Ask Alvin Mack to reflect on his life and you will get a very candid tale of hardship, personal struggles and the deep-rooted desire to create meaningful art and from that, a meaningful life.
“I left Bella Coola at 17 and I swore I was never coming back,” Mack recalls. “It wasn’t always easy, I had no confidence, no self-esteem or belief in what I was doing.”
That statement seems to echo an elusive shadow of Mack’s past. Last week he was presented with the BC Achievement Foundation’s Creative Lifetime Achievement Award for First Nations’ Art. It is an honour bestowed on individuals who have made a profound contribution to their First Nations’ culture.
“BC First Nations artists play a significant role in the creative life of British Columbia,” said Foundation Chair Keith Mitchell. “These awards highlight the immense cultural traditions of each recipient.”
Over the years Mack has been a teacher and mentor to hundreds of students at Acwsalcta School and the Bella Coola community at large, but he humbly describes himself as a ‘vessel’ for Nuxalk art and culture.
“I live everyday to help our young people, ” he shares. “It’s my ultimate goal.”
While Mack was drawn to traditional native art from a very young age, the road to his present career as a renowned carver, teacher and artist was full of ups and downs. Born and raised on Nuxalk territory, Mack’s parents raised him and his four siblings to work hard, respect the land and engage in traditional activities.
Despite their own struggles, Mack says what his parents taught him had a profound impact on his style as both an artist and a teacher.
“They were both alcoholics; my dad was a residential school survivor,” said Mack. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but they taught us all to work hard. My dad taught me to set goals and follow them through.”
It was his father, Willie Mack, who inspired him to start carving. Although Mack recalls little carving or other art being created in the community at the time, he remembers his father carving totems and creating leatherwork in the living room. He would ask him repeatedly to teach him to carve.
“He said sure,” Mack remembers. “And then he chose a goal for us. We entered our work in the Bella Coola Fall Fair; it must have been in the early 70s. We won first prize in every category we entered.”
Mack continued carving and working on his skills until his father’s premature death. At 16 years old he was suddenly left without a father, and he was angry. Art went by the wayside. He quit school and left the community, vowing never to come back.
“I got a job logging,” he said. “I lived all over the lower mainland, setting chokers and running a tower. It was tough work, monotonous, and I was drinking. I nearly got killed a number of times.”
In a strange twist of fate, Mack took a logging job out of Vancouver that ended up being based in South Bentinck. Like it or not, he was home.
“We came in from camp every weekend,” he recalled. “I met up with Harry Schooner and he gave me two carving knives. I also met my wife, Leila, and I started to calm down. I wanted to stop drinking, and all I wanted to do was to go back to making art.”
A friend told him about the only school at the time that was dedicated to First Nations Art, the Kitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art at Ksan in Hazelton. He quit logging to pursue his dream, took his EI funding and headed north.
“I applied and got accepted but I really had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I knew I could draw and design, but I had no outside support.”
Eager to learn and full of enthusiasm Mack spent all his free time apprenticing under master carvers. Upon learning of his endeavors, representatives at home found funding to support him through the second year, and he graduated in 1985 at the top of his class.
Mack returned to Bella Coola eager to share what he’d learned, but underneath it all he still lacked confidence. His sister Sharon, who working at Acwsalcta at the time, encouraged him to start teaching at the school.
“I was so fearful because I didn’t have the education, I never graduated from high school,” he shared. “But I knew I wanted to bring the art back home, so I did it. It was a steady income too, it wasn’t much, but I had a family to raise and it helped.”
It was a fellow teacher at Acwsalcta who persuaded Mack to stick with it, helped him get back into sports, and pointed out the valuable teachings Mack had to share with his students.
“He told me that teaching isn’t something that you can be trained to do,” Mack remembers. “You can have a formal education but that’s not enough. He said you have to be born with it, you have to have the gift.”
With renewed confidence Mack persevered, going on to complete another two-year jewelry design program at Vancouver Community College. He returned once again to teach at Acwsalcta, continuing to grow as both and artist and a teacher.
Today, there are multiple young carvers and artists that credit Alvin Mack as being their inspiration and mentor, including his sons. A talented and varied artist, Mack carves, working with wood and silver, and he also paints and designs, often working late into the evening when he returns from his teaching job at the school.
Looking at the community today there is little doubt that Nuxalk art is experiencing a resurgence, one Mack likens to a ‘reawakening.’ And it’s gaining international attention.
“We were in a sleeping period. Our art was our written language, it holds our culture and identity,” he explained. “I call myself a vessel because, although I may carve a Thunder mask, our ancestors have carved it for 10,000 years. I am just carrying it on.”
Despite the unforgiving weather, Mack managed to make it out of Bella Coola last week and drove to Vancouver for the ceremony. It was well worth it.
“I really enjoyed it,” Mack shared. “It was an amazing experience. I got to meet several artists that I really look up to, such as Robert Davidson and Susan Point.”
The Honourable John Rustad, Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation and British Columbia Achievement Foundation Chair Keith Mitchell presented Mack with his award, which was sponsored by Polygon Homes Ltd.
Mack said the number of artists who were familiar with his work and approached him at the event to make his acquaintance surprised him. It also inspired him to work even harder.
“A lot of people don’t understand our world here, they don’t have that connection anymore,” said Mack. “Our art enables us to reconnect with our ancestors, and that will carry us further than anyone else.”