In April, I flew up to Terrace for the Freda Diesing School’s graduation show. I entered from one end of the modern longhouse where the exhibit was set up, and wound my way through the display panels and cases to the opposite end. As I rounded the last panel, Kelly Robinson’s “Nuxalk Box Design: Four Carpenters” caught my eye.
Immediately, I knew two things:
First, from the amount of red and the particular shade of blue, and the looseness (or non-existence) of formline, it was a Nuxalk piece.
Second, it was such an eye-catching piece that, if I could, I was taking it home with me. At the time, I already owned Robinson’s canvas, “Mother of Mischief,” but this was a contemporary piece that was, if anything, even more striking.
As things turned out, I didn’t take the painting home with me that weekend. I bought it, but both Robinson and I were worried that the glass might not survive the flight home, and that the painting might be damaged. As things were, it was only six weeks later, when a somewhat different version of the show was displayed by the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver as Northern Exposure that I finally took delivery.
The Nuxalk, sometimes known as the Bella Coola (although not by them) are a nation about midway up the coast of British Columbia. Like the neighboring Heiltsuk and Haisla, their art shows hints of both the northern formline style and that of the Kwakwaka’wakw to the south, but with bold lines and colors that make it unique.
Unfortunately, Nuxalk art has not been extensively studied in comparison to, for instance, that of the Haida or Tsimshian. However, in the last half century of the local First Nations revival, the Nuxalk have never lacked for artists. My own familiarity with the style – such as it is – comes mainly from the Nuxalk who have graduated in the last few years from the Freda Diesing School, such as Latham Mack, Chaz Mack, and Lyle Mack, all of whom are related to Robinson.
Nuxalk mythology has been neglected by academics almost as much as the art. So far as we know, we have no transcriptions of how Nuxalk stories might have been told a hundred and fifty years ago. Nor has anyone collected the stories. But, from the little I know, the Nation has some unique traditions.
Foremost among these traditions are the Four Carpenters. These are the supernatural beings charged by Atquhtam the Creator to prepare the world for the Nuxalk. Sometimes, the Four Carpenters are loosely glossed as being arch-angels, but a better analogy is probably heroes like Prometheus, who are responsible for the foundations of culture.
If I have the stories correct, the Four Carpenters created the Sun, which is often depicted as a canoe, as a vehicle for the Atquhtam. By some accounts, the Four Carpenters created the Raven specifically to steal the light, as he does in other first nation cultures. But the Four Carpenters also designed the Nuxalk language, as well as the ceremonies and dances of each of the Nuxalk clan; each of the Carpenters may also be the founder of a clan. When they left Atquhtam’s house, they descended to earth on the sun’s eyelashes.
“Nuxalk Box Design: Four Carpenters” shows the subject surrounding the sun, with the bottom two, perhaps, starting to descend to the earth. As the name suggests, Robinson’s painting is a study for a design that might be painted or carved on a box. That description sounds like a formal, academic study, the kind of rigidly traditional work that might be done by a student artist, and there are, in face, objects in the painting such as the faces that remind me of other Nuxalk work I have seen. There is also a regular layout that suggests the careful measurement that might be expected in such an exercise.
At the same time, a strong sense of style is obvious at a glance. “Bold” was the first word that came to my mind when I first saw the painting, and it remains the best description I can think of. With the thickness of the red lines, it could almost be intended for a housefront ten metres long, and not just a box. And, while the painting may be generally symmetrical, the difference in positioning between the upper two and lower two Carpenters strikes me as a touch that a modern artist would be more likely to add than a traditional one, or one just learning the style.
Still another individual or modern element is the large amount of cross-hatching in the design. So much cross-hatching might appear in metal or wood, but from my limited knowledge seems rarer in Nuxalk painting. Perhaps, like many local First Nations artists today, Robinson has been influenced by other traditions of painting, such as the Tsimshian’s, which sometimes uses cross-hatching heavily.
I rate the painting as Robinson’s best to date, and have hung it in the living room, facing “Mother of Mischief” on the opposite the wall. I suspect that, on that fast-approaching day when I have so many paintings and prints that I need to rotate them on my wall, “Nuxalk Box Design: Four Carpenters” will be one of the few than hangs permanently.