Home » Underrated Canadian artist: Walter Harris

Underrated Canadian artist: Walter Harris

“Art is my life, and the life of my people. I want my work…to live and carry on the rich tradition of our people. I have always felt the importance of passing on my knowledge and my skills….Our art connects us to our past and intertwines us in the present and makes way for the future.”

First Nations artist Walter Harris. Image: canadacouncil.ca

Canadian First Nations artist Walter Harris was hereditary chief from the Gitksan First Nation in northwestern British Columbia. He worked in silver, gold, metal, limestone, silk screen graphics and wood, as well as carving totem poles for his home village of Kispiox in 1971, 1972, and 1978 and for Ottawa, Paris, Japan and Vancouver.

In 2003, he was awarded the Governor General’s Award for Visual and Media Arts and in 2005, Walter Harris he received Officer of the Order of Canada.

From the Vancouver Sun: When Walter Harris passed on, there was scarcely a ripple in Canada, even though he was a king among aboriginal artists.

Harris, who died Jan. 12, was known as Simogyet Geel among the Gitxsan. He lived in Old and New Hazelton all his life.

Born on June 10, 1931, he grew up in a time when first nations people were routinely robbed of their identities and taken from their culture in the hope that they would assimilate.

Read the full article HERE.

Walter Harris, Gitxsan pole. Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver. Image: cathedralgrove.se

Walter Harris, Northwest Coast Mask, 1983, mixed media. Image: canadacouncil.ca/Lawrence Cook

Walter Harris was born in 1931 in the northern B.C. village of Kispiox. It was one of the last of the Gitxsan villages to feel the cultural oppression resulting from the anti-potlatch laws imposed by the Canadian Government in the 1920s.

At 26, Walter Harris became the head chief of the village, a few years after the anti-potlatch law was set aside. In the 1960s, Harris began to pursue the career of an artist. He began building carving sheds and old style plank houses for the reconstructed village of ‘Ksan at nearby Hazelton, before studying under a number of artists and craftsmen whose task was to rekindle the traditional arts.

In the early 1970s, Harris produced the first of a series of stunning masks and headdresses. The first, an articulated killer whale helmet echoed the headgear of his ancestors who wore such war helmets while defending their settlement. Perhaps the most spectacular was a carved headpiece depicting the legendary one-horned mountain goat, which, in a classic myth of the Gitxsan, triggered a disastrous mountain slide in the Skeena River valley several thousand years ago.

The totem poles that stood like sentinels at the centre of each Gitxsan village carried images of the encounters of the ancestors with the powerful spirits of the land. Figures of humans and animals were carved into the living trees as boundary markers. Fascinated by these carvings, Harris rescued one such boundary marker cut by loggers near Kispiox. It has served as an icon of his people’s territorial claims and has an honoured place in his studio.

Of the totem poles that lie at the heart of Northwest Coast art, the late First Nations artist Harris said: “They are our deeds to the land. They serve as witnesses to the encounter of our ancestors with the supernatural beings who control all the fish, animals and plants in our world. They are our charter of rights from time immemorial.”

For more on Walter Harris, please click HERE.

3 Responses to “Underrated Canadian artist: Walter Harris”

  1. Sadly, the story of Walter Harris is all too familiar in Canadian Art, We must somehow change this, there are far too many artists forgot in the pursuit of the latest and greatest, (primarily curatorial) which although worthy of our attention, often leaves behind people like Walter.
    Education in Canadian Art should become a factor from early schooling to University. Art teachers and professors need to be more creative and informed about Canadian Art.
    Is anyone listening? Time for change our Canadian Art history is young and worthy of our attention.
    Thanks Doug MacLean

  2. Leslie Walker says:

    I have a Walter Harris painting dated 1978
    Titled: Like An Eagle Watching Over Us
    Number: 332/500

    Can you let me know the worth of this painting
    for insurance purposes.

    Thankyou: Leslie Walker

    • Andrea says:

      Hi Leslie, I’m afraid I’m not an appraiser. You can try contacting the Art Gallery of Ontario to see if they could put you in touch with someone. Thanks, Andrea

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