Donald Svanvik was born in 1958 in Alert Bay, a small island community on the northern coast of Vancouver Island. His father, Karl-Eric Svanvik came from Finland and he is of Swedish descent, and his mother, Alice Whonnock, was from Alert Bay.
His grandparents were imprisoned for participating in a potlatch in 1922, which was part of the strict enforcement of the anti-potlatch laws of the time. Many of the masks and ceremonial objects were confiscated and became part of the collection of several museums including the Canadian Museum of Civilization – many of the same objects have been returned to Alert Bay after the construction of the U’Mista Cultural Centre, in Alert Bay.
Don witnessed potlatches throughout his life. When he was 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 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, an elder and carver, who carved largely ceremonial pieces. He advised to 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, on many commissioned pieces such as totem poles. The experience of working with so many artists has given Don a variety of different viewpoints towards approaching and understanding Kwakwaka’wakw art.