Vancouver Art in the Sixties

Forays Into Modernism

As western institutional support for “Indian art” grew in the late 1940s, Aboriginal artists drew on and applied, in varying degrees of proficiency, modern art mediums such as water colour, oil, and mural paintings. By the 1960s, many artists were print makers, colourists and figure drawers. They mixed, for example, crest-styled images with painterly landscapes, and they combined western art practices with traditional ones. George Clutesi painted, a legend-based mural on the Expo ’67 Canadian pavilion in Montreal with the brushes left to him by Emily Carr, and published his first book. Chief Dan George used his status as a film actor to publicly perform a soliloquy about the impact of colonial history on the “Indian.”

Chief Henry Speck, Moon Mask Dancers

Chief Henry Speck, Moon Mask Dancers

The 1960s also marked the beginning of a Northwest coast cultural “revival” which was supported by the Massey Report and Canada Council, by museums and galleries. As part of a discursive shift of artifact to art, this discourse can be dated to 1930s art exhibitions in the U.S., Norvel Morriseau’s 1962 private exhibition in Toronto, and the 1967 Vancouver Art Gallery’s, Arts of the Raven: Masterworks of the Northwest Coast. The exhibit, co-curated by Bill Reid, Wilson Duff and Bill Holm, mirrored a kind of Greenbergian modernism of genius and form, with its formalist ban on subject matter and theatricality. As such, the art of the Haida was exhibited as ‘the best’ in terms of its rules of abstraction in contrast to the theatrical Kwakwaka’wakw. All other arts fell into a geographical and race-based vertical mosaic—the most developed in the north, to the “most primitive” in the south. Ironically, this formalist development took place parallel to a period of anti-hierarchical western art practices in which there were cross fertilizations between all the arts. For example, bodily and performative practices emerged as recognized genres, often extended with the new medium of video. These avante-garde practices stand in sharp contrast to the market-driven, development of Northwest coast ‘fine art’ that would eventually eclipse almost all other aboriginal art practices on the Northwest coast.


Henry Speck, a Kwakwak’wakw was born August 12, 1908 on Turnour Island, and attended the Alert Bay residential school for only two years. Initiated as a Hamatsa dancer of the in the Tlowitsis tribe in 1922 at the age of fourteen, he later inherited his father's position as hereditary chief, and was given the name Ozistalis—often translated as "The Greatest".

June 4, 1944

In a 1944 newspaper interview with The Victoria Colonist, George Clutesi is referred to as a ‘full blooded Indian artist’ who states that he “tries to paint the spirit rather than make a pretty picture”. He also is introduced as someone who “has awakened a wide interest” from Lawren Harris, “Vancouver critic and painter of note,” and from Dr. Clifford Carl, of the Provincial Museum. In relation to the sources for his paintings, Clutesi refers to his father who was an “historian of our own legends,” and to “Many of the older people who are “rich in memory” as those whose ‘tales’ he paints. He goes on to refer to his subject matter in terms of aboriginal ownership: “Many of the songs and dances are the property of families and so are my pictures in a way, for they tell their stories. Before an outsider can use any of these ‘privileges,’ he must get the consent of the owner. It is a copyright in the eyes of the Indians”. He refer to himself as a ‘common laborer' who drove piles until a few months previously when he injured his spine, but which gave him “more time to paint” (“Indian Artist Arouses Comment With Paintings” May 21, 1944).


Judith Morgan wins First prize in Pacific National Exhibition (PNE) Vancouver. She is the first winner of the BC Indian Arts & Welfare Society (BCIAWS) Scholarship, and studies at the Alberni Residential School, tutored by West Coast artist Gordon Sinclair. (The Province, July 17, 1947, 20).


In 1947, George Clutesi begins broadcasting "authentic folk tales" on CBS afternoon radio. This project began in 1944 when Clutesi was in Vancouver recovering from a spine injury, and had begun writing down 'the legends' of his people. At this time, he met Ira Dilworth, an English professor at UBC and regional Director of the CBC, who was so impressed by Clutesi’s writings that he asked him to write down the whole collection, which were broadcast later on the radio.

December 1947

The Vancouver Art Gallery exhibits a display of "Indian Children’s Art" from the Alberni and Christie Residential Schools (December 1- 4, 1947). Judith Morgan, seventeen, shows her paintings in the VAG exhibit (The Province, Dec. 5, 10. Vancouver Art Gallery Bulletin Dec. 1947, Vol. 15, no. 2). By 1949 Judith Morgan will have exhibited her work in Victoria, Vancouver, in a solo show at the National Gallery, Ottawa and in the United States (The Province, July 20, 1949, 27).


Ellen Neel is cited as the first Aboriginal Artist on the Northwest Coast to use the process of silk screening to produce multiple art works (Duffek and McLennan and Blackman). Neel has her designs screened onto silk scarves, which become commercially successful. At this time, Neel receives some financial support from the BC Indian Arts & Welfare Society to open her showroom in Stanley Park where she will later carve masks and model totem poles for tourists and local collectors. By 1952 Neel stops carving at Ferguson Point in Stanley Park, and begins using the space as a retail outlet for the sale of her work.


