Interview: Linnea Dick – Meet Beau Dick: Maker of Monsters
A new documentary and a retrospective of Beau Dick’s work mark the anniversary of his passing, but for his daughter Linnea, the healing journey her father started is only just beginning. The 26-year-old has already battled addiction and depression, but she’s found a purpose in poetry, helping suicidal youth, and keeping her father’s legacy alive.
Meet Beau Dick: Maker of Monsters
Playing the Park Theatre March 30- April 1
Beau Dick: Revolutionary Spirit
Audain Art Museum March 30 – June 11
By Katherine Monk
VANCOUVER — She grew up with the smell of freshly hewn cedar wafting through every room, and the random wood chip in the shower. A log might sit on the kitchen table, surrounded by men with sharp tools. “It was a magical life,” says Linnea Dick. “My father didn’t just create art, he created an environment. That was the most meaningful part of it for me. That’s what I will miss the most.”
Dick’s father, renowned Kwakwaka’wakw carver Beau Dick, passed away at the age of 61 just over a year ago, March 27, 2017. Yet, in the months before he fell ill, he was spending time with filmmakers Natalie Boll and La’Tiesha Fazakas, who shot Dick working and talking about his art, but also about his activism, which became an integral part of the work. The result is both a primer on his oeuvre, and an unmasking of the aboriginal experience. Meet Beau Dick: Maker of Monsters opens nationally this weekend, alongside a new retrospective of Dick’s work at the Audain Museum in Whistler, B.C., where his masks are already a signature fixture of the new landmark space filled with emblematically Canadian masterpieces.
“The new exhibition is a full legacy show. You’ll see things he made when I was my age to things he made within the last few years, like the Undersea Kingdom. That made it internationally, and went to Dokumenta. There’s also an influence and legacy part that will showcase the artists he worked with. I think it’s important to honour that connection, and the idea that artists can really inspire each other when they get together. That’s the part of the exhibition I’m so excited about because it’s not just about him and his work, but also about the community coming together.”
Dick was eager to share everything about the experience of creating art, from the techniques to the mindset. He taught cultural ownership in a post-colonization world. In the world of aboriginal carving, he’s considered the best of his generation. But fame was never a motivating factor, says Ms. Dick of her father.
“I don’t think making this movie was about validation for him. It was about sharing really important ideas about art and activism and family. Validation as an artist wasn’t important to him. In our culture, the in the Kwakwaka’wakw language, we don’t have a word for art. It’s ingrained in our being. Everyone is always creating in terms of what is going on around them. It didn’t matter if you were doing art or not. Your position in the world is what you are creating. We don’t have a word for art because we didn’t hang it on walls. It was in everything we did. So for my Dad, it was never about art,” she says.
In our culture, the in the Kwakwaka’wakw language, we don’t have a word for art. It’s ingrained in our being. Everyone is always creating in terms of what is going on around them. It didn’t matter if you were doing art or not. Your position in the world is what you are creating.
“The way he explained it to me was that his art was the ability to do other things that were more important to him, like give back to the community. He could have lived a really wealthy life, being the well-known artist that he was. But he gave most of his money away to community members and family. He paid for opportunities and events, and funded a lot of the activist journey out of his own pocket… and was quite poor by the end of it.”
The film traces Dick’s path from restless kid in Alert Bay to apprentice and finally master, but in the process of learning his skills, he also educated himself about the culture in an attempt to reconcile the deficit of lost knowledge, lost generations, lost connection. His complete immersion and surrender to the work seems to infuse each piece with its own spirit, its own life force. I ask Dick if seeing his work in a formal museum setting is like seeing a killer whale in a tank — all that spirit contained for consumption.
“I think each piece is alive. But I also think the art is a fantastic place to start discussions and to learn. The things I have witnessed is that people will have an emotional reaction to it or feel a connection. And if it’s Indigenous art, they will say who is this artist? Where do they come from? And it just starts that conversation and that introduction to First Nations culture. It’s a doorway. Something my Dad says in the documentary is that he knows every piece he’s made is out there doing its job.”
Dick says the only thing that upsets her is when people misunderstand the value of the work.
“For one thing, they are invaluable to us. You can’t really put a price on it. The other thing is that they are not physical possessions to us.” She describes a mask-burning ceremony that her people performed before colonization and that her father revived at a potlatch. Beautifully carved pieces were thrown into the fire, a symbolic and spiritual gesture to reunite the ancestors with their spirit masks in the afterlife. “When my Dad did that, even some people in my community said why did he do that? He just burned so much money. But it wasn’t about the money for him. It was about the statement that it made, and the message that it gave: that we could rebuild them. And that they would start a new life and a new beginning,” she says.
…Even some people in my community said why did he do that? He just burned so much money. But it wasn’t about the money for him. It was about the statement that it made, and the message that it gave: that we could rebuild them. And that they would start a new life and a new beginning…
“I think we need to take a moment not to just look at the art piece as an art piece, but look at it as having its own life, its own story, its own history. You know it has its own family. It’s had a really rich life and if they could look at it that way, they might begin to understand just how valuable these pieces are.”
