Keeping A Steady Beat on Tradition

Written by Rhonda Lee McIsaac

Formline with ovoids, u shapes, and s shapes flow behind the realistic renderings of animals from the Pacific Northwest Coast. The acrylic paint has been applied with light, fast, and continuous pressure resulting in...


My name is Josh Rodney Davidson. I’m the owner of Josh Davidson’s Artwork, a new home-based business in Gaauu Llnagaay Old Massett Village.  

What type of art do you do? 

I’m a Haida artist working with acrylic paint mostly painting on paper, raw hide, feathers, and other items like paddles, panels, or masks (occasionally) as required. My drawings are usually done in pencil on paper and also painted. I also get prints made of my work sometimes. I am also a drum maker and make my own wooden frames, drum sticks, and drum handles as I am also a wood worker with carpentry skills, having built my home and sheds. 

Steven Reid was a really nice drum maker around here. He showed me how to make them. I’d go help him all the time while I started making my own. After watching him over the years I was able to keep making drums after he passed away. I learnt how to make the block sizes for the drum hoops at the Haida Gwaii Woodworking Company in Gaauu Llnagaay Old Massett. I weave a dreamcatcher design or string the hide with sinew on the back of the drum. 

My hand made drums range from 12 to 30 inches with elk hide stretched onto the red or yellow cedar hoops. Some are heavier than others so each one is unique so you’re encouraged to try it out before you purchase them to make sure they fit you well. It takes about a week to make a well-made drum. I’ve been shipping them all over Canada and the States. They are very different.  

How did you get into the art you do now? 

When I was younger my step dad Leonard Bertrand taught me. He was really good at drawing. As a child I liked to draw trucks all the time. I was also taught by my uncle Ross John Parnell; who was always drawing and doodling Native art. When I was 13 years old, I got my own drawing table and kept on practicing. I would use tracing paper and copy the drawings of older artists. Years later, at the John Howard Society I began working on making art pieces and trying to sell them but some buyers were not interested in buying my earlier works. I was scratching around trying to sell my work but over the years, I began improving. I began selling my framed art work in Prince Rupert. Now, I can’t even keep up with the demand. If I want to make money, I just have to paint. And the pieces just go out the door.   

What do you enjoy about creating art on Haida Gwaii?

“It’s a different space for creativity. You’re surrounded by nature here. The land and ocean are inspirations for me and my work.  You can try to do it elsewhere (and his voice trails off before beginning again). It’s not as busy and easy to focus on what you have to do here.

You can go to the city and there is a lot of distractions. It’s hard to get away. The vibe is different. Your friends or family, they’re in party mode or distracted. There are lots of cars and sirens, and other distractions there that can take away from your art production in the city.  

“When I travel, I take a couple of drums with me but I have to find a quiet place to paint.

I have a space to do the work I want to do. When I first arrived on Haida Gwaii, I didn’t have space to practice or work. I quit learning from a well-known wood carver because I didn’t have space to practice. But now, I have my own space. I just have to go and ask if he’ll take me on again. 

As an artist, I find time to collaborate and teach others like Clayton Gautier; a childhood friend from Prince George who inspired me to draw realistic art. Other artists like Peter Denise, Henry Green, Michael Antoine, and Carla Joseph also helped teach and inspire me. Now, Carla Joseph, she really got me into acrylic painting. She came to the treatment centre and showed me her work, and I said, I can do that. 

“When the art piece starts coming together” he says smiling widely. “You get a feeling of butterflies and emotions and you get into it. The emotions sure flow when you’re into it and you know it’s coming together. If you could see it, you’d know it was almost done” he says displaying a completed drum. 

Formline with ovoids, u shapes, and s shapes flow behind the realistic renderings of animals from the Pacific Northwest Coast. The acrylic paint has been applied with light, fast, and continuous pressure resulting in intricate details and movement in the piece. The fine brushes line up in mason jars on the window sill with a jar of water used to wet the brush and paint in the contrast and undertones used to achieve depth in the piece. In some areas a wash is applied allowing the piece to be more transparent and adding more tone to the art.  

When I am not being productive…I just have to do it (he motions an oomph). When I started doing these drums, I know I have to do them. So, I do a little bit here and a little bit there until they’re done. They’re slowly coming together. Filling in the art design, hiring others who want to learn and pass on the skills. But as an artist, I just have to do all the work.  

What sets you apart from the other artists on Haida Gwaii?

My realistic art, adding the animal with the form line work in the background makes me stand out. I’m a Haida artist that combines both realism and formline together.  

This article was written and photographed by Rhonda Lee McIsaac 

Rhonda is an Anishnawbek writer, journalist, and artist based on Haida Gwaii. Her work focuses on local, national, indigenous, and environmental issues.

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