Wednesday, April 17, 2024

‘This is what I’m meant to be doing’: Haida carver has work featured in James Bay art gallery


There is a beautiful and symbolic new exhibit at James Bay’s Studio 106 that is a must-see!

Nanoose Bay-based and Victoria-born Haida artist, Mike Bellis, has taken over a James Bay gallery that has become known for its philanthropic and cause-driven art features. 

Studio 106 is relatively new in town, having only opened in 2022 and caught Victoria’s attention when the gallery hosted a driftwood art exhibit by another local artist to raise money for Ukrainian Refugees in Canada.

Now, Studio 106 is honouring the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) genocide that has been taking place in Canada with Bellis’ work.

As May 5th is MMIWG day of recognition, Studio 106 has decided to feature Bellis’ work, largely because of his piece called the Red Dress. 

Bellis says that the Red Dress is certainly one of the more impactful pieces he’s created. 

Red Dress is my contribution to the survivors and family members who have had to endure dealing with this tragic epidemic,” Bellis told Victoria Buzz. 

“The hummingbird specifically for this piece and the red cedar because she represents and symbolizes peace and healing in Haida culture.”

“I did my best to give the piece flow and creativity and I knew that as I saw the dress come to life, I wasn’t necessarily just creating a piece, I was actually creating a statement for the ongoing tragic event and experience that MMIWG is.”

The Red Dress is the focal point of the exhibit that the May featured artist has brought down from his Nanoose Bay home, but it certainly isn’t the only piece worth seeing. 

“Honestly, this piece for me is one of my most powerful pieces I’ve ever made,” Bellis said. “When I’m making a cool eagle design on a panel, I know it’s beautiful art and I know it’s cool, but it doesn’t have the same power.”

“It really felt different when I was making [the Red Dress].” 

Bellis came by his artistic endeavours by happenstance, but now he knows that he found his calling. 

Mike Bellis’ artistic origins

In 2018, Bellis was operating his charter boat business, Haida Gold, when one of his charter guests happened to be celebrating their eighth birthday and he figured he should be a good host and create something for the young boy. 

Bellis’ father is also a Haida carver and artist, so he turned to what he knew and made a small wooden paddle for the boy.

“I started whittling out more of these paddles to have as giveaway gifts for kids on the boat, then the paddles just kept getting bigger,” Bellis said. 

“All of the sudden I found myself making these full-sized 5’ and 6’ paddles, so that was kind of the beginning of the journey.”

Bellis says his first real piece where it became more than just a hobby for him was just before Christmas of 2018, his wife asked him to make a totem pole for their property. 

“We always talked about hiring my dad to make a totem pole for our yard and then I just kind of took it on and came up with an 8’ Haida totem pole,” he said. 

Once it was made and Bellis was taking it home to his wife for Christmas, he was approached by a prospective buyer in a grocery store parking lot, and that changed everything. 

“I saw this guy kind of touching it and looking at it and I was like, ‘is this guy going to steal my totem pole?’” laughed Bellis.

“I asked him what’s going on, and he told me he owns a native art shop and he was wondering if the totem pole was for sale.”

Bellis was shocked in his modesty, as he didn’t think the piece was at a professional level of craftsmanship. 

After this interaction, Bellis made the winter months his time to be carving and honing his craft, while the summers he still continued to operate his charter boat for travelers fishing trips and to explore the island. 

Once the COVID-19 pandemic ended his nautical ventures in 2020, he pivoted to focus on his carving and was even able to learn from Haida Gwaii’s master carvers.

“When everyone was hiding out, watching Netflix for two years or whatever, I was in the shed every day carving,” Bellis told Victoria Buzz. 

“I found my way up [to Haida Gwaii] and I did two weeks of isolation when I got up there when things opened up a bit. I really immersed myself in the culture for those two weeks when I was alone.”

“Then I hung out with master carvers for six weeks after that and at that point I was like, ‘this is what I’m meant to be doing.’”

Bellis says his time on Haida Gwaii learning from the masters was life changing and he was able to feel so much more in touch with his ancestors and their culture through the experience.

Other than Studio 106, Bellis’ work can be found online as well as at Massey Gallery and at Eagle Feather Gallery in Victoria. 

Studio 106 is honouring MMIWG through the Red Dress and Bellis’ works of art and the exhibit will be on throughout the month of May. 

Studio 106 X Mike Bellis

  • Where: 106 Superior Street
  • When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday throughout May 


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