To mark Canada’s 150th birthday, we are counting down to Canada Day with profiles of 150 noteworthy British Columbians.
Dorothy Grant’s work is described as emerging from the energy released in fusing an 8,000-year-old artistic tradition with the high-octane imperatives of haute couture. It’s an apt analogy. Transformation and emergence lie at the heart of Haida cosmology.
From traditional ceremonial button blankets to creations so transcendently imaginative they are not for sale because they are now in the collections of the Canadian Museum of Civilization and Canada’s National Art Gallery, Grant’s design repurposes Stone Age patterns upon Atom Age fabrics. It might serve as a metaphor for the challenges facing aboriginal peoples everywhere. Her creations range from museum pieces to garb chosen by movie stars for the Academy Awards. And if Grant’s a wizard of wearable art, she is also a pragmatic marketer and businesswoman.
She was born into the Raven Clan in 1955 in Hydaburg, Alaska, a settlement in the state’s southeastern panhandle formed from three ancient Haida villages consolidated in 1911. An international boundary severed Alaska’s Haida from those on the Queen Charlotte Islands, now known as Haida Gwaii. But arbitrary politics didn’t cut family, tribal or cultural connections.
When she was 13, Grant began sewing clothes for her younger sisters. Later, she worked with Haida Gwaii elder and knowledge-keeper Florence Edenshaw Davidson, a maternal grandmother from Masset. It took five years for her to learn the exacting discipline of weaving traditional headware and baskets from spruce roots. Using ancient methods of assembly and applique, she made robes for traditional performers and for ceremonies. In 1983, she began sketching Haida art onto garments. It was a way to reclaim culture being appropriated by non-indigenous designers. Then she acquired another set of foundation skills, attending Vancouver’s Helen Lefeaux School of Fashion Design.
She came to national attention in 1986 when her Raven Creation Tunic was displayed at Expo 86 and acquired by the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Her mentor, also from the Raven Clan, died in 1993, but the foundations from which Grant’s later work would erupt had been carefully laid. In 1994, she opened a Vancouver boutique. Fourteen years later, she was operating out of a large urban studio transforming traditional knowledge into high fashion.
She is a member of the Order of Canada, the Order of B.C., has an honorary degree from the University of Northern B.C., numerous business awards both aboriginal and otherwise. In 2010, this newspaper chose her as one of B.C.’s 100 most influential women.