World-renowned Nisga’a artist and carver Norman Tait who kept aboriginal art a vital force at a time when it would have otherwise disappeared has died at age 75.
“He had a big impact on the revival of the art,” said Dempsey Bob, also a highly respected, and world-renowned artist and carver, who taught at Northwest Community College’s Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art in Terrace.
When the two of them started their craft, there was no school that taught native art and nowhere to sell their work either, said Bob.
“We had to build the market too so he did a lot of work,” added Bob.
Tait carved a totem pole for the Field Museum in Chicago, which gave northwest aboriginal art wide exposure.
He also worked with Freda Diesing in Prince Rupert as did Bob.
Diesing, a Haida artist, was one of the first female carvers on the modern northwest coast, and an exceptional carver, teacher and mentor.
“We were part of that revival of it. He came along at a critical time when it would’ve been lost so easily,” said Bob, adding Tait was one of the best Nisga’a carvers, if not the best one.
There were no schools that taught the Nisga’a style of artwork – there was Hazelton but it was Gitxsan artwork, said Bob.
“We all worked together and helped each other,” said Bob.
Tait, Simo’ogit Gawaak, was born in 1941 in Gingolx, and was self-taught, researching and exploring the Nisga’a Nation’s rich cultural heritage and forging his own style.
He was on hand at a show of his work last year at the Nisga’a Museum in Laxgalts’ap which was only his second show over the course of his long career. That’s because he was busy on specific projects like publicly-commissioned work instead.
“He is a world-renowned Nisga’a carver and artist with a significant amount of decades in terms of Nisga’a art,” said museum assistant curator Zora McMillan in 2015 about the importance of having Tait’s work on display,
“He carves with wood, metals so jewelry, totems and full ocean-going canoes and so in that respect, he is a master.”
He carved 39 totem poles, including ones for the Nisga’a Nation, the David Suzuki Foundation in Japan, and the British Royal Family in London’s Bushy Park.
Tait carved and raised five totem poles throughout the Metro Vancouver region including the University of British Columbia, Stanley Park, Capilano Mall and the Native Education Centre.
Tait’s work can be found in numerous private collections around the world and in public collections at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, Museum of Vancouver, Royal British Columbia Museum and the Canadian Museum of History.
“Because he’s a storyteller, speaking in an authentic, distinctive Nisga’a voice Norman Tait’s style is like no other; unique yet respectful of the Tsimshian tradition that is his cultural foundation,” read details at the awarding to Tait of the 2012 BC Creative Lifetime Achievement Award for Aboriginal Art. In addition, he was recognized for his contributions to visual arts through the Distinguished Artist Award – The Fund for the Arts on the North Shore.
Former Nisga’a Museum curator Darrin Martens said the planning to have a prominent Nisga’a artist at the museum started a couple of years earlier.
“It was a way for him to come home to the Nisga’a nation and to reassert those connections and his roots in the community.”
Services for Tait are scheduled for this week. Tait died in Vancouver of cancer May 21, one day after his birthday.