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The Art of Francis Williams (1936–2003)

Digital scans of preliminary drawings and final carbon transfer of bracelet with Skate motif, 1980. MOA Collection 2578/251, 252, 253, 254. Photos by Jessica Bushey.

It was 17 years ago, on June 11, 2003, that Haida artist Yalthgwaawiis, Francis Williams, passed away from cancer. A long-time friend of MOA, he carved out a niche for himself as a maker of bracelets, rings, and other jewellery, becoming renowned for his technical mastery in engraving and his generous mentorship of other artists. “I want to become known as the Master of Cross-Hatching,” he used to say with his huge smile, and few would dispute that he still holds that title.

Francis was about 30 years old when he began to learn silver engraving in his birthplace of Old Massett, Haida Gwaii. “Arthur Adams was my first teacher,” he recalled in a conversation I recorded with him in 2001. “He was the one who encouraged me. He said, ‘You know what, I’m getting to be an old man, now. I’ve got to pass this on. I’ve chosen you.’ That was the beginning, a long, long time ago. I want to acknowledge him.”

That was also the mid-1960s, when a new generation of Indigenous artists and activists in British Columbia had begun to build on the work of preceding generations, fighting for their rights to their lands, social equality, and economic futures, and reclaiming the art and cultural practices that had so long been suppressed as a result of federal Indian Act legislation and Indian Residential Schools. Francis had spent much of his childhood and youth living away from his family, in hospitals and institutions, as he suffered from tuberculosis of the hip, among other medical issues. When he was returned to his community, learning silver engraving became an opportunity for Francis to become self-sufficient. It also set him on a path of learning about Haida art history—the evidence of which he, like other artists of his generation, had to search out in books and museums, since so many of the historical artworks were removed from Haida Gwaii. In metalwork, as in most other media, the presence of elders who continued carving, no matter how limited the financial return, offered younger generations a connection to local cultural practices that persisted within communities.

Carbon transfer of silver bracelet with owl motif, 1991. MOA Collection 1799/58. Photo by Jessica Bushey.
Silver bracelet with owl motif, 1991. MOA Collection Nb1.729. Photo by Derek Tan.

“I looked at different owl designs, but I didn’t care for them, so I thought I’d attempt one. I drew it and re-drew it until I was satisfied with it, and then I drew it onto the metal and I carved it. Took a long time to get it right. This is one of the finest pieces I ever carved. Very effective cross-hatch: it sparkles.” – Francis Williams, 2001

“I used to sit and watch Art Adams for hours,” Francis remembered. “He didn’t really understand [classical] Haida art—he just copied designs. But I thought he was so amazing to be able to turn out jewellery like that.” Francis learned to first trace the images for his mentor to engrave, and eventually began engraving and then designing himself. After Adams died in 1967, Francis left for Victoria to immerse himself in formal art studies. He also spent hours examining and sketching Haida objects at the then British Columbia Provincial Museum. “That’s where it began to come to me,” he reflected: “the rules and regulations of Haida art. It was fascinating to see all the things I never saw in my life before.” Through his studies and by sharing ideas with other emerging artists, Francis gradually acquired the skills and knowledge he needed to develop his own artistic approach.

Francis Williams looks through his rubbings at MOA, January 2001. Photograph by Karen Duffek.

Over the next three-and-a-half decades, Francis created hundreds of gold and silver bracelets, rings and other items, and became recognized for his fine detailing and craftsmanship. He also learned to document his work by making a carbon transfer of each engraved piece. In 2000, MOA purchased some of this extensive documentation as well as jewellery, and then before he passed away, Francis Williams and Amanda White entrusted to MOA many more tracings and rubbings, as well as original drawings, prints, photographs, and other materials. He made his intention clear:

“I want people to see the process of creating a fine bracelet, rather than not really appreciating it. I wanted to give it to your museum for students to study. This is my legacy, this is what I’m going to leave behind. This is my life—I want you to care for it. “

You can explore almost 350 items by Francis Williams through MOA Collections Online here.