I love argillite. Of all the media used by the First Nations artists of the Pacific Northwest, argillite has by far the most mystique and romance, as well as the greatest visual appeal.
Argillite is a black slate found only on Slatechuck Mountain on Haida Gwaii. Similar slates have been in a few other places around the world, but have slightly different chemical compositions that make them less suitable for carving (or so I’ve been told). Only members of the Haida nation are supposed to be allowed on the mountain, and families have unofficial quarries whose exact locations they try to keep secret.
Rumors persist of a logging road that makes access to the quarries easier, but, generally, artists either have to carry out the argillite they quarry on their backs down a narrow trail, or else buy what others chose to sell – usually at about five dollars a pound on Haida Gwaii, and as much as twenty dollars a pound in Vancouver. The tradition has been to keep argillite out of the hands of non-Haida, although a black market makes small amounts generally available to other artists, who generally turn it into pendants.
The history of argillite carving is equally romantic in its obscurity. The standard account is that argillite carving did not begin until 1820, and that the pipes that were among the first carvings known were never actually used. However, while European tools and interest in curios made the 19th century a Golden Age of argillite carving, it seems unlikely that such a sophisticated art form could emerge suddenly without at least a few centuries of tradition. Studies of early pipes show a residue that prove that some early pipes were definitely used, but, since heat can crack argillite, most likely it was a medium reserved for shamans and other ceremonial use before the nineteenth century.
But whatever the truth of the matter, argillite carvings became a major trade good in the 1800s. Unlike other traditional art, these carvings consisted of far more than family crests and the stories that families and title holders held the right to tell. Instead, the carvers of the time also depicted the animals, peoples, and plants of everyday life. Sometimes, they imitated the patterns of the china plates carried by American traders. Other times, they made miniatures of houses and canoes. At times, they depicted the Haida viewpoint of the European traders and immigrants, offering some of the few contemporary depictions of colonization from the perspective of the colonized.
Nineteenth century argillite was not completely naturalistic. For instance, a head is generally one-third the length of the body. However, much of it is painstakingly detailed, with muscles on arms and legs or the individual strands of a rope all clearly delineated in a way that the more traditional wood carving almost never is. During its development, argillite carving also developed its own stock poses, such as a shaman holding a rattle in his upraised right hand and a knife in his left.
Like other art forms, argillite carving suffered because of epidemics and Christianization. However, because it was a trade good, argillite carving never declined quite as much as more traditional forms. Probably, it helped, too, that Charles Edenshaw, one of the first great Haida carvers whose name and career we know, was a skilled argillite carver – although this aspect of his art was omitted altogether from the recent exhibit of the works of Charles and Isobel Edenshaw at the Museum of Anthropology.
Today, argillite is a niche market. Bill Reid was influenced by argillite design, but only experimented with the actual medium. Similarly, while Robert Davidson as a teenager sold model totem poles in argillite for the tourist trade, it has never been his favorite medium. The same is true of artists such as Jay Simeon, Ernest Swanson, Gwaai Edenshaw or Marcel Russ, although all of these artists can produce outstanding argillite pieces when they take the time.
The trouble seems to be that argillite is more temperamental than wood, silver, or gold. It is dirty to work with, resistant to tools, and prone to flaws that can destroy hours of work with one misplaced stroke. Because of its water content, it can shatter in the cold. Artists like Christian White or Gary Minaker Russ who have done most of their work in argillite are essentially specialists, appealing to a relatively small and expensive market. Excluding pendants and miniatures, galleries rarely have more than two or three pieces of argillite at any one time, and prices usually begin at about $8000.
Nor has the reputation of argillite been helped by the growing practice in the last decade of inlaying pieces with gold, silver, and semi-precious stones. Often, such inlays are added before carving begins, seriously interfering with the artist’s ability to add detail, and, almost always, they are added in lieu of detailed carving. Moreover, because such inlays are expensive, they add substantially to prices, which means that buyers are being asked to pay more for inferior work that increases very little in value.
Quality argillite pieces are still being carved, but to find them buyers either have to visit Haida Gwaii or at least deal with artists directly. However, the effort to find quality can be well worth the effort.
Even when left with its natural finish, argillite has a reflective finish that makes a carving rich in shadows and highlights. These shadows and highlights change with the available light, but always adds a unique impression of depth and motion. They make argillite a medium that demands to be touched, and its carving traced over and over with the fingers – in fact, many believe that frequent handling prolongs the life of a carving, because the oils from human hands replenish the moisture that was originally in the slate.
Elegant and mysterious, quality argillite carvings are an under-appreciated glory of Northwest Coast art that never fail to capture and intrigue the eye.