George Clutesi is invited to give the eulogy for the Reverend Pitts, a former residential school principal. The invitation was extended in part because by this time Clutesi had achieved the status of a “well-known Indian artist” (The West coast Advocate, April 21, 1949, Courtesy of the Alberni Historical Society).

The Massey Commission (the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences), is appointed by the federal government by an Order in Council dated April 8, 1949 to examine the state of the arts in Canada.

George Clutesi hitchhikes from Port Alberni to Victoria to see the Right Honorable Vincent Massey, Chairman of the Royal Commission. Clutesi asks Massey's permission to perform traditional songs and dances, a practice that had been criminalized by Canadian legislation. Vincent Massey tells George to "go home and sing" (Tseshaht First Nations website)

“Of all the petitions put before its open hearings, none was more eloquent than that of a slim middle-aged BC Indian named George Clutesi. Clutesi had hitchhiked down-island from his Port Alberni home for the occasion. Dressed in his best pin-striped suit, the slim gaunt millhand and fisherman addressed Chairman Vincent Massey haltingly, but with a rough warm eloquence. Part time artist Clutesi understood well the west coast Indian’s need and problems. .... ‘The Indian,’ he added, ‘still had much to contribute to the country,’ but his art ‘is almost forgotten … and if it is not preserved it will be forgotten altogether. ...’The Indian,’ he said in closing, ‘is at the critical crossroads of his life’” (“Critical Crossroads.” Saturday Night Nov. 22, 1949).


Chief Henry Speck joins the Pentecostal church; he begins to incorporate Christian imagery into his "Kwagiutl-style" paintings.


Chief henry Speck has several of his designs reproduced as prints in the early 1960's. Other Aboriginal artists such as Tony Hunt and Doug Cranmer begin making silkscreen prints of their work as well.


Chief Henry Speck has an exhibition of original watercolours at the Meadowland Park Shopping Centre, in Edmonton, Alberta from August 31 to September 5, 1964.

June 3, 1965

“Indian Art expert Bill Reid in a CBC talk in 1965, calls his [Henry Speck’s] work, an almost unbelievable phenomenon – art which really has no business to be in existence at all …. Reid himself Haida, points out ‘when social structure is swept away, by disease and the encroachment of numbers, what should remain of their art, if anything at all, should be a pitiful shadow tourist items lacking entirely the strength and vitality of the real thing…but among the Kwakiutl there still seems to be a direct connection with the past, among a number of people…with clear eyes to see what was important and valuable in the art of their fathers, and not only reproduce it, but to continue to create original works of high quality’" (The Gazette, July 3, 1965).

July 4, 1967

Chief Dan George (Teswahno) of North Vancouver's Burrard Band acts in the first production of George Ryga's play about the abuse of Native women, The Ecstacy of Rita Joe, performed in Vancouver in 1967. Chief Dan George began his acting career at age 60. Some of the Native actors in the controversial Centennial play were arrested on the streets of Vancouver, thus providing realistic proof of the social problems depicted on stage. On July 4, 1967 Chief Dan George moves a crowd of more than 30,000 people to silence with his eloquent “Lament for Confederation” at Empire Stadium.

It began: “How long have I known you, Oh Canada? A hundred years? Yes, a hundred years. And many many seelanum [lunar months] more. And today, when you celebrate your hundred years, Oh Canada, I am sad for all the Indian people throughout the land."


Expo '67 in Montreal, Quebec: George Clutesi paints one of the major murals on the wall of the Indians of Canada pavilion. "In 1967 at Expo ’67 in Montreal the Indian pavilion [on which Clutesi painted a mural] made a strong and independent showing, and the presence of numerous Indigenous groups from other countries at the Fair provided solidarity and contacts." (Eva-Marie Kroller I).

Clutesi also appears in TV documentaries and numerous films and is awarded the Canada Centennial Medal in 1967. The same year, Clutesi's book, Son of Raven, Son of Deer is published as the first anthology of Aboriginal stories by an Aboriginal person.

“Indian Tales Textbook: Deal is still raw”. . .Son of Raven Son of Deer declared a BC textbook. It is the first time, said Peterson that a book written by a native Indian has been included as a prescribed textbook… it may be the first in all of Canada. ... When asked to express his view of the status of Indian … Clutesi said he agreed with other Indians who said the white man had stole their land …But the greatest difficulty is that we must find ourselves, rediscover our identity and become something…” (The Province Oct. 4, 1967).

December 29, 1970

December 29, 1970, Chief Dan George named best supporting actor by New York film critics for his role as Old Lodge Skins in the film "Little Big Man". His performance earns him an Oscar nomination.


After Expo '67 closed in Montreal, the Expo site lived on as place for exhibitions such as the "Man and His World" exhibit held during the summer months of 1968. Exhibits were held there from 1968 until 1981. In 1970 Robert Davidson, sponsored by the UBC Musuem of Anthropology demonstrated carving at the site and presented a ten foot totem pole to the city of Montreal. However by the 1970's, some of the buildings had fallen into disrepair and some had been dismantled.