A life of carving and spreading Haisla culture around the world – Smithers Interior News
In a small studio/gallery at the far end of the village of Kitamaat, Sammy Robinson is busy preparing for his biggest and final public art sale.
His 88-year-old hands meticulously work small pieces of yellow cedar, carving signatures to complete his final pieces which will be on display and for sale to the public from September 24 to October 2.
These will be the last pieces to carry the now iconic three-dimensional signature that he started using around 10 years ago. He says that at two or three hours to engrave the initials, he is simply not ready to do so anymore and will go back to engraving his signature directly on the work.
Surrounding Robinson in his neat and tidy workspace are dozens of sculptures, ranging from 18-inch to 8-foot totem poles, canoe paddles and plaques to gold and silver jewelry. Much of the work, mostly in yellow cedar, incorporates abalone, and each piece tells a story of the Haisla culture, which he says will be revealed at the art exhibit.
“They all have stories, you’re going to have the story and the biography, everything.”
In a small room at the back of the studio, which he uses for finishing work and an office, he proudly displays photographs of particularly important stages in his life, perhaps especially of the ceremony during which he was elevated to the rank of hereditary chief of the Haisla Nation.
These defining moments go back a long way. Among his early accolades was a First Nations Art Award at the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver in 1963.
This success was followed in 1967 when he was named a special sculpture dignitary at the Montreal World’s Fair and three years later when he became resident sculptor on site at the 1970 Olympics.
Most recently, in 2013, he received the Fulmer Award for First Nations Art from the BC Achievement Foundation.
But for Robinson, his career as a sculptor goes back even further. As a child, almost 80 years ago, he was introduced to the profession by watching the “old people” sculpt. He believes you can show someone sculpting skills, but you can’t teach the art because it comes from within.
Robinson’s art is now in high demand and has found its way into the collections of dignitaries, celebrities and public institutions around the world. When he last exhibited a few years ago, most of the pieces were pre-sold, which didn’t sit well with some people, he said.
This time, he promises that nothing is pre-sold, even though he has had requests.
“It will be my biggest show. I have never collected so much in my life due to COVID. The road was closed and I closed the store, but I kept carving and that’s why I can accumulate so much.
Most of the pieces in the upcoming show were completed during the time of the pandemic, but others go back further, even 20 or 30 years. Some are pieces he wouldn’t sell at the time, because they wouldn’t have demanded a worthwhile price.
“If I have a room that I’ve worked too long for and know I won’t get the money it’s worth, I just put it away knowing that day is coming. In my basement, I had some on the wall and a few in the cellar, if I had sold it then I would have gotten $150, now it will sell (for) $3,000.
It’s not just about the money, he says.
“It’s my life. It keeps me alive. He inspires me in everything. Like what I did for the health center, the money was not half enough, but I did it .
Robinson is referring to the totem pole he carved for the entrance to the new Haisla Health Center in Kitamaat village which was just unveiled last week in a blessing ceremony.
He has come a long way from carving in a smokehouse to having his own studio.
“People would come to me and buy art from me,” he said. “I would work on an artwork for, say, two, three weeks, and I could sell it for $10. My wife now says, “You were making 15 cents an hour, maybe 10 cents.”
When he was not carving, which he almost always was, he worked as a commercial fisherman. After Alcan came to the Douglas Channel in the early 1950s, Robinson worked at the foundry.
At the same time he ran fishing charters and was in high demand as having grown up and fished in the area all his life he knew all the stories of every little cove and point of interest along the north coast.
Robinson is obviously proud of the life he has forged and one of his greatest sources of pride is that he did it without outside help.
One of his charter company’s biggest clients was his former company, Alcan. When the company wanted him to buy a bigger boat to accommodate larger groups, he approached the bank for a loan, but was unable to obtain it. The business wouldn’t help him either, he said, so he saved up and eventually bought the bigger boat on his own.
He is also extremely proud to represent his people and when he speaks in public, he speaks his ancestral language, because that is how he was taught.
“It’s been on my mind since I was nine, my mother, my grandmother, my aunt Nancy, when you make a public speech, you use your mother tongue, you’re not white, it’s what my mother used to say.”
However, these days he does it with an interpreter, as many young people simply don’t know the language, which worries him.
Robinson’s show begins September 24 at his studio, Kakhan Arts & Crafts Shop, on Haisla Avenue in the village of Kitamaat.