Skip Saunders – Nuxalk Artist

Robert “Skip” Saunders was born in Bella Coola in 1963. The youngest of ten children, he grew up in a home like many others on the reserve, where alcohol use and physical and emotional abuse were common. Leaving home at a very early age, Skip was swallowed up by the world he was trying to escape and fell into the downward spiral of drug and alcohol abuse. Conflicts with the law and within himself forced him to decide to take his first steps on the Red Road, a healing journey that many in Canada’s aboriginal community are traveling on. An important part of that journey was reconnecting with his culture.

For thousands of years, the Nuxalk people developed a rich and diverse culture in the heart of the Bella Coola valley. The culture was centered upon the winter ceremonials, where songs, stories, and dances using elaborately carved masks depicted the history of individual families and the mythology of the Nuxalk people. This reconnection to the culture of his ancestors gave Skip the strength to free himself of his addictions and begin a new life, one that has been alcohol free for over 20 years.

Skip began to carve as a way to heal himself but early on he realized that he had a special talent. He soon began to create exceptionally fine carvings in the northwest coast tradition that reflected the Nuxalk style but were still uniquely his own. He combines contemporary and traditional design elements in his original works of art. His images are complex and come alive in the imagination of the active viewer. His distinctive style has become much sought after and his masks have been purchased by collectors from across North America and Europe.

Today, Skip lives at home in Bella Coola. His oldest son Ses is already an accomplished carver who has made a name for himself at the age of 21. Skip continues to explore his artistic visions, especially in larger masks and panels that allow his talent free reign to express itself. He became the hereditary chief of his family with the passing of his uncle in 2003. To honour his uncle and to validate his chieftainship the Saunders family held a potlatch in 2005. To commemorate this event, Skip’s father Silyas (a former artist-in-residence at The National Museum of the American Indian) carved a thirty foot high totem pole that stands in front of his parents’ home. The pole depicts the history of the Saunders family, a history of talented artists stretching back many generations, and stands on the foundation of a cultural tradition that is growing stronger every day.