Written by Raven John
This week I visited the Aboriginal Gathering Place, the indigenous arts space for students at Emily Carr University. I spoke with Chazz Mack, a Bella Coola artist, who was working on a promotional door carving for a new company. We spoke about the stories behind his work, and the visual language of carving.
Tell us about your journey as an artist.
I guess the main goal of my work is to keep the tradition alive and pass it on to the next generation, to keep the stories and art going for those who are not yet born.
What first made you want to become an artist?
Growing up around it, seeing and experiencing it. My practice started in 2003.
What emotional response do people have when they view your work or hold it in their hands?
I can’t really speak for others, but for me, seeing mine and my family’s work, it means a lot to see the work coming out of Bella Coola. There are a lot of people who have used our aesthetic and work for their own gains, and now that there is more work getting recognition directly from the territory, that the work is now coming from its people, it holds more meaning, culturally, spiritually, and emotionally.
What do you do when you are not creating?
What I should be doing is reading! (laughs) I make sure to spend a lot of time with family, and clear my thoughts for my work, mentally and physically. I also study other artists and media.
We spoke more about how the carvings and form line images hold more meaning than others may perceive. “The visual language of our people has been lost or buried for some time. We are trying to get it back in our work,” he said. The panels he is carving in these photos are of the Salmon Woman, who was married to the Raven. “It’s a story that isn’t heard very often, and is in danger of being forgotten. And that’s why we are carving it now.”
Raven had broken a promise he had made to the Salmon Woman when she agreed to become human and marry him: not to cut off the heads of his salmon, but to hang them. The long dark hair she had also granted him got caught in the teeth of the fish he had hung, and in frustration he cut the head, breaking his word. The Salmon Woman heard of this, and lifted the water like a blanket, and called all the salmon Raven had caught back to life. She left with them, going back under the water, leaving her life with Raven behind.
Stories like these are important to the living culture of indigenous communities. Chazz talked more about how his practice is with him every day. “I make sure to spend plenty of time with my family, and gather our stories naturally.” Culture happens and lives every day, and stories can happen any time.