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Archive for October, 2008

As a freelance writer, I’m committed to a certain number of articles each month. I often have to work far too many weekends and evenings to finish them all, but, once I finish them, my work for the month is done. This month, I finished my work at about noon today, and even had time for one extra article, so the next day and a half are an unexpected holiday.

Maybe I have too strong a work ethic, but I find something luxurious and wicked in this unlooked-for time. Maybe it’s a lingering feeling from school, when such time meant that you either had a doctor’s appointment or were skipping out.

It’s not as though I do anything special with such holidays. This afternoon, all I did was get my hair cut, then head to the gym and make a few phone calls when I returned home. Tomorrow, the sum total of my intentions is to stop by the video store and maybe do a bit of early Christmas shopping downtown. Hardly epic stuff, but stuff that my schedule usually doesn’t give me time to enjoy.

Not having to worry about juggling deadlines, making appointments, or any of the usual obligations of my working day removes the pressure on me. The pressure is self-inflicted, since I manage my own workload, and compared to that of many officer workers, it’s slight. In fact, often, I’m not even aware that it’s there. But, once I stop, I notice its absence.

Free of pressure, I take my time. My errands are not slotted into my schedule, but vague destinations that I can saunter towards at half my usual speed. Like one of our parrots, I can allow myself to be distracted along the way.

And, as I meander, whistling, I look at the hurry that everybody else is in, and wonder why they look so tired and tense. An overdose of Starbucks Ventes, maybe?

Maybe the main reason I enjoy these unexpected holidays is my awareness of how brief and uncertain they are. Some months, I don’t get them at all, and I’m left scrambling to submit my last articles before midnight on the last day of the month. And, even when I do get them, they barely make up for the work I do outside of normal business hours.

All too soon, I know that another month will roll around, and I’ll be contemplating another bout of the same routine. But, for that half day, that two days – however much I finish before the end of the month – my time is my own, and I can slow down. Then I feel smugly serene – and very, very lucky to have organized my life so that I occasionally get such windfalls.

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A carver who has just started selling his work asked me yesterday what I look for in a mask or sculpture. I hadn’t thought beyond the fact that, like any piece of art, a mask must give me a thrill of recognition on first or second glance, so I replied by pointing out what the masks of his that I like best had in common. But sometime in the night, my mind started turning over the question as I slept, and, by morning, I could send him a far more detailed list of what I look for.

A few weeks ago, a gallery owner said to me that a good mask must tell a story. I agree with him, but the way I would phrase things is to say that a good mask must let me see through the artists’ eye. That is, the subject matter must inspire the artist, whether on a personal or a cultural level. I might not know exactly what meaning a mask carries – particularly since some artists still conceal some of the meaning, on the grounds that the meaning is tied up with titles or rights that belong to a particular family. However, I know when that sort of meaning is there, because, if it’s not, a mask is just a piece of wood with a couple of holes in it, and probably designed to sell to tourists.

In addition, the subject matter must be either a new treatment of an old subject or a new subject altogether. For instance, in two-dimensional design, I could live quite happily without ever seeing yet another version of Dogfish Woman based on Charles Edenshaw’s design of over a century ago. But, while I thought I felt the same way about Raven stealing the sun or moon, Alano Edzerza’s “The Thief” (search on the page that the link leads to) proved to me there was still outstanding work to be done on the theme.

Completely new work is more difficult, but there are enough myths that are not depicted these days for dozens, even hundreds of work. For example, ever since Bill Reid did “Raven and the First Men,” that particular creation myth has become the dominant Haida one, despite the fact that at least one alternative exists.

In the execution of a design, my tastes are wide-ranging. I can enjoy equally a modern work that hints at the tradition rather being in it, like much of Ron Telek’s work, or a work done along traditional lines, like some of the work of Henry Green (who, in other moods, can have his own share of innovations).

However, I am still learning my way around the various traditions – so far as an outsider can – so I am on firmer ground when it comes to technique. The artists I most admire, I find, do not carve lines so much as surfaces, giving their work a subtly different orientation from two-dimensional artists. They do not use garish colors or coat the wood as if it was the bottom of a fence post intended to be buried in the ground, opting instead for either blended, subdued colors, like the best of Beau Dick’s masks, or else being content entirely or partially with the bare wood, taking advantage of the bare grain to enhance their carving..

Finally, for me, the best-carved masks are revealed in their finishing details. It is not just a matter of careful sandpapering, or making sure that no stray blobs of paint have fallen unnoticed, although that is part of it. I have seen surprisingly poor finishing on expensive masks in some galleries, with prices that were the same or higher as much more careful work.

