Friday, August 24, 2007

Former Rupertites celebrated in stories from across Canada

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for a couple of former Prince Rupert residents; as Dempsey Bob and Cedric Mah found their various exploits examined in separate articles of Canadian newspapers.

The August 23rd edition of the Georgia Strait examined the career of Dempsey Bob and the impact that his sculptures and carvings have had on Northwest culture. Bob who was a long time Prince Rupert resident now lives in the Terrace area.

Mah’s past experiences in the world of flight were featured in the Edmonton Journal on August 19th. Mah has lived in Alberta for a number of years and is planning another adventure to China as he heads into his 86th year.

The two articles make for fascinating reading and should rekindle some memories for more than a few Rupertites.

Sources of a legend
Arts Features
By Robin Laurence
Publish Date: August 23, 2007

Dempsey Bob says intense work habits, more than natural talent, allowed him to help revive artistic forms in danger of disappearing. Mark Mushet photo.

The Tahltan-Tlingit sculptor’s career started quietly, but he has long proven himself a visionary of Northwest Coast art.

It's a quiet weekday morning in the newly opened wing of the Vancouver International Airport. At the head of an indoor stream, amid recorded rain-forest sounds, stands a monumental cedar sculpture of a woman and a bird. Workers at YVR refer to the female figure, whose hands and hair are filled with salmon, as Creek Woman, but the work's creator, Tahltan-Tlingit artist Dempsey Bob, says her name is Fog Woman. She had two daughters, he allows, and they are known as the Creek Women.

The title of the sculpture– Fog Woman and Raven –alludes to its inspiration, a Tlingit story in which Raven marries, exploits, and betrays Fog Woman, who is the source of great wealth in the form of salmon. In leaving him, she wraps herself in mist and takes the fish with her. "But she wasn't vengeful to the people," Bob explains. "She allowed the salmon to come back every year after that, to feed the people."

In Vancouver recently to visit his daughter and granddaughter, the Terrace, B.C.–based artist sips tea in an airport coffee shop as he reflects on his 30-year career and chuckles at Raven's exploits. The most conspicuous of Northwest Coast culture heroes, Raven embodies the best and the worst of human nature. "I think that's why our art is so creative," Bob says, "because he can be both."

Although the international terminal expansion, which opened in June, is accessible only to security-checked travellers and airport staff, it's in some ways an appropriate venue for Bob's work. Born in 1948 in Telegraph Creek, in the Stikine River area of northern British Columbia, and raised near Prince Rupert, Bob has travelled around the world with his highly acclaimed art.
His totem poles, masks, and other sculptures have found homes in public, private, and corporate collections across this country and around the world, from Ketchikan, Alaska, to London, Osaka, Hamburg, and Washington, D.C. His participation in gatherings of Pacific Rim indigenous artists has taken him to New Zealand, Australia, and Hawaii. (Locally, he has forged Pacific Rim ties by participating in two exhibitions at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in which contemporary Maori artists showed work alongside their Northwest Coast colleagues.) Indeed, Bob is overdue for a major institutional retrospective.

Bob's distinctive masks, frontlets, feast bowls, bentwood boxes, and panels stand out in any exhibition space. The hallmarks of his style include a smooth and seductive surface, voluptuousness of form, and expressive shifts of scale and proportion. Lynn Maranda, curator of anthropology at the Vancouver Museum, observes that Bob creatively fuses elements from his mixed Tahltan and Tlingit backgrounds. "There are certain exaggerations," she says of his work.
"Large cheeks, large forehead–and then he's got these expressive eyes that tend to be half closed, where Northwest Coast eyes tend to be wide-open normally." This combination of features can bestow a humorous expression on the faces of Bob's human, animal, and spirit creatures. "He's brought his own level of innovation to his work," Maranda says. "And he's a fine carver. There's no doubt about that."

It wasn't always so. In May, Dempsey Bob and Haida artist Robert Davidson were honoured with B.C. Lifetime Creative Achievement Awards for Aboriginal Art. Speakers and guests at the ceremony lauded Bob's accomplishments–and joked about his youthful lack of artistic promise. In 1969, before he began studying with the late Haida artist Freda Diesing, Bob was a reluctant apprentice. A friend nagged him for a month to accompany him to Diesing's carving classes in Prince Rupert. He finally gave in, borrowed some woodworking tools, and discovered his vocation.

Or rediscovered it. "When we were kids, we didn't have any money, so we carved our own toys," Bob recounts. "When I started carving again, I had that good feeling I had working with wood when I was young." Between Diesing's enlightened instruction ("She wasn't only a great artist, she was a great teacher") and the stories passed down to him by his parents, grandparents, and great-aunts, Bob became part of an intense rekindling of Northwest Coast art and culture. "We had almost lost it," he says. "Freda was our thread to our ancestors."

In the early 1970s, Bob also studied at the famed Gitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art in Hazelton, B.C., and he then spent many years teaching others, in southern Alaska and northern B.C. He learned alongside his students, he says, by looking, by doing, and through intense self-discipline. "You've got to do your homework," he says emphatically. "Talent is cheap. It's the dedication and the commitment that foster the art."

The conversation shifts back to Raven, the eternal trickster, characterized in the oral histories as curious, greedy, clever, foolish, generous, and duplicitous. "He's happy now," the artist says with a smile, alluding to the pleased expression on Raven's face as he sits opposite Fog Woman at YVR. Reunited with her in art, as he never was in legend.

