Cole Speck sits in his Campbell River studio among some incomplete works. Photo by Ronan O’Doherty/ Campbell River Mirror

Cole Speck sits in his Campbell River studio among some incomplete works. Photo by Ronan O’Doherty/ Campbell River Mirror

Vancouver Island artist carves own path while honouring past

Beau Dick protege, Cole Speck, makes magnificent masks

Cole Speck reclined in his seat as he contemplated a small wooden mask he had yet to put the finishing touches on.

The award-winning artist, who occupies a studio on Wei Wai Kum First Nation land in Campbell River, is a captivating conversationalist willing to chat about everything ranging from his upbringing in Alert Bay, to forestry, to wealth, to aqua-dynamics.

He seems to prefer to talk about his mentors, and the impact they had on him, than discussing his own work.

Speck, 30, began carving at the age of 15, when fellow Kwakwaka’wakw artist, Beau Dick, took him under his wing.

“He’s one of the grand masters of Northwest Coast carving,” Speck volunteered. “So I was pretty fortunate to get that opportunity from him.

“It was a pretty eye-opening adventure for me, and has done a lot for me in my life.”

His eyes brightened as he continued to heap praise upon Dick, who was also from Alert Bay.

“His art work is in every major collection period, and that’s the guy I got to learn from,” Speck said, proudly.

“I did a 10-year apprenticeship with him where I essentially lived with him right up until his passing.”

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Working with masters like Dick, and Wayne Alfred, has allowed Speck to travel the world, assisting in the creation of pieces exhibited in far-flung locations like Holland, Germany, Greece, Brazil, and New York.

While the globe-trotting he has done affected his outlook, the mask carvings from which Speck has gained a stellar reputation, have remained quite traditional.

“I’m very rigid in how I approach those pieces,” he said. “There’s no sense in trying to reinvent the wheel.”

Speck typically starts with a piece of red cedar, which he noted is the most ‘forgiving’ of woods. He uses natural pigments where possible, and is continuously looking to the stories of his ancestors for inspiration.

Like all good art, Speck’s pieces elicit strong reactions. They are adorned with loud colours, extreme features, and can come across as terrifying, bewildering, and wondrous at once.

A large unfinished painting of a giant face with a gaping mouth sits on an easel in the studio. Upon entrance it grabs ones attention immediately.

Speck says its a prototype for a series of paintings he plans to work on detailing his thoughts on economic systems.

“It shows the constant eating, and constant absorbing of everything, representing the endless greed that capitalism has,” he said.

Growing up in Alert Bay, he witnessed the transition from boom to bust town, and it left an indelible mark on him.

“I watched the whole collapse of the fishing industry,” he said. “It went from everyone having money to nobody having money.

“Because people there lacked inter-generational wealth, there were people who came into money during the big fishing years, but didn’t know how to manage it.”

Future plans for Speck involve becoming as successful as possible and then giving back to the community he called home as a youngster.

“I want to reach the upper echelons of the art world, and then I’m going to go home to Alert Bay to try and help the kids,” he said.

“That’s my hope, because (art) has literally pulled me out of poverty, and allowed me to put myself in a position where in a sense I’m an ambassador for my nation and for my people.”

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