When I travel to Terrace every April, I spend three days submerged in art. Not only is the Freda Diesing School’s graduation and year end exhibit my official excuse for the trip, but I meet other artists and view their works in progress. This year, one of those artists was Ivan Adams, a Haida carver doing some unique work in argillite.
Ivan Adams is the father of Mitch Adams, a middle-aged artist from whom I’ve bought half a dozen pieces in the last three years. Last year, I met Ivan over Sunday brunch, and several times Mitch has mentioned his father as an artist, but until this year, I had never seen any of his work.
This year, Mitch drove me up to his parent’s house, and we sat in their kitchen while his father showed what he was working on. The three or four pieces I saw were literally like nothing I had ever seen before.
They were not in the argillite style of the nineteenth century, nor were they the inlaid and embellished pieces that most modern argillite carvers favor. As Mitch said, Ivan’s work is a little reminiscent of some Inuit work, but the resemblance is mostly in the scenes of everyday life he favors, rather than the carving style.
What Ivan Adams is doing is a naturalistic, detailed style all his own. One piece is a bear with silver teeth rearing on two legs while a much small hunter attacks with a spear; the base comes apart so you can position each figure separately. Another is a legendary strong man straddling a bull sea-lion and tearing it apart with his bare hands, with the exposed muscle suggested by artfully positioned catlinite (reddish brown argillite). A smaller piece is an eagle, so ungainly that it suggests an archeopteryx. All the pieces I saw were obviously mature pieces, done by an artist with a strongly developed style of his own.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford one of Ivan Adams’ larger pieces. However, he also had a raven pendant about the size and thickness of my thumb, which I was pleased to take home with me as consolation.
I suspect the pendant was a left over piece of argillite whose shape suggested its subject. But, like Adams’ larger pieces,what makes the piece standout is the attention to detail. The shape of the beak and how the upper and lower beak fit together are absolutely accurate. Adams has even included the striations that make every raven’s beak as individual as human finger prints, and suggested the soft tissue that connects the lower beak to the body – even though that part of the carving is not seen when the pendant is hanging from a chain. Similarly, the off-white of the inlaid eyes is a close approximation of the natural color of some raven’s eyes.
Yet as if that were not enough, on the head and neck, Adams has indicated individual feathers. Most of these feathers are aligned in rows, but only roughly, with some out of alignment and skewed from the rest, and most of them not quite the same shape. On the top the head, too, the feathers grown smaller as they approach the beak. I have no idea whether Adams has observed live ravens or worked from pictures in a book or on the Internet, but the only way that the pendant does not closely reflect a living raven is that the argillite lacks the blue oil-like highlights of actual feathers.
Ivan Adams is not well-known, and you won’t find his work in any Vancouver or Victoria galleries – at least, not yet. But anyone who takes the pains he obviously does is an artist worth paying attention to. Perhaps one day I will be able to afford one of his larger pieces, but meanwhile the pendant is a very satisfactory consolation.