Northwest Coast art has a new medium. It’s called forton, and it’s a mixture of gypsum, fiberglass and plastics, and has the advantages of being non-toxic, lightweight, weather resistant, and capable of imitating anything from marble to plaster or bronze. So far, you can see the largest collection of sculptures in forton in Vancouver at the Douglas Reynolds Gallery, including one cast from James Hart’s Celebration of Bill Reid pole that was officially presented to the public on December 5.
The Celebration of Bill Reid pole is a permanent fixture at the Bill Reid Gallery in downtown Vancouver. Carved by James Hart with the help of Ernest Swanson, Tyson Brown, Carl Hart, and GwaLiga Hart, the pole is topped by a raven whose chest is a stylized version of Bill Reid’s face. Through the Douglas Reynolds Gallery, eighteen copies of the raven are being made in forton – six imitating plaster, and 12 bronze, including three artist proofs.
Hart spoke briefly at the launch, arriving after the crowd had already gathered and was well into the buffet and wine. A tall man with long gray hair, he wore a bright Guatemalan jacket and carried a string of trade beads in his hands that someone gave him as he came in the door. He walked with a stoop and a slight hesitation. As he stood halfway up the stairs in the gallery, he was surprisingly soft-spoken for a well-known artist who is also a chief.
Hart spoke briefly about the pole and its intent to honor Bill Reid. He explained that he not only learned carving from Reid, but how to survive in the city, including such details as how to use an elevator, something he had rarely encountered in his rural youth. Turning to the plaster raven in the corner, he emphasized that it was a white raven, a representation of the trickster before he stole the moon and was singed black in his effort to escape with it through the smoke hole.
Afterwards, I managed to talk briefly to him as he mingled with the crowd. He said that the project was his first effort to work in forton, and that he liked the way it could be carved and was resistant to weather. He also expressed his enthusiasm for the new medium and designs that younger artists from all the local first nations were developing the traditional art forms.
Until the new raven cast, most of the works in forton that I’ve seen were done by Don Yeoman at the Douglas Reynolds Gallery. However, Reynolds mentioned the side of a house in Whistler that recently had several dozen forton panels added to one side, and I suspect that any artists who encounter it are likely to be as interested in it as Hart seemed to be.
One look at the cast and you can understand why. Made from a mold of the cedar original, the pseudo-plaster cast picks up so much detail that you can actually see the wood grain and tool marks in it. With forton offering so many benefits and no drawbacks so far as I can discover, I strongly suspect that, just as local first nations artists adopted to argillite a century and half ago and glass in the last few decades, many are going to seize on forton as yet another medium for their work.