Don Svanvik was born in 1958 in Alert Bay, a small island community on the Northeastern Coast of Vancouver Island. His father, Karl-Eric Svanvik came from Finland and is of Swedish descent, and his mother Alice Wanukw (Whonnock) is from Alert Bay. His maternal grandparents Mr. And Mrs. Johnny Whonnock were imprisoned for participating in a Potlatch in 1922; a result of strict enforcements to the anti-Potlatch laws in those times. Many of the masks and ceremonial objects that were confiscated during the Potlatch ban and became part of collections in several museums around the world including the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Many of the same objects have since been repatriated to Alert Bay after the construction of the U’mista Cultural Centre.
Don witnessed Potlatches throughout his life. When he turned twenty he began to take a more active role by assisting with the dancers and the overall preparation. He began carving ceremonial pieces and has since received numerous commissions for masks to be danced at Potlatches. Don began carving in 1984 under the guidance of Beau Dick. His earliest influence was Sam Johnson from Gilford Island, an Elder and carver who carved mostly ceremonial pieces. His advice to Don was, “Carve anything you want as long as you know what it is and how it is used”. Don has applied these guidelines to every piece that he carves. He has also worked with Wayne Alfred, Sandy Johnson, Bruce Alfred, Harold Alfred, Doug Cranmer and Calvin Hunt. Don has been commissioned by collectors around the world for a range of pieces varying from masks to totem poles. Don was also instrumental in the carving and rebuilding of the Alert Bay Big House after its arson in 1997. The experience of working with so many artists has given Don many different viewpoints towards approaching and understanding Kwakwaka’wakw art.
Don has taken a leadership role and has been chosen by his family to uphold a Chief’s position from their ‘Namgis heritage. Don has hosted a Potlatch where he had assumed the Chieftainship of Ho’miskanis and also received as part of a dowry from his wife Connie nee Mountain, the Chief’s name Yakudłasame’. Don is very active in Kwakwaka’wakw culture and continues helping other families by carving paraphernalia to ensure the survival of their ancient ceremonies.
- 1997/1998 Spirit Wrestler Gallery Premonitions
- 1998 Spirit Wrestler Gallery Fusions
- 1999 Legacy Gallery Crossing Water Canoes of the Northwest Coast
- 2001 Coastal Peoples Gallery, Spirits Transform
- 2005 Quintanna Gallery Dzunukk̕wa Show
- Quintanna Gallery Atłakima Show
- Arctic Raven Gallery Ten Years Here
- Legacy Gallery Family Show: Out of the House of Thunderbird