Family and Influences
Vickers’s father was a fisherman with Tsimshian, Haida and Heiltsuk heritage, and his mother was a schoolteacher whose parents immigrated to Canada from England. In the 1940s, she was adopted into the Eagle clan in the island village of Kitkatla near Prince Rupert, British Columbia.
Vickers’s paintings, prints and carvings demonstrate his knowledge of Northwest Coast iconography, much of which he learned from his grandfather, a canoe-carver. However, in the early 1980s, Vickers decided to produce more than just traditional Northwest Coast art, a decision that was informed in part by his mixed heritage. He has spoken of being a “typical Canadian” in this way. He identifies as Tsimshian, Haida and Heiltsuk, but also acknowledges that he is half English, and that his mother’s side includes Irish and Scottish relations.
Having failed the medical exam for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police because of colour blindness, Vickers asked his mentor, Bill West, for guidance. West advised him not to study art at university, as he was already developing his own style. Taking this advice, Vickers enrolled in the anthropology program at the University of Victoria, but he left before the end of his first term after he heard inaccurate information being taught about Indigenous peoples.
Vickers stayed in Victoria and worked for the fire department for seven years. In 1972, encouraged by his colleagues, Vickers took a leave of absence from his job and enrolled in the two-year First Nations art and design program at the Gitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art in Hazelton, BC. The school was the first to offer instruction in Northwest Coast art and played an important role in elevating the status of Indigenous art in Canada. In his last year of art school, Vickers decided to leave the fire department and focus on becoming a professional artist.
In his early works, Vickers managed his colour blindness by using primarily black, white and red, which he could discern. His later works, including his prints representing animals and his paintings that depict striking sunsets, are characterized by bold, often primary colours. Vickers has remarked that he was motivated to produce works with colour so that he could better represent the varied experiences of the First Nations peoples in northern BC.
In order to effectively use colour in his work, Vickers developed a system of separating colours with bands of grey. This technique resulted in his first painted sunset, Westcoast Sunset, which he completed in the early 1980s. The painting, which has also been reproduced as a limited edition print (1982), was inspired by a trip that Vickers made in a canoe from Prince Rupert to Kitkatla one summer, following a route that had historically been used by his ancestors.
In 1986, Vickers opened the Eagle Aerie Gallery in Tofino, BC, in a traditional Northwest Coast longhouse that he built with his family and local carver Henry Nolla. The gallery is now one of the area’s main attractions. In addition to Vickers’s paintings, prints and carvings, it also sells works by other Indigenous artists.
Key Artworks and Commissions
In 1987, Vickers’s painting A Meeting of Chiefs was chosen as the official gift of the Province of British Columbia to Queen Elizabeth II as part of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in Vancouver that year. Limited editions of the painting were also presented to the 48 Commonwealth heads of state. In 1993, artist’s proofs of Vickers’s print The Homecoming were selected as the Province of British Columbia’s official gift to both Russian Federation presidentBoris Yeltsin and United States president Bill Clinton.
In addition to paintings and limited edition prints, Vickers has created more than 26 totem poles, including the 10-metre Salmon Totem that he produced for the 1994 Commonwealth Games’ aquatic centre near Victoria. Vickers was also the artistic advisor to the architects and designers of the venue.
From 1987 to 1995, Vickers was the artistic advisor for the Vancouver International Airport’s new terminal. He was also commissioned to design retail storefronts for both the domestic and international terminals.
Vickers’s work is held in private and public collections nationally and internationally, including the Canadian Museum of History (Gatineau, Quebec), the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology (Vancouver), and the National Museum of Ethnology in Japan (Osaka).
In 1977, the University of British Columbia published Beginnings: An Exhibition of the Silkscreen Prints and Carvings of Roy Henry Vickers. Vickers has published a number of books, including Solstice: The Art of Roy Henry Vickers (1988), Spirit Transformed: A Journey from Tree to Totem (1996), and Copperman: The Art of Roy Henry Vickers (2003). In 2014, Vickers published his third milestone book, Storyteller: The Art of Roy Henry Vickers, which covers his work from 2003 to 2013. He has also collaborated with Robert Budd on a bestselling series of children’s books based on First Nations mythology; the series includes The Elders Are Watching (1990), Raven Brings the Light (2013), Cloudwalker (2014) and Orca Chief (2015).
Honours and Awards
In 1994, Vickers was the first artist to be included by Maclean’s magazine in its Annual Honour Roll of Extraordinary Canadian Achievers. Four years later, he was appointed to the Order of British Columbia. In 2002, he received the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal for contributions to the Canadian art world and the First Nations community. That same year, Vickers was included in a video that was part of Vancouver’s successful bid for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. In 2006, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada for being a bridge between cultures. The following year, York University awarded Vickers an honorary doctorate, and he was the keynote speaker for that year’s graduating class.
Vickers was recognized as a “Kickass Canadian” in 2011 and received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012. He celebrated his 70th birthday in 2016 with the launch of his book Peace Dancer in Vancouver. He has also received a hereditary chieftainship and several hereditary names from Northwest Coast First Nations.