Haida art occupies a privileged place in Northwest Coast art. Because the revival of the art is associated closely with Bill Reid, who began with the Haida tradition, to many people, all Northwest Coast art is Haida, and Tsimshian, Nisga’a, Kwaguilth, Nu-chu-nualth, Salish and the others are not even names. Still, no one can deny that the Haida include many brilliant artists in every medium, so last night I went to the opening of Coastal People’s show, “Haida Masterworks” expecting to enjoy myself. Nor was I disappointed.
In fact, the show exceeded my expectations. Since it had been only lightly advertised, I expected a small show. Instead, what I saw was a showcase of leading Haida artists, with works ranging from the classic to the contemporary.
Several leading Haida artists featured prominently. Master carver Don Yeomans was represented by several circular panels and a mask well over a meter high –examples of what I think of as corporate art, since you need a large lobby, or at least an extremely long room with a high ceiling to display it in a setting that does it justice.
April White, who paints in styles varying from traditional Haida designs on cedar bark to contemporary landscapes:
Also prominently displayed was the better part of two years work by Reg Davidson, who is probably the leading carver of masks that can be used for dances and ceremonies. This emphasis gives his masks a simplicity of line and color that is rarely seen, as well as a unique dramatic quality. I am sure, for instance, that the large eye-sockets that characterize his masks increase their theatrical effect when seen in the firelight of a night-time ceremony.
Yet another master artist who is well-represented is Isabel Rorick, a weaver who works largely with spruce roots and natural designs in traditional patterns collected from up and down the coast. I admit that I know little of basket weaving, and ordinarily think less of it. Yet even I could see that Rorick’s work was intricate and uniform. Despite the muted colors, the designs are clearly visible from ten meters away, and, up close, the evenness of her work make clear that she must spend hours upon hours in her craft.
Among such works by well-known artists, I almost missed some wood-carvings by newer artists. However, on my second or third round of the gallery, I took time to appreciate some panels by Kyran Yeoman, Don Yeoman’s son, and a mask by Robin Rorick. Also on display was one of the first masks I’ve seen by goldsmith Jesse Brillon.
Contemplating these works was a pleasant way to spend an evening. However, for me, the highlights of the show were the jewelry and small sculptures in the display cases. Jesse Brillon and Gwaai Edenshaw – so far as I’m concerned, the leading goldsmiths in Northwest Coast art – were unfortunately represented by only one work apiece, although both were standouts:
However, small displays of works by Derek White, Rick Adkins, and Gerry Marks were more than compensation.
I also took the time to appreciate the two-sided silver and argillite pendants by young artist Ernest Swanson. I had not given much attention to his work before the show, but I plan to correct that mistake in the future because of the fineness of detail in his engraving.
But for me, the highlight of the show was the work in argillite by cousins Christian and Darrell White. Christian White, of course, is one of the most-skilled argillite carvers working today, and pieces like “Raven’s Children and “Eagle and Salmon” are typical of the strong lines and sense of restraint that I associate with his work.
By contrast, Darrell White has only been working seven years to his cousin’s three or four decades, but he is rapidly perfecting his work. His style is less serene than Christian’s White, reminding me a little of Ron Telek’s, and having the same attention to detail. Pieces like “Thunderbird Captures Killerwhale” and “Raven Dancer” (below) show an originality of design that leave me looking forward to what he will do next.
As usual at such events, appreciating the art was repeatedly sidetracked by the interesting conversations flowing around the gallery. Although I had only expected to stay an hour or so, I suddenly found that three hours had passed and I still hadn’t looked as closely as some works as I had wanted. But that just gives me an excuse to return, so I’m not complaining.