The film shows the mask burning. It also shows another post-colonial first: a copper-breaking ceremony. Copper shields represented wealth and power. Breaking the shield is considered a “shaming” gesture, which is why Dick performed his first one on the steps of the B.C. Legislature in 2013. Dick wanted to raise awareness of outstanding Indigenous issues, and he did. Media were there. And the quest for truth and reconciliation continues on a national scale.
I think we need to take a moment not to just look at the art piece as an art piece, but look at it as having its own life, its own story, its own history. You know it has its own family. It’s had a really rich life and if they could look at it that way, they might begin to understand just how valuable these pieces are.
Watching her father smash the shield hit Dick on a personal level. “For me, on my personal journey, it just lifted a lot of weight from my shoulders. I think that it’s so hard not to carry this burden of the atrocities that happened in our everyday lives, in society and the western world. And, of course, the government and how much illness they plague upon people with their corrupt values. I think it kind of helped me separate from them. You know, I carried this responsibility. But it’s not mine. And I’m strong and I’m going to live through it, and I’m going to do the best that I can as an individual, but this is yours to own up to. This is yours to carry and take responsibility for. But for me, it made me feel stronger. To be true to who I am.”
Dick says the shield ceremony affected a lot of people. Many came up to her afterward to thank her. “People I had never seen before. They would come up me and say thank you so much, because what you did was so powerful. And it changed my life. And I wasn’t expecting that. That’s something that was really magical for me: To change the lives of people I have never met.”
Dick continues to change lives. In addition to co-curating the show at the Audain and speaking publicly about the film, she’s working for a non-profit called We Matter. “It’s an Indigenous, youth-led campaign to raise suicide awareness and prevention, and intervention across communities in Canada. Indigenous youth face about a seven to ten times higher risk of suicide.”
The reasons why Indigenous youth are so vulnerable are layered, she says. “The first thing is the resources aren’t there — I don’t think a lot of people realize that — especially in rural communities. What happens is people have mental health issues, like all youth do, and they are sent out of town to go to like four sessions with a therapist. Then they are sent back. There’s also a lack of understanding among non-Indigenous people because unless you have lived through the intergenerational trauma, and you’ve heard the multi-diverse stories of colonization… it’s lived experience. And if you haven’t lived through that, you don’t know.”
Things are changing with increased education about First Nations needs and issues. But as Dick says, “growing up is one of the most difficult things to go through in life, but to have the huge weight on your shoulders of over a century of hardship, is quite difficult. Then combined with lack of resources and lack of funds and understanding, and this huge gap in cultural education, and the education system….
“So we go to schools that aren’t true to our values and aren’t true to our identity and are not true to who we are as people. We go through school, maybe not being ashamed of being Native, but not being given the full freedom to be who we are. So, I mean, like this is something I could talk about and have a discussion about for probably hours and still not even touch it. But that’s definitely the surface level of things happening with suicides.”
Dick says the work has been healing, and frequently inspiring thanks to the brave young people she encounters every day. “I had just lost my dad and I was in that kind of lost phase where I didn’t have much of a direction. I didn’t know what I was going to do without him, and I kind of lost my own purpose.”
When she started with the campaign last year, Dick was tasked to create a video with a hopeful message for youth. She says it was a significant moment. “In sharing my hardship, and telling youth they could overcome that, that was really fulfilling for me. And I always feel more fulfilled when I tell my story.”
Dick’s own story had a lot of magic, but it also included the divorce of her parents and a personal battle with addiction. “When I was 14 … I was an alcoholic, and that’s a really young age to really delve into the kind of alcoholism I was into, so I got alcohol poisoning twice when I was 14. And my parents didn’t know what I was going through, and it was because I had been sexually abused as a child and never told anyone.”
Dick says she came forward because her assailant attacked someone else, and it was time to stop the cycle. “Something my Dad always told me was that he thought it was our generation that was going to change things. He said his generation was still old-fashioned. They wanted to change things but they were kind of inflexible,” she says.
“But I don’t think he realized either that his generation made huge leaps and bounds for today’s Indigenous youth to reclaim their identity. Without everything they went through, we wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
Her father’s generation helped lift the shame, she says. “We’re allowed to be proud of who we are. Proud to be Indigenous. Proud of our culture.… When I was a young child, I was ashamed to be Native. So even in my generation, things have changed so much. We’re taking things into our own hands,” says Dick, who writes poetry now to express her own creative urge.
We’re allowed to be proud of who we are. Proud to be Indigenous. Proud of our culture.… When I was a young child, I was ashamed to be Native. So even in my generation, things have changed so much.
“I think we’ve really reclaimed our identity, but apart from that I think that we are beautifully using our resources… There’s this balance now where we are able to walk in both worlds.”
I’ve worn disguises in shame of my own flesh and blood,And masks while I laughed at jokes at my expenseMaking me uncomfortablein my own skin….It was then, in my time of need, my ancestors came to me,Reminding me of my dignity, dressing me in their resilienceAnd cloaking me in our traditions;sharing supernatural gifts.I wasn’t wearing shoes but I felt Mother Earth beneath my feet,Just enough to stand my ground and wear my culture proudly.The wind entered my lungs and I yelled,my spirit talking loud:I AM SO MUCH MORE THAN THISI DESERVE RESPECT AND JUSTICEWHO I AM IS MY RESISTANCEI AM NOT A COSTUME!– Linnea Dick
THE EX-PRESS, March 29, 2018