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‘I just do the work’: Renowned artist Xwalacktun receives prestigious lifetime achievement award

Squamish artist’s advice for aspiring artists: Choose and pursue your true passion.

Xwalacktun (Rick Harry) has yet another award to add to his plentiful collection. 

He was recently announced as the winner of the Polygon Award in First Nations Art in the Award of Distinction for Lifetime Achievement category.

The annual award from the BC Achievement Foundation "recognizes those who have demonstrated a commitment to their art practice; have accumulated a body of work; and are recognized in their communities as artists."

The BC Achievement Board decided Xwalacktun's award after community consultation.

"I am very happy and honoured to be acknowledged. I'm just a simple person. I just do the work. I don't look for awards. I just do the work and it comes to me," said Xwalacktun, 65, who was working on an outdoor commissioned piece in Port Moody when reached by The Squamish Chief.

Xwalacktun, who is of Kwakwaka’wakw (Alert Bay) and Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) heritage, grew up in Squamish then moved to X̱wemelch'stn (Capilano) in West Vancouver in 1996 to more fully pursue his art.

"It was better for me as an artist to be more located in a place where I could move the work more," he said.

While he was always artistic and acknowledged for his talent in school, he said when he graduated from Howe Sound Secondary he had no idea art would be his career.

"After I graduated, I just wanted to work ... I searched for seven months and didn't get a job at all," he recalled.

His parents encouraged him to instead pursue his art full time. 

"Yeah, but I don't want to be a starving artist," he recalled rebutting, with a laugh.

But pursue art he did.

"It took about 15 years for the ball to get rolling for me before I really started selling stuff," he said. 

Now, there is a one or two-year waiting list to have him do a commissioned piece, and his art is featured and has taken him around the world. 

He has been to Beijing, many places in Europe and even has 34 of his carved poles in Scotland. 

Next summer, he will be an artist in residence north of Johannesburg in South Africa.

He said even when he is not officially working, he is doing something with art.

"I'm always being creative. I'm doing art every day. Even if I am on holiday, I'm taking a couple of knives and a piece of wood and I'm whittling away," he said.

"Work is play and play is work."

Creating in glass, wood, metal and more, Xwalacktun said he doesn't have a favourite medium.

Asked if one medium is more forgiving, he said he doesn't make so-called mistakes. 

"I have been doing art for 53 years and I've been designing all my life ... If things happen that way—you know, something breaks—I just allow it to happen. I just work with it."

As noted in the blurb announcing his award, Xwalacktun is an educator and a mentor to many.

The advice he gives for budding artists is that you can love two things, such as music and art, but you have to pick one and stick with it for it to be your career.

"You have to be able to just work it all the time," he said. 

"You can love both of them, but which one do you really want to work with?"

Asked for any parting words, he said that he had a lot of support to get him where he is. 

"We talk about Every Child Matters ... when I was a child and I did my artwork, everyone supported me. As I got into high school, I was being supported by my mother and my father and other family members and friends."

He said youth need that support to help push them forward. 

He recalled that teachers, instructors, principals and superintendents, individuals like the late local journalist Rose Tatlow, and businesses, such as Garibaldi Graphics, and others helped him along the way.

"The community was helping,” he said. 

An award ceremony and dinner to honour Xwalacktun and the other recipients will be held on Wednesday, Nov. 15 at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre in Vancouver. Each award winner will be honoured with a short film highlighting their accomplishments. 

Other Polygon Award in First Nations Art winners include:

Brent Sparrow – Musqueam, Vancouver

Klatle-bhi – Kwakwaka’wakw / Squamish, West Vancouver

Shawna Kiesman – Nisga’a, Ts’msyen, Haida, Victoria – Crabtree McLennan Emerging Artist

Find out more on the BC Achievement Foundation website. 

Find out more about Xwalacktun on his website.

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