Masks of Coastal Expressions

Tony Speers brings the Nuxalk culture to 100 Mile House

Tony Speers stood beside his Voices of the Mountain mask at the Parkside Gallery on May 27. This mask was one of 20 Speers is displaying as part of his Coastal Expressions exhibit. The masks will be on display at the gallery until June 25.

The Parkside Gallery was filled with wooden masks and the music of native drums as Tony Speers presented his Coastal Expressions works on May 27.

Speers brought more than 20 masks he has made during the past two years while teaching wood carving at Skyline Alternate School in Williams Lake.

Speers is originally from 100 Mile House, but he says his heart will always be in Bella Coola.

I went there as a small boy and I fell in love with the land and the culture.”

It was in Bella Coola years later that Speers would discover his love for wood carving. After he completed his teaching degree at the University of British Columbia in 1989, he moved to Bella Coola to teach wood working at the Acwsalcta School.

However, upon arriving, Speers discovered that the students didn’t want to make bookshelves and tables. They wanted to make drums and masks because of the Nuxalk First Nations culture in the area.

He was soon taken under the wing of local artist Alvin Mack who taught Speers the technique of carving with native tools and the history of Nuxalk culture.

Among his display of masks, Speers had an album of photos from his time teaching at the school. The school has beautiful native artwork on the walls of the building.

Several of Speers’ masks are based on traditional Nuxalk stories and legends. One of the standout pieces is the Voice of the Mountains. The mask is inspired by the voices that can Speers says, can be heard in the mountains of Bella Coola.

According to the legends, they are the voices of Nuxalk people who contracted small pocks and were told to leave their villages to go into the woods and die.

Another piece that was significant to Speers was the Salmon Guardian, which he based on the 2010 flood in Bella Coola and the affect it had on the local salmon run.

All of the masks are carved with tools Speers has made himself and were fashioned after tools used by the Nuxalk people. Using various red alder wood collected from Bella Coola with a variety of acrylic paint and animal hair, it takes about a month for Speers to create one mask.

When it comes to inspiration, it began at a very early age for Speers.

When I was in Grade 5 social studies and opened up my text book to look at Haida artwork, it captured my imagination and has stuck with me ever since.”

As for the purpose of his Coastal Expressions exhibit, Speers is most focused on introducing the people of 100 Mile to the Nuxalk culture he got to learn about while teaching.

I want to bring the Bella Coola experience to the local people who have never been there. It’s an amazing place with beautiful culture.”

The Coastal Expressions exhibit will be on display at the Parkside Art Gallery until June 25.

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