Haida/Tsimshian artist Mitch Adams seems to be making a career out of smaller pieces. Not that he avoids larger pieces; his “Blue Moon Mask” is one of my favorite pieces on the walls of my townhouse. However, in the last year or so, he has done masks from laminated blocks of wood about the height of my finger, a brass magnifier, a couple of combs, and, most recently, a briarwood pipe, filling a niche shared by few other artists. With a length of ten centimeters, his “Raven Rattle” is another of his miniatures – and one of my favorites among his work.
Contrary to what you might think, rattles of this size are not a recent development. Although modern tools makes carving at smaller sizes much easier, rattles the size of this one appear in artifacts of a century and a half ago. Some might have been used, concealed, in the magic and theatrics of the winter ceremonies. More likely (since the sound doesn’t carry far), small rattles might have been used by shamans, working up close with sick patients.
Aside from the obviously modern paint, Adam’s main innovation is his material – boxwood. The stand is a piece of driftwood, or (as I like to think of it), two-thirds the price of a Special Platter at The Afghan Horseman, where I last had dinner with Mitch and his wife Diana and took the rattle home with me. Unpainted, the base provides a contrast with the largely painted rattle. The rattle can be left on the base, in a position in which it resembles a rocket, or else lifted free and used, in which case it gives a delicate, half-hissing sound.
Like the size, the subject and composition is also traditional. The rattle depicts Raven the trickster, the face in his belly representing the light that he has stolen from the chief who hoarded it. On his back is a red human figure facing a raven’s head, their tongues intertwining to suggest communication, and a reminder of Raven’s ability to change from human to bird shape. You might also take the quasi-sexual posture of the two figures, as well as the round belly containing the face in the light of some of the details of the story: Raven has impregnated the chief’s daughter with himself to be reborn as the chief’s grandson, so he might have a chance to get close to the light.
As for the composition, it, too, has a long tradition. For instance, just before writing this entry, I came across a picture of this two centuries-old Haida piece in the McCord Museum in Montreal:
The subject is different, but the composition similar, although Adam’s piece was never meant to rest on its bottom, and has a more streamlined look. With a few minutes’ research, I could easily turn up another two of three similarly arranged rattles.
None of these comments are meant to suggest in any way that Adams lacks originality. Rather, I’ve made them to point out that the rattle is a piece within a tradition. Its shape and intricate painting of details are more than enough to establish Adam’s ability – and to make me curious about what he will do next.