Tlajang nang kingaas (the one who is known far away)

As submitted to Sealaska Heritage

On August 15, 2020 my brother, Ben Davidson, transformed into the light that he brought to the world. As an incredibly gifted Haida artist, Ben left us all wealthy with the art that he created and shared with the world.

My brother’s creativity was nurtured from an early age. He often told the story about our great-grandmother, Florence Davidson, directing our father to wash my brother’s hands beneath his own. The belief was that my father’s creativity would thus be passed on to my brother. When I first heard this story, I imagined my brother as a small boy standing between my father’s feet at the sink with water splashing from the tap over my father’s hands onto my brother’s dimpled toddler hands. But whether or not you believe this story, my brother’s hands contained the ability to transform wood, metal, paint, and paper into exquisite creations that were traditional, whimsical, and full of life – just like him.

Biography statements written about Ben describe that he began carving at the age of 16, eventually completing a four-year formal apprenticeship with our father, Haida artist, Robert Davidson. The biographies also state that my brother was mentored by other artists including our uncle, Reg Davidson, and the late John Livingston. 

While Ben learned about art from many people throughout his life, his earliest teachers were our father and our uncle. They apprenticed him in the art form, but also in an approach to life that included commitments to excellence and making contributions to his community. My brother took these commitments very seriously, pushing himself in his art beyond what could be seen by the casual viewer. He also believed in the importance of sharing his knowledge and time with others, whether it was through offering workshops or classes on art or business, or introducing children to Haida art for the first time.

My brother and I were born into art. We joined our father in his studio and while he created Haida art, we drew or painted on large pieces of paper. Later, we carved small blocks of wood into our rudimentary versions of Haida masks. I have vivid memories of painting unicorns while my brother painted trucks on the easels that our father made for us during those early years in Whonnock, BC. Later, my brother’s trucks turned into beings created from ovoids and U-shapes when he began to explore Haida design.

But my brother and I were not only born into Haida art, we were also born into Haida culture. Our father and uncle made sure that we learned Haida dances and songs, and that we practiced our culture as part of our lives. As founding members of the Rainbow Creek Dancers, we were immersed in our culture from an early age in ways that our father, uncle, and grandparents were not able to be because of the Potlatch Ban. And when we stayed with our father, he sang us Haida songs every night before we went to sleep.

My brother’s art reflected the life in these experiences. His paintings leapt off the paper, his masks danced off of the walls, his sculptures came alive when you caught a glimpse of them in corner of your eye. More recently, Ben had begun to explore the use of realism in his art that he described as a way to honour our mother who is ‘Waasdan janaas. His art reflected a passion for Haida shapes and vibrant colours that echoed the way that he lived. Whether it was biking into the wind or painting with his children or teasing those around him, my brother radiated a light that everyone around him could feel. 

Each piece Ben created provided us with a glimpse into how he viewed the world. Each piece had its own life. Each piece told its own story. I was lucky enough to write the stories of his art with him. He would tell me about his inspiration for the piece, and I would tell him what I saw in the shapes and the lines and the colours. Together, we would weave together our ideas to tell the stories of his art. Though I pretended to dread the texts that began with a request for a good story, I was always grateful to be included in his world, I felt honoured to be asked to translate his visual masterpieces into words. And somehow, he always made me feel that I had managed to find the right words to express what he wanted to say. 

But now, words fail me. 

I do not know how to capture my brother’s spirit in these words, and he is no longer here to make sure I get it right. It seems impossible to believe a world exists without my brother in it, and I never imagined that letting him go would be part of my journey as his older sister. As a family, we are working hard to focus upon all that Ben has contributed to our lives instead of the magnitude of what we have lost; my father reminds us, “He left us…with so much.” 

My brother came into this world with gifts from his previous existences, with knowledge about the art that did not come from his mentors but from our ancestors. My father describes this as a cosmic memory that travels with us from one lifetime to the next. So, when I grieve the loss of my brother, my father reassures me that one day he will return to continue his artistic journey. And next time, he will return with all that he learned in this lifetime. Next time, he will continue on from where he left off.

Until next time, Brother. Have a light heart on your new journey.