EAGLES NEST – There is a well-known intersection along Chiefswood Road known to locals as ‘Beavers Corners’, the origin of which goes back to the mid-1800’s and the Beaver family of Six Nations. One member of that family went on to thrill audiences across the world as a vaudeville juggler and magician and a much sought after painter, wood carver and carpenter.
The Woodland Cultural Centre and Museum unveiled their latest acquisitions at Tuesday night’s opening of the exhibit, ‘A Colourful Life – Bringing Home the Art of James Beaver’.
Beaver, the talented though untrained artisan, was also gifted as an entertainer, juggler and magician, and traveled for a time with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and others vaudevillian venues.
Born in 1846, “Chief Beaver” grew up at Beavers Corners and eventually married a beautiful Mohawk woman, Lydia (Bay), from Akwesasne. Together they had four girls and three boys.
He was gifted with natural artistic talent, but was also a much sought after carpenter who built furniture for a number of Six Nations families. His carpentry excellence can be seen at St. Paul’s Church on Sour Springs Road where he built the pews and carved the woodworking, which is still being enjoyed by parishioners today.
Beaver recognized his ability to create art and sell it to make a living fairly late in life, but he did so in a different way than other Onkwehonwe artists were creating their works. Beaver is credited with being the first Haudenosaunee artists to paint in the European style, rather than traditional Native art.
Former Curator of the Woodland Cultural Centre, artist and historian, Tom Hill was on hand to offer some historical background into the importance of Beaver’s work.
“There were very few Aboriginal art forms that were without established function in their culture,” Hill said to those on hand, including a number of Beavers’ living relatives. “To the North American Indian, everything made served a purpose. To simply put a carving or to paint on a wall to admire it was completely foreign to them. That is not to say the Indian didn’t enjoy having beautiful things around them. In fact, almost everything he made was decorated in some way.”
Hill has a particular interest in the history of First Nations art and artists and the question of when First Nations artists begin painting in the European style of ‘art for art’s sake’ rather than representational of beliefs and stylized animal representation of the Clans.
Today, there are only 45 pieces of his art known to still exist, many of which are unsigned, and some that are testify to his illiteracy, signing them as “Chef Beaver.”
Granddaughter, Alta Doxtador, once said that she remembered being impressed by a concert her grandfather put on in Christ Church at Beaver’s Corners and the canvas backdrops he painted for the occasion. She also remembered seeing him seated in front of his easel and recalled him asked her to write “TITANIC” on a paper for his painting of a ship.
This is the only known reference to the painting, which has not been found to date, but would be worth a lot of money on today’s market if ever found.
Curator Paula Whitlow recalls here first contact with Toronto art collectors Helen and Peter Illes-Vernon, who were present Tuesday night.
It was at the Jim Anderson auction in Jarvis several years ago.
“There was a carved cane attributed to James Beaver, which I wanted to bid on,” she recalls. “Helen was there and bidding well out of my authorized budget.”
It eventually sold for $17,500.
“I spoke to her afterwards and asked if, when she was finished with it, she would like to bring it home to Six Nation,” says Whitlow.
She must have put those words away in her heart because years later she and her husband donated nine James Beaver pieces to the Woodland Cultural Museum.
Twelve more of pieces of Helen and Peter Illes-Vernon collection were sold to the museum recently and are now a part of the James Beaver exhibition.
“At the end of Tuesday night, one of the family members came up to me and said that being here made her proud that someone has finally recognized Beaver’s work,” said Whitlow. “That made me feel really good that we were doing the right thing by bringing his artwork home.”
The James Beaver exhibit opens in January 2015 and runs until May 8th.
The exhibit is free to all members of Six Nations, Wahta, and Tyendinaga.
Living relatives of Six Nations artist, wood carver, juggler and magician, James Beaver, were on hand as a collection from the works of the vaudeville and Wild West Show entertainer and artist were put on exhibition for the first time at the Woodland Cultural Museum. Pictured from left are decedents Penny Warner, Carman and Logan Nixon, Sandra Doxtator, Shane Doxtator, Francine Doxtator, Lesley Doxtator and Dixie Doxtator. Photo by Jim Windle