Canadian Artist Roy Henry Vickers: On His Home, His History and His Heritage
Roy Henry Vickers is a renowned painter and carver who combines images of his West Coast native ancestry with his British heritage. In addition to being an internationally known artist, Roy is also an author, and also recently illustrated a First Nations storybook, published this year, called Raven Brings the Light that was an immediate bestseller.
Roy Henry Vickers is also a gifted speaker and storyteller, and recently gave an inspiring lecture about mindfulness at the Dalai Lama Centre for Peace in Vancouver. Here he talks about his home, his personal history and his heritage.
CAROL: You like to collect books.
ROY HENRY VICKERS: I have a massive collection. When I was a young artist, I would walk into the Haunted Book Shop in Victoria with long hair, headband and bare feet. with a percentage of the money I made with my art, I would buy the oldest books –expensive reference books dating back to the early 1900s – on the North West Coast peoples. I have some of the first books ever published in Canada.
CAROL: What intrigued you about them?
ROY HENRY VICKERS: When I moved to Victoria, BC, I came across discrimination. I don’t call it “racism” because I believe that we all come from one race, but the word discrimination refers to that given by ignorant well-educated people.
I took it upon myself to learn about and become a teacher of the beautiful people, culture and art of my father’s people. The books gave much history about the First Nations people that many people didn’t, and still don’t, know.
CAROL: You weren’t discriminated against before you came to Victoria?
ROY HENRY VICKERS: It never was a thought in my mind that I had a white mother and Indian father until I was 17 years old. But this new discovery sent me on a journey to discover who the people were where I grew up. Those people didn’t live on welfare; there were no drunks in the village (there was a law against alcohol).
They were hard workers within a closely knit community who built their own homes and their own boats. My mother was the only “white” person in the village, in addition to the priest. But the chief of the village viewed her simply as “a person who, for some reason, was born without heritage crests.” So she was adopted by the chief, and her children were also adopted as part of the tribe.
Later, my mother Grace Vickers became the first non-Indian to be chief of a council in the country.
ROY HENRY VICKERS: I look to the east where the sun rises and ask that my eyes and my ears be open to the lessons that I need to learn, for I am a teacher, as we all are, and without those, I have nothing to teach. I look to the south, the way of the healer, and I ask that my heart be open to my healing journey and to whatever and whomever it encounters, because healing is important for me, and since we are all healers, our hearts must be open to bring the knowledge of the teacher out and allow what must enter. I look to the west where the sun goes down and see that we are all visionaries, and I ask that I have a clear vision to see myself and watch myself as I walk through this world and speak to others. I look to the north, the way of the leader, and I realize that without the lessons, without the healing and without the clear vision, I would be like the blind leading the blind.
CAROL: Thank you! Although your work is displayed in museums and private collections worldwide, one masterpiece that perhaps took you the longest to create will never be seen outside of your tiny community — your own home. Tell me about it.
ROY HENRY VICKERS: We bought a house on 87 acres of Skeena River Valley paradise, close to the town of Hazelton, six years ago and immediately began extensive renovations. I designed the spaces to suit a lifestyle surrounded by horses, family, garden, and creativity.
We love our home — when standing on the sundeck we can toss a pebble into the Skeena River. I’ve been an artist for 38 years, and drawing since I was old enough to hold a pencil, so it influences everything I do.
I tore the house apart, had a post and beam barn and stables that I sketched constructed, and landscaped the property all at the same time. Although I‘m 67, it’s my young wife, seven children, and the country life I now live that keep me energetic.
CAROL: How did you improve upon it?
ROY HENRY VICKERS: The house used to have a dramatic vaulted ceiling and large pointed windows. But it was impractical — every word spoken bounced off of it. So we extended the front of the house, adding a living room and a beautiful bedroom overtop of it as a second floor; the windows that were part of the vaulted ceiling now reach the rafters in our bedroom.
My favourite room is the bedroom because that’s where I spend a lot of time with my wife. It has heated slate floors and a king-sized bed surrounded by birch walls and built-in drawers that replace closets. For the bed, I designed a large headboard to look like a tiny longhouse, with my wife’s eagle and whale crest carved in it. The four-poster bed has adzed posts shaped like killer whale fins.
The room has a sundeck overlooking the river, and a six-foot square shower with river rock floor using wide, very flat rocks we picked from the river.
CAROL: Where do you also spend time?
ROY HENRY VICKERS: On the first level, the living room has a wraparound sundeck, leather sofas and comfortable chairs in either corner where we sit to have morning coffee and look out to the river. A massive river rock fireplace reaches from floor to ceiling in the centre of the open plan house, just off of the kitchen and living room, which heats the entire home.
The dining room table is 12 feet long in edge-grained cedar – I harvested the cedar and designed it – and everyone who enters the room comments on it. We use it; last night 40 people were here for dinner.
CAROL: What is your philosophy about creating art?
ROY HENRY VICKERS: I work only from inspiration. I learned at a young age to remember all of the ideas that come to me before I actually create them. Inspiration comes from the Greek word inspiritus which means “the breath of the creator that provides inspiration,” like inhalation or respiration, within us. And when that happens, it doesn’t go away, and sooner or later you feel you must act on it.
Oftentimes the longer it takes to create something, the more layers there are to the pieces — as you’re creating it you get sent other messages. My adopted name within the Haida nation is translated to mean “he paints within his spirit.” I don’t think that all artists work from spirit.
My art teacher said to me, “Don’t study art in school or you will have to learn a lot of things that are required to get a degree that mean nothing to you. You already have the passion to learn whatever interests you for your creativity.” The world’s great artists have learned to create from the uniqueness of who they are.
If you study only what you love, you may have the chance of creating a style that people will come to know as your own. Otherwise you’ll end up being a teacher, or take 20 years to unlearn and find the place where you should be. We’re all unique as human beings and no matter what others think of your style, it can be your own.
CAROL: Your native art collection is enviable.
ROY HENRY VICKERS: The main level of my house resembles a gallery, showcasing my paintings, screen prints and carvings. Two eight-foot totem poles are carved in the shape of eagles, one wrapping itself around a pole that holds a massive fir beam extending along the ceiling.
I have pieces by Hokusai and Hiroshige, Japanese woodblock printers from two centuries ago who inspired the way I view the world and my art. I’m a hereditary chief so display a chief’s rattle and headdress by Glen Tallio (when I’m not wearing them as a peace dancer). I have heritage family photographs from First Nations and the British Isles, a “copper,” and a collection of antique baskets given to my wife’s grandfather, the first doctor in the Comox Valley. (People paid him for his services with artifacts.)
CAROL: With such history, don’t you worry about displayed artifacts getting broken?
ROY HENRY VICKERS: Everything is displayed in places where all can touch them; my children know their value. I especially like a carved door leading to the sunroom was originally the door of my Tofino gallery and studio. When the gallery became too busy to work in, I moved out and took the door with me.
CAROL: Do you need private space to work?
ROY HENRY VICKERS: I have a home studio in the original master bedroom… and a more private space in Kispiox village that I call The Hiding Place.