Second World War pilot prepares to revisit 'Shangri-La'
Canadian-born flyer carried out supply missions over the Himalayas in the 1940s
Jim Farrell
The Edmonton Journal
Sunday, August 19, 2007

EDMONTON - Cedric Mah has experienced or witnessed virtually everything in his 85 years and he accepts his coming trip to Shangri-La with aplomb. After all, he's been there before.
In September, the puckish Edmonton pilot will begin an all-expense paid trip to the remote mountainous area, courtesy of the China Exploration and Research Society. The society and Chinese authorities are promoting Shangri-La as a destination for adventure travellers during the 2008 Olympic year.

During the Second World War, Mah made a handful of visits to the high valley bordering Tibet and Yunnan Province. Of course, it wasn't known as Shangri-La then -- that name was bestowed five years ago by a Chinese government enthralled by James Hilton's 1933 novel about a mythical Himalayan kingdom where people didn't age.

"Even though it's really high up around Shangri-La -- about 10,000 feet above sea level -- and surrounded by 23,000-foot mountains, there's a sea of grass," Mah explains, sitting amongst a gaggle of old planes at the Alberta Aviation Museum. "The Emperor Kublai Khan used to get his horses from there back in the 13th century." One of those planes is a DC-3, the venerable workhorse of the air that Mah piloted on many of his 337 flights over the Himalayas for the China National Aviation Corporation.

Mah leaves Edmonton this weekend for San Francisco to rendezvous with four other CNAC pilots, who will then head to China. The trip to Shangri-La will be filmed by an Imax crew as a way of publicizing the remote mountain area.

How the Canadian-born Mah got to Shangri-La more than six decades ago is a tale of Indiana Jones-style high adventure, in an era when Canadian pilots were found everywhere.

It started in 1941 when the 19-year-old son of a prosperous Prince Rupert merchant decided he wanted to emulate the bush pilots he'd watched flying in and out of the remote west coast port. Mah went to California and took a flying course. He got his commercial licence, then an advanced instrument rating. By 1944, he was a civilian instructor at Edmonton's Number 2 Aerial Observer School, teaching navigation skills to aircrew from throughout the British Commonwealth.

Air force closed to Chinese Mah had hoped to be a military pilot, but that particular door was closed. In 1942, ethnic Chinese weren't allowed to fly for the Royal Canadian Air Force.Two years later they were -- but by then Mah's job as a civilian flying instructor was classified as essential war work and he couldn't quit without a good excuse.

Sensing his frustration, the man who ran the school made a suggestion.

"Why don't you fly in China?" suggested legendary bush pilot Wop May.

The China National Aviation Corporation was looking for experienced pilots to fly supplies from northeast India into China, over the southern end of the Himalayas, a route dubbed "the Hump" for its towering mountain ridges. Pan American Airlines in New York was doing the hiring. Mah sent his application by regular mail.

"They wrote me back. That was the first time I ever got an airmail letter," Mah says.

Flying the Hump was the only way to get supplies to the landlocked Chinese Nationalist Army that was battling the Japanese. It was a massive airlift that became legendary for the number of tons flown, the difficulty of the route and the number of lives and aircraft lost.

In the last six months of 1943, there were 155 accidents and 168 fatalities.

As the months passed the tonnages soared, however. In early 1944, the airlift hit President Franklin Roosevelt's target of 10,000 tons per month. In July 1945, 71,000 tons were carried, with a plane crossing the Hump every minute and 12 seconds, according to Airforce, the journal of the Air Force Association.

The route led over a series of high mountain ridges where hot monsoon winds brewed up thunderstorms, hail, zero visibility, icing and turbulence that could flip a large transport onto its back in less than a second. It is strewn with the wrecks of aircraft.

Part of Mah's visit to China will include a stop at a small museum at the top of a mountain pass, near the site of a CNAC DC-3 crash in 1943.

"The crew were killed," says Mah.

CNAC's pilots carried war material, gasoline and lubricating products, as well as cash and gold to pay the troops into China. Coming out, their cargo holds were filled with all manner of products, including mercury, lead, tin ingots and hog bristles for western hairbrushes.

Unloading millions in cash Mah remembers a flight in 1945 where, as monsoon clouds gathered, U.S. Treasury workers loaded 52 bundles of Chinese currency that had been printed in the United States into his plane. A U.S. Army sergeant, armed with a pistol and M-1 rifle, would guard the cargo until it was offloaded in Chungking.

"No sooner did we lift the landing gear than we were in the clouds," Mah recalls.

As his plane gained altitude, a thin film of ice spread over the plane's aluminum skin. At about 20,000 feet, the right engine cut out. "We started going down." The only way to ease the load on the remaining engine was to lose some weight, fast. Mah and his crew kicked 48 bundles of cash, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, out the door. They kept four bundles, just in case they landed at a strange airfield and had to bribe their way out.

In February 1945, Mah had been tasked with purchasing 10,000 Tibetan horses. Accompanied on that trip by a Tibetan chieftain who "smelled like a billy goat," Mah recorded his memories of that flight, hoping someday to pen an autobiography.

"In the pink of dawn a sidehill monastery hove into sight and lower still the guttering butter lamps," Mah wrote of his destination, near the border of Tibet. "We banked beneath the snow and overhanging glaciers and set down on a dry creek bed, 12,000 feet above sea level. A golden-robed abbot welcomed our veterinary officers as monks and lamas accepted the money payload." Mah remained in China until January 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Chinese Army was defeated by the Communists. He returned to Canada, where he bought property in Vancouver and built a bowling alley.

In the summer he flew bush planes. In 1957, Mah married; when that marriage disintegrated five years later he moved to Edmonton and began flying out of this city.

"I feel a bit tired these days but I guess I'm going to have to get used to it because over in China I'm going to be back up in the mountains.

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