For local artist Todd Giihlgiigaa DeVries, his story is a web of many different experiences: a tumultuous childhood, the search for identity, reuniting with his birth mother, becoming a cedar weaver and finding a place to call home.
The early evening sun is still shining bright, but DeVries prefers to stay cool under a tree as he discusses cedar weaving. He points to a cedar tree outside his weaving studio at 711 Keefer St.
Weaving’s mystical allure found DeVries in 1999 while staying at a friend’s cabin.
“I’m not one for visions,” says DeVries.
Looking after his friend’s garden one day, DeVries says, “it suddenly went all silver on me.” There were silver trees and what looked like a silver moon beaming. A silver woman appeared.
DeVries wasn’t sure what to make of the experience and after some research, he found out it was the story of the Old Woman in the forest.
“If you ever meet her, she’ll give you the gift of basketry,” explains DeVries.
Weaving an identity
DeVries befriended a local artist in the city who convinced him to set up shop here in the Strathcona community.
The studio used to be a field house and now serves as a gathering place for weaving enthusiasts. Various strips of tree bark are intertwined along the entrance fence to the studio. Neatly tucked away in the corner of Maclean Park, it’s a blink-and-you-miss-it kind of place.
DeVries’ studio was first of its kind and helped pave the way for other local artists in the city.
“We were guinea pigs” says DeVries. These days, many of the fieldhouses in and around Strathcona have been converted into artist studios.
DeVries has worked with some fairly important people in the city. He says a woman joined him and some other weavers for an entire month before they even had the field house. DeVries says she worked very diligently on her basket, which turned out quite well.
“I didn’t know it was the mayor’s wife – Amy Robertson. We went, “whoa!” We had no idea. We never talk politics,” says DeVries.
As we talk amongst the buzz of laughing children and talking adults in Maclean Park, people inside DeVries’ studio are having dinner before tonight’s weaving session.
“I’ll get everyone to bring food. Try to keep it informal,” says DeVries, about his style of teaching and sharing.
Unravelling family knots
Adopted at the age of four by a Dutch family living in Toronto, DeVries grew up knowing he was different than his family and others. The DeVries, who had an automotive business, never talked about the young DeVries’ heritage and this decision made it difficult to fit in with peers.
“Indian was a bad word,” says DeVries, who recounts a childhood of abuse.
In 1992, DeVries received a gift that would send his life in a new direction.
A friend gave him a ticket, for Vancouver, and said, “Go. Go find yourself.”
DeVries was able to locate his biological mother in British Columbia and reclaimed his Haida status. Reunited with the woman he had been separated from for so many years, DeVries came to the realization not all family reunions have Hollywood endings.
“When I found her, she was still lost. My years in foster care broke her heart,” says DeVries.
Despite the difficulties between mother and son, she still offered DeVries praise.
“She was impressed that I was weaving soon after I found her,” said DeVries.
Embracing the Haida culture: Weaving is sharing and inclusive
DeVries pauses and lays his hand on a nearby tree. “I enjoy repetitious stuff. Weaving is one of those, too,” says DeVries, who describes it as not thinking but doing.
When DeVries completed his first project – a hat – it took him only 10 days, instead of the estimated two to three months for most people.
In search of more weaving training, DeVries’ return to Vancouver in 2010 was fuelled by his intention to learn signatures in Haida weaving: how to personalize a project.
This time around, Vancouver proved to be fruitful for DeVries. He found an Elder mentor in the Haida community and was able to get major exposure for his work.
DeVries offers a practical approach for interested weavers.
“Weaving teaches people how to relate. A lot of people here in Vancouver are used to nails, glue, zippers – but weaving requires none of those, and yet everything holds together,” says DeVries.
DeVries says the community can use more of that: bringing people together and being able to connect.
For DeVries, weaving here in Vancouver, is home; a place where he truly belongs.
For more information about Todd DeVries, visit www.ithkilgaa.co.nr
Gift of the Cedar Tree Workshops
June 18, 7 p.m.–8:30 p.m.
June 27, 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m.
VPL Britannia Branch
1661 Napier St., Vancouver