Babcock expands the scope of her artistry
Her art, like her life, has been a journey of discovery.
Shirley Babcock found out about her past as she learned and experimented with different techniques in her art.
She began painting as a hobby in 2005 and then started delving in earnest into her Kwakwaka’wakw ancestry.
“My dad worked on construction projects and we moved around a lot when I was young. I went to 12 different schools so I was raised away from my own culture.
“We are originally from the mid-coastal region of B.C. and many relatives I would like to have talked to about our family history have passed away. So I did a lot of my research in books and museums and on the Internet.”
Oral history would have been preferable, said Babcock, who comes from a long line of very gifted, artistic people.
“I remember when I was growing up, that my grandmother Alice Johnson used to perform traditional dances and she got paid for it. My great grandfather Hemas was a Hamatsa [ceremonial] dancer and his son, Samuel Johnson, was a great carver.”
From paintings, Babcock wants to expand her artistic horizons and so she is learning carving techniques. She will have a good teacher.
“I just started carving in cedar. Charlie Johnson, who lives on the coast, is going to give me lessons in carving. I’m so excited. I was planning to learn from Samuel Johnson, Charlie’s father, but he passed away in 2006. He made really beautiful ceremonial masks.”
Charlie began carving at age 15 and he’s 48 now – so that’s over 30 years experience she can benefit from, she says.
Babcock thinks that her desire to learn new carving techniques comes from her “fascination” with masks.
She’s also making pottery, again using her knowledge of native art and her ancestry’s traditional design to adorn the pieces.
“I’m just about to fire my first piece of pottery,” she told the Free Press.
Shirley Babcock was at Two Rivers Gallery Artisans’ Fair on Sunday along with several other artists. One of her key pieces is of a Hamatsa [Cannibal] Dance painted in acrylics onto a moose hide drum.
There is a story that goes with it:
The Kwakwaka’wakw have many ceremonies practised by different secret societies with four main cultures – the war society, the magical society, the afterlife society and the cannibal [Hamatsa] society. They use the winter months as the ceremonial season for their masks tradition.
“Hemas and other chiefs spent time at the Oakalla Prison Farm outside Vancouver and took part in the Cranmer Potlatch on Village Island. During the hamatsa dance, masks transform from one character to another to show the transformations the dancer is undergoing.”
The Kwakwak’wakw carving style is bold with bright colours combined with white paint to highlight dramatic expressions intensifying the features in firelight dance performance.
Among the most recognized masks of the Kwakwak’wakw are the enormous Hamatsa bird masks: Crooked Beak is a huge human-eating bird that produces great fear. Huk-huk, uses its long beak to crack open human skulls and suck out brains. Raven eats his victim’s eyeballs.
The masks are used for the initiation ceremony of new Hamatsa Society members and dramatize the struggle of good and evil forces for the young initiate’s soul.
The Hamatsa birds are the earthly representatives of Baxwbakwalanuxwsiwe’ , the cannibal spirit of the sky world.
The birds try to lure the young person into the dark realm, while the family and tribe work tirelessly to liberate forces of evil from the young person’s soul.
When the initiation ceremony ends, the forces of good, with any luck, have prevailed and the young initiate is ready to be a productive and positive contributing member to the Hamatsa society and tribe.
For more about the artist and her work, visit www.shirleybabcock.com.