Kwakwaka’wakw artist Richard Hunt has enjoyed an illustrious career. Now a member of the Order of Canada and the Order of B.C., Hunt began as a teenage apprentice carver at the Royal B.C. Museum, working under the direction of his legendary artist father, Henry.
As a young man, Hunt became chief carver at Thunderbird Park, which is adjacent to the museum.
In a Zoom interview with Pancouver, the 71-year-old Hunt has lots to say about growing up in the James Bay area of Victoria. His family moved there when he was just two years old. In those days, he says, the Royal B.C. Museum site was a giant parking lot.
He started hanging out in Thunderbird Park in childhood with his father and another master Kwakwaka’wakw painter and carver, Mungo Martin.
“The first building was a horse shed,” Hunt recalls. “We had to go to the bus depot to go to the washroom. There were no facilities.”
Despite this, visitors to Victoria would gather in the park to watch the Indigenous artists.
“I thought of myself as a working exhibit,” Hunt quips. “I was in front of the public all day.”
He remembers the day when a couple of politicians were watching Martin carving—and it dawned upon these elected officials that Thunderbird Park was a great tourist attraction. As a result, the government constructed a bigger building on-site. Sadly, according to Hunt, it burned down a couple years later with four totem poles inside.
“We had to re-carve them,” Hunt says. “They built us a new carving shed. That was a great place to work.”
Hunt plays hide-and-go-seek in legislature
His first solo totem pole, completed in 1979, stands in the centre of Thunderbird Park. Hunt went on to carve many other totem poles, including ones erected in Liverpool, Edinburgh, and Brisbane, as well as in in the City of Duncan and on the Camosun College Interurban campus.
In addition, Hunt created a 10.6-metre pole with artist Tim Paul that stood outside the CBC building in Vancouver for almost 25 years. In 2006, CBC returned it to Hunt’s hometown of Fort Rupert on northern Vancouver Island.
His parents had 14 kids. As a child, he remembers playing war games with his siblings on the grounds of the B.C. legislature. They climbed what’s now a very large tree by the Parliament Buildings.
Hunt also played hide-and-go-seek inside the legislature when it was still home to the museum and the provincial archives.
“Commissionaires, Mungo, and my dad used to look for us,” Hunt says with a laugh. “We would be small enough that we could hide in the little corners and they couldn’t find us.”
Those early memories of the area around the legislature are central to artwork that will be included in Vancouver’s upcoming LunarFest celebrations. Hunt’s painting, Victoria 2018, features various animals, including two riding in a canoe with an Indigenous oarsman. It will be on a large lantern on public display at Granville Island.
Hunt’s design is part of a collection of artistic lanterns; artists Jessie Sohpaul and Rachel Smith, and Arts Umbrella students created the others, which will be at Ocean Artworks outdoor pavilion from January 20 to February 20.
Lantern inspired by Victoria
Entitled the Cycle of Life, the Granville Island display is part of the Lantern City exhibition. It will also feature artistic lanterns at Jack Poole Plaza and šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery.
“We are connected to our past and our future all at once,” the Lantern City exhibition states on its website. “Like salmon that returns up-river every year for new springs, like the animals in this land that watch over us like family, like the young dancers that spin under the sun with endless hope, we pass on our legacies to curious hands, gifts freely given for the next generation to explore freely in their wildest imaginations.”
Hunt says that his lantern design reflects Victoria in several ways.
“I kind of used the domes of the Parliament Buildings at the top of the picture with the Olympic Mountains in the background,” he reveals. “It looks like an octopus stretched out.”
The legislature’s cone appears below the octopus’s head. There’s a bear totem pole on the right, similar to the one carved by his father near Inner Harbour. The killer whale on the left represents a carved orca-shaped tree on the north end of the Empress Hotel grounds near Humboldt Street.
On his website, Hunt states that the killer whale represents the spirits of his deceased family members.
“The canoe at the bottom represents the boats in the Inner Harbour,” he adds. “Our people travelled by canoe and we still do today. On board is a wolf, an eagle, and a man steering the canoe. Finally, there is a raven dancing on the lawn of the legislature.”
A career filled with highlights
One of his memorable moments was receiving the Order of Canada at Rideau Hall in 1994 with hockey stars Frank Mahovlich and Serge Savard. Hunt recalls striking up an enduring friendship with Mahovlich that day.
“Frank ended up coming to Victoria and playing a round of golf at Bear Mountain,” Hunt says. “They asked this politician who he’d like to play with. He said ‘Richard Hunt’, so I got to play with him. We went for dinner a few times.”
This came three years after Hunt had been awarded the Order of B.C.
Hunt’s career includes many artistic highlights, including collaborating with Tim Paul on a totem pole in the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles. In addition, Hunt, Paul, and artist Eugene Arima carved an 11-metre Nuu-chah-nulth whaling canoe, which was displayed at Expo 86 in Vancouver. And Hunt created a five-metre orca and three-metre thunderbird at the Vancouver International Airport domestic terminal
Hunt attended Victoria High School, where he’s now commemorated on its “Wall of Fame”.
Nowadays, one of his greatest concerns is halting the forging of Northwest Coast Indigenous art in other countries. He says a lot of it is created in Indonesia with mahogany. He’s even seen forgeries of his deceased brother Tony’s art being sold on T-shirts.
“They’ve copied all different styles,” Hunt says. “To me, I don’t care how bad it is or how good it is. You’re taking away from my culture. It’s intellectual property.”
He and other artists are trying to persuade the federal government to address this issue.
Father taught Hunt all he needed to know
Hunt reveals that he once spent a summer up island with a recently deceased uncle who was a tremendous fisherman.
“I was supposed to go up there and learn how to fish,” Hunt says. “After one week of fishing, I realized I’m a landlubber.”
He describes his father as a great teacher who taught him everything he needed to know when they worked together at Thunderbird Park.
“One of the things my dad promised Mungo is there would always be one of us from Fort Rupert there,” Hunt states. “After I got there, my dad realized that he didn’t have to be there and went out on his own. He was a great carver. I mean, he could carve a mask in two days and that would be his two-week’s salary.”
Martin and Hunt’s father were so talented that they carved various Indigenous styles, including Salish, Haida, and Tsimshian. Hunt also learned to do this, but now that he’s on his own, he sticks with Kwakwaka’wakw art.
His Kwakwaka’wakw name is Gwe-la-yo-gwe-la-gya-lis. According to his website, it means “a man that travels and wherever he goes, he potlatches.”
Hunt describes himself as a traditional carver, even though he generates ideas from a multitude of sources, including Mayan and Egyptian art. At the end of the day, he wants everything that he carves to be acceptable in his First Nation’s ceremonies.
“I don’t deviate too much, other than drawing,” Hunt says. “Because you know, I’d hate to have something go to the Big House and have people laugh at it—and say ‘you tried to do something too different.’ I stick to traditional.”
To read about Richard Hunt, visit his website or follow him on Instagram @dr.richardhunt. The Lantern City website offers details about LunarFest lantern exhibitions. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia. Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr.