"My Father taught me to be proud"
George Clutesi, (1905 - 1988)
George Clutesi was born in Alberni in 1905. Like his father, he was a member of the Tse-Shaht band. "Essentially, we were a fishing people; regarded as among the greatest whale hunters on the entire coast" (Baird, Ron, "Man With a Vision", The Beaver, Spring 1962.)
When George was just four years old, his mother died. He was raised by his father and his aunts until he was old enough to be enrolled in the Alberni Residential School. He was not a very healthy child and was shy and withdrawn at school. He began drawing even though he received little encouragement from his teachers.
George left the Alberni Residential School and began to earn his living as a fisherman. He was very busy working and raising his family and did not have much time for his art. In 1940 he changed jobs and began to work in construction. A few years later he had an accidental fall in which he broke his back. While he was recovering in Vancouver General Hospital he could look out the window and see the students coming and going to a local art school. He began to think about painting again.
It took a long time for George to recover from his back injury and he worked at many different jobs to support his family. During this period he corresponded with his friend Anthony Walsh who encouraged him to draw and paint. "I haven't done any sketching at all though I'm `cooking' up ideas in my head for that purpose." (Clutesi to Walsh, July 16, 1944, MS-2629, Box 1, File 2, BC Archives).
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s George painted in oils and began to exhibit his work. His friendship with Anthony Walsh and Ira Dilworth enabled him to meet artists Emily Carr and Lawren Harris. Lawren Harris encouraged him to maintain his own style despite what critics might say. Emily Carr was so impressed with his work that she left him her brushes, oils and unused canvases when she died.
George was also very involved in studying and writing about West Coast Native traditions and culture. In 1961 he spoke to the British Columbia Historical Association on North West Coast Indian Art. In his address he stated that:
"they (the Natives) are the bearers of a rich cultural inheritance that must be repossessed by its rightful heirs before it is forgotten and relegated entirely to the musty vaults of museums, there to lie (perhaps majestically) as specimens of art crafts of a past and remote ethnic group."
(MS 2736, Vol. 17, File 13).
George Clutesi was a man of many talents. He performed traditional dances with a troupe; he lectured on Native culture and legends. He was commissioned to paint an enormous mural for Expo 67, and he wrote several books. In 1971 he was awarded an honourary degree by the University of Victoria. He acted in several movies including "Dreamspeaker" which won him a Canadian film award.
George died in Victoria in 1988. He was 83 years old and recognized throughout North America as an important person in the revival of interest in North West Coast culture and traditions. He wanted to and did contribute to the average person's understanding and appreciation of Native arts and customs. He expressed this desire in the introduction to his 1969 book Potlatch when he said "This narrative is not meant to be documentary. In fact it is meant to evade documents. It is meant for the reader to feel and to say I was there and indeed I saw." (Clutesi, George, Potlatch, 1969.)
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