and inlets that makes up the Ehattesaht Nation.
Behind the welcome piece, Vince was asked to build and create a space of remembrance for all those who went to Residential school. “The place is a very special one for everyone in the Ehattesaht tribe. We use the space to hold ceremonies, and conduct counselling sessions. It is very peaceful. And I often find myself making use of it.
Vince’s kind-hearted spirit and good nature are evident in his artwork. His bright, colourful paintings and rich, intricate and sophisticated carvings tell a story about who Vince is, and who his people are, “One of the names I was given by my aunt is Haay-nu-kqwiyuksitchl: the name means “Thunderbird holding a crystal that sees the past, present and future”. Some of my paintings include the Thunderbird with the crystal, and images of my ancestors whaling by Catala Island, outside Zeballos. My carvings are all different, but I like to carve the Thunderbird with the lightening snakes that turn into whaling harpoons – and the killer whales that transform into the wolf. What I create, is part of the stories of our people, but how I create them are all my own.
“I like to add my identity into my pieces. I find myself in my art, and my art reflects who I am back to me.”
Vince makes his home in Zeballos, and spends his days carving, painting and sketching. Currently, he is going to North Island College to learn how to create silver jewelry, adding to his repertoire and his mediums as an artist. Vince 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.
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