In 1950, Russell Smith was born in the village of Alert Bay, BC. He was the direct descendant of six chieftain bloodlines. His maternal genealogy descended from the great Chief Abraham. Russell’s maternal grandfather was Isaac Abraham, Chief of the Walas Kwakiult at Fort Rupert. Edith Dawson, his maternal grandmother was the daughter of Chief Amos Dawson of the Mamalekala tribe of Village Island.
Russell’s mother, Elizabeth Abraham, was a member of the Thunderbird Clan. She was the bearer of the aural history of the family genealogy and a maker of button blankets and aprons. It was through her teachings that the traditional knowledge of Kwakwaka’wakw social order and language was passed on to Russell and his two elder brothers, Jerry and Clayton.
Their paternal grandfather, Jerry Brown, was a Hope Island Chief of Fort Rupert. He was well known among the people and respected as a traditional dancer. The name Jerry Brown has been recorded in history books of the white man. He was so faithful in his adherence to the Kwakwaka’wakw ways that he performed the potlatch undaunted by the laws that prohibited all traditional ceremonies, and in 1922 he was arrested for taking part in the 1921 December potlatch at Village Island. He served two months in Oakalla Prison. The only direct descendant of Chief Jerry Brown is Russell’s father, Jacob Smith.
It was from a deep fountain of stories, songs, dances, legends, spirits and mythical creatures that Russell recreated the very images that would guide his hand in the powerful cut of the carver’s blade or the delicate touch of a paint brush.
Russell began woodcarving in 1968. Within a year, Bill Holm asked him to assist in the restoration of a Southern Kwakiutl Long House at the Pacific Science Centre in Seattle. This longhouse was opened in June of 1971 as part of a long-term exhibit on the Development of Man and the Environment.
In the early 1980’s with the encouragement of his cousin, Lloyd Wadhams, Russell began working with precious metals. During 1973 and 1974 he received instruction in wood carving from Doug Cranmer and Larry Rosso at the Vancouver Museum. In 1977, Russell learned the art of repousse from Bill Reid, Gerry Marks, Phil Janze and the English goldsmith, Peter Age. He went on to create stunning pieces in gold, silver, and copper.
Russell studied the ancient and traditional designs of his Kwakwaka’wakw heritage. He worked with wood, ivory, paint and precious metals, imprinting his singular powerful style into totem poles, masks, bowls, rattles, frontlets, drums, jewelry, and canvas. In each creation, a vision would stand revealed. Each piece records the history of the Kwakwaka’wakw in a perpetual re-enactment of natural order and harmony. No two of Russell’s works are the same; each is alive and hypnotic.
A number of apprentice carvers and jewelers have learned design, form, colours, shape and function from Russell’s inimitable style. He taught other selected artists repousse techniques in gold and silver. He had a twenty-year collection of photographs and slides of the most exquisite pieces housed in museums and private collections throughout the continent. In his quiet and unassuming manner, he shared most generously and eagerly his knowledge of the art.
Since earliest childhood, Russell was also encouraged to participate in traditional dance forms. His mother made his dance outfits, and at the age of eighteen, he made a concerted effort to learn certain dances from the elders. Russell was skilled in performing numerous dances and ceremonial songs and he had performed as far abroad as Japan.