Ernie Smith is a member of the Ehattesaht First Nation. His mother was We Wai Kai. He served for years as a band councillor – as well as Chief – with the Ehattesaht Nation up the road in Zeballos.
His wife, Darlene, is an Algonquin from Quebec, but is also a member of the Ehattesaht and worked in administration with the band.
About a year ago, they decided to retire.
Well, sort of. They probably work more these days than they ever did in their old lives.
“We left very stressful lifestyles behind,” Ernie says. “I was a politician and ran a logging company, and we both decided it was time to go back to school and change our lives. Life is too short to not do your own thing.”
They’d actually been looking for “the right business to buy” for about four years, but nothing grabbed them the way they wanted it to.
“We looked all across B.C. and down into the States for something to buy that suited us and would make sense, obviously, and we couldn’t find anything that we thought worked for us,” Ernie says.
So Ernie enrolled in the North Island College Metal Jewelry Design program and Darlene went into business and bookkeeping, and they opened Awatin Aboriginal Art in Campbell River.
“I’d been an artist most of my life, but I didn’t do it for a long time,” Ernie says. “Life as an artist is a huge struggle, so I became a carpenter to pay the bills and just kind of never got back to it. It was well past time.”
“Initially we were planning to open a home-based business,” Darlene says. “When I was making business plans in school, that’s what we were developing.”
But as they started buying up local Aboriginal art from auctions and estate sales, and more and more local artists were seeking them out to sell their art alongside Ernie’s jewelry, “all of a sudden we just had way too much stuff at our house,” Darlene says.
“We basically filled up our house and a storage locker so quickly that we had no other choice but to open a store,” Ernie says with a laugh, looking around the store downtown on Pier Street.
“And we couldn’t have asked for a better spot,” he says, pointing to the back door to the gallery, which opens on the boardwalk behind Georgia Quay, overlooking the marina and Strait of Georgia. “People from all over the world walk by here all through the summer. The winter time can be a bit slow – other than around Christmas – but that’s when we go to shows and events and do marketing and that kind of thing, so it’s nice to be slow for a little while. It also gives me more of a chance to actually work on my jewelry.”
As much as Ernie wants to stay in his little workshop in the back, curtained off from the sales aspect of the store’s operation, he just can’t – for a couple of reasons.
“I try to stay in the back as much as I can,” he says, “but sometimes it gets really full in here and I have to come out and help out, especially throughout the summer. I also kind of really like the people and talking about all the art and the artists we’re showcasing, so I don’t want to be back there all the time.”
Darlene actually wanted the business to be more about Ernie’s jewelry than about promoting a other artists’ work, but Ernie wouldn’t have it.
“I wanted to name it after him,” she says, “but he wouldn’t let me. He said, ‘no, it’s not about me, it’s about the art and the artists here.’ And now I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
It’s true. Ernie’s jewelry takes up a very small section of the store. As you walk in the door, you are immediately overwhelmed – in the best sense of the word – by the colour and energy of the paintings, prints, carvings and textiles on the walls.
But despite Ernie’s wish that the store not be “all about him,” his jewelry is what keeps it going.
He took to jewelry making immediately. When he entered the program at North Island College, he knew how to work with his hands, but he didn’t know anything about making jewelry.
“I guess maybe I had the basic skills in terms of attention to detail and the dexterity required,” he says, “but I didn’t expect to be so good at it. I was the top of my class, and apparently did so well, they wanted me to teach it,” he says with another laugh.
It’s true. Ernie is currently the instructor of the NIC program that he graduated from just over a year ago.
Although all of Ernie’s jewelry is of the “one-of-a-kind” variety (he doesn’t do mass-production), he also does a lot of custom order work.
“I get people all the time that see my work online or on Facebook and like it, so they say stuff like, ‘can you make one for me like that, but a bit more like that, or with an eagle instead of an orca, that kind of thing,” he says. “And I’m happy to do that for them.”
One of his favourite ways to create custom work for people, however, is to make something old new again.
“I’ve had a few people send me something sentimental that was passed to them from their mother or sister who passed away and I’ve taken the stone and made it into something new using the metal from that ring, and that’s a really special feeling.”
But they are always looking for more artists to showcase – although you wouldn’t guess it by the lack of empty space in the gallery.
“I don’t think we’ve ever turned anyone away,” Darlene says.
After all, Ernie says, they got into this to support the artists of the region, and that’s exactly what they want to continue to do.
“Our business is really based on respect,” he says simply. “We respect all the artists and all the work they put into their pieces. Because I’m an artist myself, I know how tough it is to put yourself out there and struggle trying to sell something.”
In fact, most of the time they aren’t selling the art on their walls on consignment – where they would pay the artist when the work sells – but rather by actually purchasing the art from the artist and then displaying it in the gallery and selling it at a small mark-up when there is interest.
“We think that’s the best way to support the artists – by just buying their art from them for the amount they want to get for it,” Ernie says.