With no Northwest Coast art on layaway and no must-haves in the galleries or on the web, we didn’t expect to buy any new pieces this month. But luck struck unexpectedly, and early this month we were told that Trish’s ticket had won the pendant being raffled as part of Lyle Wilson’s North Star exhibit at the West Vancouver Museum.
Five centimeters in diameter and made of engraved silver, the pendant is a miniature version of the aluminum piece that was the logo for the show. Wilson’s aluminum sculptures are much more finely cut than most large scale Northwest Coast installations in the same metal, and, mounted some distance from the wall, cast shadows that quite literally give them another dimension. However, Wilson is known primarily for his jewelry, so the pendant is perhaps more representative of him.
Like much of Wilson’s work, the pendant is a mixture of European and Haisla tradition. The pendant is a compass rose, with the four cardinal points marked by arrows, and the figure of what I believe is a bear in the middle. The pendant differs from the aluminum logo in that the cardinal points do not extend beyond the circumference of the design, and the image of the bear is slightly smaller in diameter.
What the pendant has that the logo lacks is a variety of different hatching techniques. At the outer rim, the hatching is a series of finely etched vertical lines, each extremely fine but distinct. A band of unadorned metal separates the uttermost hatching from a smaller band that continues the vertical lines. The fourth ring of hatching is an equally fine stippled effect that extends into the compass points. The inner figure is separated by yet another fine ring of vertical lines, and is itself a small show piece of diagonal lines, with the face, the lower left and the upper right slanted to the right, and the upper left and lower right to the right. Most design teachers would advise students not to mix so many hatching styles in such a small space, but it speaks volumes about Wilson’s virtuosity that he is able to ignore such standard advice and produce such an intricate design.
The bear design, of course, is appropriate because the north star is in the constellation of Ursa Minor, the little bear. Perhaps, the pendant is the north star itself, with the outer vertical lines the rays of light radiating from it. Or, if you consider the design for a while, you might conclude that Wilson is playing with the idea of the bear being both a constellation and an earth-bound creature. To my eye, at any rate, the outer rim of vertical lines could suggest either the rays of the sun, or perhaps the northern lights, while the heavy stippling suggests the earth. These two realms are bridged by the points of the compass, which are identifiable by taking a bearing (if you pardon the pun), on the north star.
At the same time, you could take the contrast between sky and earth as a reflection of the two cultures that Wilson is caught between. With the emphasis on the compass in the pendant’s design, the sky could be interpreted as modern scientific culture, and the earth as Wilson’s first nation roots. Alternatively, you could reverse the interpretation, and see the bear in the sky as the mythologizing that informs the first nation cultures, the earth the mundane reality of the city in which Wilson lives. The interpretation works either way, because what matters is the contrast.
However, such readings are not my first reaction to the pendant. My first reaction is respect for Wilson’s attention to detail. Looking at the pendant, I am never in any doubt that I am looking at a piece by a master carver, and it is appreciation of his skill that makes me grateful that we have the right to house it.