Carver Tony Speers with his newest Shaman mask on the left and his mask depicting the story of a woman named Sximana. Each of the masks in the show includes a written description about the meaning behind the mask.

Carver Tony Speers with his newest Shaman mask on the left and his mask depicting the story of a woman named Sximana. Each of the masks in the show includes a written description about the meaning behind the mask.

Carver appreciates Nuxalk mentors

Tony Speers’ collection of hand carved and painted wood masks on display at the Station House Gallery this month.

Tony Speers’ collection of hand carved and painted wood masks on display at the Station House Gallery this month are awe inspiring and a beautiful reflection of his great love for the Nuxalk people and their traditions.

In an animated talk given during the opening of his show, Thursday, Feb. 2 Speers recounted the circumstances that lead him to carve masks in the Nuxalk style.

He first fell in love with First Nations art when his Grade 5 teacher asked them to open their books to a page which showed a picture of a Haida mask.

“The lines, the form, the colours, the shapes and everything,” Speers said. “I just fell in love with it.”

Fishing trips to Bella Coola with his family as a boy solidified his resolve to one day live in that community.

Speers grew up and became a teacher. Starting out in his chosen career in 1989 he was offered two jobs on the same day, one in Vancouver and the other at the Acwsalcta band school in Bella Coola.

True to his promise he took the job in Bella Coola.

He thought he would be teaching woodworking skills such as building a coffee table or some bookshelves, but one of his tasks was to teach Nuxalk mask carving.

“If I was going to teach how to make masks, how to make tools, how to make drums, if I was going to do any of that I had to know, I had to learn,” Speers said.

He asked around who might teach him to carve and the name Alvin Mack kept coming up.

Undaunted, after Mack’s first refusal to mentor him, Speers carved a mask on his own using the tools he had at hand in his shop.

This time Speers went back to Mack with his first attempt at a mask in hand.

“I showed him my mask and he looked at me kind of funny … and started laughing,” Speers said.

Mack led him to a back room where he rummaged to the bottom of a trunk and pulled out a photograph of the ugliest mask he had ever seen, with a nose that had obviously been glued back on.

It was Mack’s first mask.

“He said I’m carving at 11 (p.m.),” said Speers, who eagerly returned that night for a lesson.

That began a three-year immersion in Nuxalk culture, and a mentorship relationship with Alvin Mack that continues today.

“Thank you again, my friend,” Speers said in his artists statement posted on the gallery wall.

For the first while, Speers said he would just sit and watch Mack carve and listen to him talk about Nuxalk culture often well into the early hours of the next morning.

Then one night Mack asked him to bring the mask he was working on.

Somewhere around 3 a.m., he said Mack asked to see his mask.

“He drew a line down the middle of the mask and started working on it,” Speers said.

“In half an hour he literally carved half the face that I had been working on for weeks. He handed it back to me and said bring it back tomorrow with the other side looking the same.”

It was 4:30 a.m. and he had to be up at 7 a.m. so he took the carving knife Mack had given him and the mask to school with him to work on whenever he had a spare minute.

“So for the next three years whenever you saw me I’d have a piece of wood and a carving knife in my hand,” Speers said. “I was leaving a mess everywhere so after school it would take me about 45 minutes to go around the school and clean it all up.”

During the five years he was teaching in Bella Coola Speers said that he and his students, together with Alvin Mack and Joe Mack worked on everything from design, to making their own tools, to carving dance masks, rattles, paddles, bows, and drums.

One year they carved a 20-foot totem pole and erected it in front of the school.

“That was a great day,” Speers said. “It was the first totem pole raised on Nuxalk territory in more than 50 years.”

He said there had been some reluctance in the community to raise a totem pole, going back to the days when potlatches and First Nations culture had been suppressed.

After many cups of tea with elders and families about what they hoped to achieve with the totem pole, permission was granted for the carving.

He said consensus for the totem pole was required because many of the stories, designs, and crests used in traditional carving are owned by families.

“Some of these things have been around since the beginning of time,” Speers said. “They have always belonged to the same people, the same families so I had to assure them we weren’t trying to steal anything. We weren’t trying to do anything that was going to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

He said they also created two four-by-eight-foot carved plaques for the community, one at the ferry dock to welcome people to Bella Coola and one at the school.

“I got to really respect the Nuxalk culture and the direction they wanted to go, and along the way I made a lot of friends,” Speers said of his five years teaching in Bella Coola.

One of those friends was the late Nuxalk Hereditary Chief Lawrence Pootlass who told him that what they were doing to keep the Nuxalk culture alive was nothing unless they talked about it with the youth and shared it with others.

“We have to give people a better understanding and greater respect among everybody. As long as that dialogue can happen he said then everyone will start getting along better,” Speers said.

Describing in detail the dancing, the singing, the regalia, and pageantry involved in the ceremonies, Speers went on to talk about the thrill of attending a potlatch held for the blessing of a new longhouse at Kimsquit.

“It was real, it was true and by experiencing that, it changed my whole vision of First Nations culture because you could see it was rooted in the beginning … it came from deep down,” Speers said.

During the potlatch he said Lawrence Pootlass gave him his Nuxalk name TL’PA

He encouraged the full gallery of visitors for the opening to try saying his name starting with a click in the back of the throat followed by “spa” sound.

He said Pootlass laughed because although his name was Speers, he had watched him out on the river having no success catching fish, while just down the river a bear was scooping them up with ease.

“Alvin just retired from the school last year after 27 years of teaching there,” Speers said. “You should see the lineup of artists that are coming out of that community now.”

He said several of the Acwsalcta school students have won YVR scholarships to have their work exhibited at the Vancouver International Airport alongside famous First Nations artists such as Bill Reid and Robert Davidson.

Among them, he said he had the pleasure of teaching, now internationally famous Nuxalk carver and instructor Latham Mack.

Speers said Latham carved his first mask in his class at Bella Coola, but the mask almost didn’t get finished. As a young student playing with friends while waiting for the school bus he had inadvertently left the mask behind in a snowbank. By the time he got a ride back to the school to find the mask the snowplow had been by.

They got out shovels and started digging.

“We found it and he finished it and he actually traded it for a brand new quad, so it was worth digging it out of the snow,” Speers said.

Speers is currently teaching carving to grades 8, 9 and 10 students at Skyline alternate school at the GROW Centre in Williams Lake. One of the student projects was carving a 10-foot totem pole which now stands in the School District 27 board room.

Speers masks have sold in Germany, France, England, Italy and the U.S., but to this day, Speers said Bella Coola is his favourite place in the world.

“I believe that if I’m going to call myself a Nuxalk artist I must respect Nuxalk traditions and bring honour and value with each chip,” Speers said in his artist’s statement.

“When someone looks at my work I want them to see elements of traditional Nuxalk line, form and design mixed with a contemporary feel.”