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Skeena Voices | World-renowned Indigenous artist has Northwest roots

Dempsey Bob looks back on his early years and his formation as an artist
Dempsey Bob is an internationally-acclaimed Tlingit/Tahltan artist and carver who grew up in the Northwest and has lived in Terrace for the last 14 years. (Harold Demetzer photo/courtesy Margaret Bob)

Dempsey Bob, an internationally-celebrated Tahltan/Tlingit artist who lives in Terrace, comes from humble beginnings in Northwest B.C.

His works are featured in museum collections and galleries around the world, including the Columbia Museum of Ethnology, the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Ethnology in Japan, and Canada House in London. In 2013, he was appointed Officer of the Order of Canada — one of the nation’s highest civilian honours.

Bob has lived in Terrace for the last 14 years where he serves as a senior advisor to the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Arts at Coast Mountain College. The school was established in 2006 and named in honour of Diesing, a trailblazing Haida artist who who mentored many aspiring Indigenous artists in the mid-20th-Century, including Bob, as they endeavoured together to bring Indigenous art into popular culture.

Before meeting Diesing and starting his artistic journey in earnest, Bob’s early life was similar to many others in the Northwest at the time.

He was born in Telegraph Creek in 1948 and spent his infancy there, but with the fur trade in decline, his parents had to leave the area in search of work. They moved to Port Edward to work in the booming fish-cannery industry, which attracted Indigenous families from all over the place.

Bob remembers his boyhood as a vibrant time.

“Growing up in the canneries in the ’50s, it was a creative time. Rock n’ roll was just starting, was just young, and we had a feeling in the air that something was happening and we were part of it somehow,” he said. “I think we were some of the last that had a real childhood, before television and before anything else, you know? Like a proper childhood. We were out in the bush and we’d stay out there all day because we knew what to eat, what kind of berries, and what not to eat. We’d get a grouse.”

He said he the freedom he and his peers experienced allowed their creativity to blossom.

“We drew and we painted stuff. There was no television, no internet, no nothing, so all we had was the radio,” he said. “We were always trying to make things. We’d look in the catalog and we’d see a gun, so we’d carve it. We carved out toys and we made bow and arrows, and made slingshots, and we were always using our hands.”

During the ’60s Bob attended a Catholic high school in Prince George where an art teacher gave him a grade of C-. She told him he didn’t draw the way she wanted him to.

“I said ‘Well, I’m Tahltan and I’m Tlingit. That’s the way I see it. That’s the way I draw it,’” he said. “She pissed me off. And then I said, ‘I’m going to get good.’”

“[Years later] when I got the Officer of the Order of Canada, I thought about her. Then I thought about it later too — that’s her job. That was her job, to piss me off. And it made me more determined that I was going to succeed.”

He joined the Army Cadets for a couple years in the early ’60s.

“We joined because they gave us $100 to go to their camp in Vernon. We never, ever had $100, you know? In the ’60s that was almost like having $1,000,” he said.

Cadet companies would compete to win a pendant each week — this was earned by having the cleanest barracks and performing the best marches on the parade ground. Normally experienced second-year companies would win the pendant, but in Bob’s first year he was in a particularly scrappy company that won the pendant one week through extra-hard work, even going so far as to scrub the trough in their barracks latrine.

Bob graduated high school in 1967, after which he worked a number of blue-collar jobs, including a job at a mill and a job at a cannery.

In 1968, he began studying carving under Diesing in Prince Rupert, after a friend (who was also studying under Diesing) badgered him to join. He had no tools so he borrowed some from his brother.

“As I started, I got that feeling again [like] when I was a kid and we were carving,” he said. “[I felt] the good feeling of working with the wood and tools, and I knew then that’s what I wanted to do.”

At the time, there was some controversy over Diesing’s status as an art teacher, Bob said.

“Traditionally, women didn’t carve in our culture, so some people didn’t want to go with Freda because she was a lady. We didn’t care because she was the only teacher we had — she was our school. And she was a key, key person in those times,” he said.

Bob remembers Diesing as a great human being and a phenomenal artist with a real knack for teaching others.

“The best thing she gave us was our identity, because she starts learning your culture, learning your history, learning who you are, learning where you came from, learn about the ancestors, learn about their stories. That’s what art comes from. And she stressed that; keep learning, keep pushing, keep going,” he said.

“And then she showed us how to see. And what I mean is that she showed us all the great masterpieces of our ancestors, and she showed us where to find these things in museums and books. She gave us books, she gave us tools.”

In 1972, Bob followed Diesing’s advice to attend the Gitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art, where he studied on-and-off for several years, taking breaks to earn money.

Eventually, Diesing helped him land a teaching job in Alaska, where he was able to reconnect with some of his Tlingit family members. He would teach in the winter and carve in the summer.

During this time, Bob and his contemporaries, many of whom also studied under Diesing, and Diesing herself, were hustling trying to sell their artwork.

“My generation, we were born right after the war and we had this drive. We were going to do it. And we did it. I don’t know how we did it, we starved y’know. Used to call it ‘starving and carving,’” he said with a chuckle.

They promoted their artwork and held art shows at every opportunity.

“We went international, because people weren’t buying in Canada [but] they were buying in the States, so we just went to the States, and then we got recognition there and then we finally started to get recognition in Canada,” he said.

“We had to build that market and also try to build our careers, so it wasn’t easy. It was a big struggle and a lot of people quit.”

From there, Bob’s career blossomed to what we see now today.

He credits his success to hard work learned in the Army Cadets and from his family working in the canneries; to his excellent teachers and mentors, including Diesing; and to a passion for art passed down from his ancestors, including his great-grandfather who was also a carver.

“I was lucky I met the right people and I had the passion to do it, and the discipline too. I got that from my parents and my grandparents. They were hard workers, Everybody was a hard worker in those days. If you didn’t work hard, you starved,” he said.

“I was lucky because I stuck to it. Because [so many] people in my class that were better than me — better painters, better drawers, better carvers — they all quit, and I stuck to it, and I was determined to learn.”