The Early Days of an Unsuspecting Arts Writer

I spent the last weekend of August 2018 doubling up on weddings. Across from me at wedding numero 1 sat an old friend from writing school, gushing about our time in classes together and praising me as an integral component of her warm memories of writing school. Her guts weren’t splitting open to write like mine (she said, though I’m impressed that she remembered that about me), and her memories of writing school wouldn’t be complete without me. I guess all that bitching I did to my invisible friends as of late about nobody liking (or remembering) me elicited a response from the universe. How delightfully surprised I was to find myself in the company of an admirer—who knew and remembered me as a writer.

If I have my facts straight, which I might not, this is the second official profile I had ever written of an artist (for money—$12/hour, I believe). When I applied to Homes & Living Magazine in 2011 and landed a job as an arts writer with my very own arts columns, this didn’t make the portfolio. I think I may have been so stressed out about being broke that I didn’t even remember that I had profiled artists, though I don’t recall applying for an arts-specific writing gig. Without giving her away, words can’t describe how awesome that editor was to me. Thanks to her vision and generosity, I can say I have arts columns under my belt. Profiling artists could be positive constructive escapism for me.

I remember three things most predominantly about interviewing the well-known Kwakwaka’wakw artist Mark Henderson: 1) He’s ridiculously good looking; 2) I’m a teeth person, and he had perfect teeth; and 3) Hanging out with him felt like a huge hug. I wanted him to be my adoptive father, though I kept that request to myself (I think).

Mark was a Taurus, and passed away in 2016 at the age of 63. In his obituary it mentions that he often mused that we are here for a good time, not a long time. What an honour and privilege it was to cross paths, however brief, with this great man.

A body of Work

by Jill Lang

“I would say that art runs in my blood,” Mark Henderson says, then chuckles. A warm smile shows off his [perfect] teeth. “But I’ve created my own style.”

Henderson works in the carving shop with the red roof on Spit Road.

When I caught up with him recently, he was working on the last few pieces for his art exhibit at the Museum at Campbell River.

The museum has worked with the Henderson family since 1958. A totem pole stands outside the museum crafted by Henderson’s father, Sam Henderson, and his brother Bill’s work is featured in the main exhibit.

“We purchased 15 of Mark’s prints over the years, and through two corporate sponsors, we were able to buy one of each of his images that he’s ever done,” says Leisa Davis, executive director of the museum.

Now the museum houses 61 original images from 1977 to 2000.

“We’re the only institution to have this whole body of Mark’s work,” says Davis. “So we thought it would be exciting, not only for the community, but also in Mark’s honour, to show this complete set of his works as a learning experience.”

The museum opened the exhibit titled, The Visions of Mark Henderson: A Kwakwaka’wakw World View, to the public Sat., May 19 with a dance ceremony.

While many of his brothers turned to carving like his father, Henderson’s preference for two-dimensional art became apparent early on. Much of Henderson’s work falls within the traditional realm of ceremonial and social importance—two-dimensional designs painted to house fronts, canoes, drums and dance screens. Henderson says he probably wouldn’t be painting today if not for his father.

“I was fortunate to be in a family involved in culture, like dances and songs,” says Henderson. “Watching the potlatch ceremony inspired me to do some of the designs I’ve done.”

Henderson’s First Nation, the Kwakwaka’wakw people, use the potlatch ceremony to give meaning to their existence by observing themselves in relation to the Sky World, Sea World, Mortal World and Spirit World. Masks are worn to interpret dances and rituals, as songs and oration carry legends and mythology to future generations.

At age 11, Henderson became interested in painting and design after spending previous years helping his father paint poles and listening to stories. In addition to the potlatch, some of Henderson’s prints are based on his father’s stories.

“Without those stories,” he says, “there’d be no prints.”

Henderson studied art books and West Coast artists like Henry Speck and Willy Siwid from the Alert Bay area, but he attributes most of his learning to his father.

Henderson’s adaptation of Indigenous art has earned him recognition as an accomplished artist locally, nationally and internationally. Since 1979, his impressive body of work has been featured in exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and Quintana’s Gallery of Native and Western Art in Portland, Ore.

“I’ve done several shows down in Portland,” Henderson says. “But preparing for these shows is a lot of work, because you have to produce originals, like make new pieces for each show.”

It didn’t take him long to prepare for this exhibit, though. In addition to the prints acquired over the years, collectors from Vancouver and Victoria loaned the museum pieces, and Campbell Riverites lent work created during Henderson’s youth.

Henderson says his work starts out with a “vision,” then materializes onto matte paper as a sketch. From the sketch, he produces original artwork.

The extensive collection represents 23 years of Henderson’s career. Among the many notable prints to browse, is one where two separate images of salmon facing each other hold special meaning to Henderson.

“My dad gave me the crest of the wolf, but I already had this salmon,” he says, pointing to his arm. “If you have twins, they automatically get the salmon crest. I had a twin, but he died when he was 18 months old.”

A wolf is tattooed to the outside of Henderson’s right forearm while a salmon spans the outside of his left. Traditionally, the wolf crest symbolizes a tribe’s great teacher, a strong individualistic urge and a strong sense of family.

“Three generations of Henderson’s have been artists in the community and we think that’s significant,” says Davis, curator at the Campbell River Museum. “Mark is of particular interest because he is one of the few who does two-dimensional paper and paintings.”

Henderson’s exhibit runs until Sept. 20, and Davis hopes school groups will come in June and September.

She expects the high-tourist season will help draw members from the community and visitors of Campbell River to the museum.

“Campbell River should be proud of the artists it has in the community and Mark is definitely high up there,” says Davis. “We hope that his legacy can continue for many years.”

*Original article appeared in the Campbell River Mirror on May 25, 2007.