From the carvers’ blade Haida art unfolds history into a contemporary tale.
James “Jim” Hart is a Haida artist born in 1952 on Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. He is best known for his painted and printed graphic designs, sculpted wooden monuments, cast bronze sculptures, and precious metal jewellery–all produced adhering to the ancient traditional design style of his Haida ancestors. Jim’s home community is the village Old Massett located on northern Haida Gwaii, and he also has ancestral connections to the modern Haida villages of Skidegate and Hydaburg in Alaska.
During Jim’s childhood, he was blessed to have been surrounded and influenced by many of his family members, which included many skilled and intelligent traditional knowledge holders. Jim’s maternal uncle Morris White, who passed away in 1997, was a carver and canoe builder based in Old Massett, and Jim’s deceased great-grandfather was acclaimed Haida artist Charles Edenshaw (1839 – 1920). Jim was also fortunate to be able to observe the remnants of historical Haida totem poles and other traditional Haida forms of art from a very young age.
During his teenage years, Jim thought he wanted to follow in the footsteps of some of his seafaring family members and pursue a career in commercial fishing. In early adulthood, Jim spent time focusing his attention on commercial fishing and practising and playing basketball with teams from his home community. Jim soon realized that with his gifted spatial intelligence and dexterity, it would make more sense for him to dedicate his time to producing works of art.
Jim began designing and wood carving in his spare time and was soon given an opportunity by fellow Haida artist Robert Davidson as an assistant carver working on the Charles Edenshaw Memorial Longhouse in 1978. Around this time Jim’s uncle Claude Davidson also commissioned him to paint eagle and raven crest figures on the front of a longhouse-style home and art gallery located in Old Massett. In 1979, the Royal British Columbia Museum commissioned him to produce a carved wooden panel screen featuring a dogfish crest design. After successfully proving his skill and attention to detail as a wood carver during these initial opportunities, Jim moved to Vancouver to begin working with the preeminent Haida artist of the time, Bill Reid.
During his time in Vancouver through the early 1980s, Jim assisted Bill Reid on the Raven and the First Man sculpture where he gained valuable artistic and cultural knowledge and began to further understand his role and responsibilities as a respected Haida artist working within the traditional art forms. Soon after this initial project with Bill Reid was complete, Jim designed and completed a full-size cedar totem pole on his own, with the pole’s figures and carving style being closely based on an ancient pole that once stood in the village of Old Massett on Haida Gwaii.
Jim Hart’s career as a modern professional artist has always been intertwined with Haida traditions and immense cultural responsibility. Over the years, Jim has created numerous large-scale wooden sculptures, directed the construction of traditional Haida longhouse style buildings, produced timeless gold and silver jewellery and larger bronze castings, and designed dance and feast regalia, as well as completing many other well-made pieces of traditional Haida art.
Jim is known as a steadfast traditionalist in terms of the artwork he produces. His artistic designing and carving styles have stayed true to the conventions, aesthetics, and cultural functionality of the ancient art forms that were developed by his ancestors over thousands of years. His understanding of how the traditional art form is inextricably connected to Haida Gwaii’s history, culture, people, plants and animals, and land and seas can be observed in most of his creations. This, in combination with his masterful designing and technical skills, allow his works of art to legitimately be on par with the historic Haida masterpieces held in museum and private collections all around the world.
Jim has been commissioned to produce major works of art for prominent museums, galleries, and private collectors around the globe. Many of these significant projects take months or years to complete and require assistants to help in the daily carving tasks. He has always made sure that he employs a team of Haida apprentices while carrying out as much of the work as possible on Haida Gwaii when focusing on large-scale works of art. Through these monumental projects, Jim has passed on invaluable cultural and technical knowledge to his apprentices–helping to continue many of the age-old Haida artistic traditions into future generations of Haida people. It has been said that many of Jim’s works of art also carry an additional powerful air of traditional spirituality in part due to his decisions to hire Haida assistants and carry out the work in his homeland.
The inseparable connection between Jim’s artwork and his culture and homelands was furthered in 1999 when he hosted a potlatch, carved and raised a ceremonial totem pole, and assumed the chieftainship of his Haida eagle clan passed down to him through his maternal bloodline. During this multi-day ceremony on Haida Gwaii, Jim received the Haida name 7idansuu which has been passed down through his family from ancient times. Since his chieftainship potlatch, Jim (7idansuu) has been heavily involved in cultural and political planning and decision making within his clan, home community, and the Haida Nation through the Hereditary Chiefs Council.
Jim’s artistic skills have evolved over the course of his career, and he continues to produce masterful and refined pieces as he enters into the elder phase of his life with no signs of slowing down. Many of Jim’s recent creations, such as the Salmon Screen (The Scream Too) housed at the Audain Museum in Whistler, British Columbia, are truly awe-inspiring and have genuinely brought the traditional Haida artform to new heights.
The Reconciliation Pole
In April of 2017, the Reconciliation Pole was raised at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the Musqueam Nation’s territory. UBC and the Audain Foundation commissioned Jim Hart to produce the 55-foot cedar monument, in large part, to bring recognition and understanding to Canada’s atrocious legacy of First Nations residential schools. The pole was carved on Haida Gwaii from an 800-year-old red cedar log by Jim and a team of Haida apprentices over the course of two years. Finishing touches were completed on the UBC campus in Vancouver during the days leading up to the pole being erected.
The pole is dedicated to children who have lost their lives at the notorious schools. Read more about the pole’s structure and meanings.
The Reconciliation Pole compliments UBC’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre which opened in April 2018. The Dialogue Centre is an institution that addresses the experiences of First Nations residential school survivors on Canada’s west coast. With this Centre, UBC hopes to provide a place for former residential school students, survivors, and their families to access records and other historical material collected by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Centre aspires to provide honest and open information about Canada’s residential school legacy, and the lasting effects it has had on many different First Nations. With this space, UBC hopes that Canadians can gain a true understanding of the residential school legacy to help begin the process of sincere reconciliation with First Nations.
The continued legacy of Canada’s residential school system is just one of many important and difficult issues that Jim has used his artistic talent to bring attention to. Jim’s ability to use his artwork to help bring awareness to important issues affecting the Haida people and their homelands is another example of him selflessly conjuring up the higher-level power held within his ancestral art form for the benefit of future generations. 7idansuu has brought careful planning and valiant effort to countless artistic challenges throughout his career. His commitment and traditional approach have helped him achieve the legitimate status of a contemporary Haida Master Carver in the eyes of many knowledgeable members of the Haida community.