However, for a mask to be really first-rate, its artist has to regard the finishing details as another opportunity for creativity. If there is abalone, the pieces should be matched. If a strip of copper is used, it needs to be exactly the right size.

At times, the finishing details alone can make a mask succeed. For instance, there’s an eagle head dress by Norman Tait and Lucinda Turner whose quality is raised even higher than most of their work because of two details: The horse-hair eye lashes that conceal the eyes, creating an impression of blindness, and the random bits of abalone in the carving representing the head feather that occasionally catch the light the way that the highlights of a bird’s feathers sometimes do.

I’m not sure this detailed list is much use to the carver who received it. I assume that he was looking for hints of what might appeal to potential buyers, and I doubt my tastes are typical. For a lot of people, including some collectors, art is a high-priced form of wallpaper, and what they want is something pretty and safe, or possibly simply exotic.

By contrast, what I want is something that catches my imagination and eye in equal measure – something that I can see every day for years and appreciate a line or an imaginative touch. Realizing that I hold this ideal, I suspect that, while my answer may not have useful to the questioner, it has been useful to me in intermittent efforts at self-knowledge.

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In the last few weeks, I’ve realized that my fascination with Northwest Coast art goes back further than I originally thought.

When I was seven or eight, I was mad for mythology. I started with Greek and Roman mythology, and, before I was ten, I’d worked steadily through Egyptian, Norse and every other coherent set of tales that I could get my hands on.

Part of that mix was various North American First Nation tales, and, most of all, stories from the Northwest Coast. All myth fascinated me indiscriminately, but Northwest Coast myth was special, even in the fragmented retellings for children that were – and still are – the most common form of presentation. Unlike the other mythologies, they were about places I had seen, or at least could travel to in a day or two.

That gave them a special interest and grounding in reality that even the Greek and Norse myths – my other two favorites – could never hope to match.

One off-shoot of this interest was that, while at four I was dressing up as a cowboy with chaps and cap guns, four years later I was pleased at souvenirs that included a bamboo spear with a rubber point, and a Plains-style headdress that draped my face with artificial raccoon tails. Watching westerns, I started cheering for the Indians. They had imaginative mythologies, and the cowboys had none.

At about ten, I also started buying my first pieces of art: souvenir totem poles made in Japan and China. Even then, I knew that their straight lines and garish colors showed no real knowledge of what they were representing, and that they shouldn’t be sold alongside tipis, but, so far as I knew, they were all that were available. Better, to my childish mind, an inadequate souvenir than none at all.

My aesthetic sense took a slight turn upward when my father brought home a raven graphic he had designed at work to go on the panels of a phone booth for some special event. It was a simple design, black and white, with the raven’s head turned to the right and the wings and feet symmetrical. I suspect now that it was copied from some other design, since so far as I know, my father had no interest in Northwest design. Probably, it showed no more understanding of form than another special booth he did for Vancouver Chinatown, in which his efforts to improve the characters ended up making them illegible, but it did include authentic U-shapes and ovoids, however unimaginatively they were depicted. I loved it, displaying first a version on cardboard then one on plastic for years in my bedroom.

Enough interest remained that when Trish and I went shopping for engagement rings, we quickly dubbed the conventional ones tacky and unimaginative and went shopping for Northwest Coast designs. People laugh now when we tell them that we bought our engagement rings at the Vancouver Museum and Planetarium, but, back then, the first Northwest Coast art galleries hadn’t appeared, and you could buy Bill Reid and Roy Vickers limited edition prints in the gift shop, as well as high quality silver jewelry.

Unfortunately, in those days, we weren’t much interested in the names of the artists, and now, years of daily wear have effaced the signatures inside – to say nothing of much of the detail of the designs.

Over the next few years, we bought a few limited edition prints, including one by Clarence Wells and several by Richard Hunt, and always we were thrilled to afford some real art (the memory of those souvenir totem poles were haunting me with embarrassment). But our purchases became fewer and fewer over the years, partly because of periods of poverty and partly because other interests and priorities intervened.

Then, well-sunk in middle-age, I realized that I could finally afford the bracelet I had always wanted – and did so. Within a few months, my old interest came rushing back. I started frequenting galleries. Looking at the prints on our walls, I found many of them formal and fussy compared to what was being done today. I began reading the available information about the myths, finding it hard to track down and almost as incomplete as the retellings I had read as a child, but tantalized all the same.

Now, as I write, the art-fever is on my more fiercely than ever. I suppose that the interest will taper off eventually, but maybe not — no sooner can we afford a modest piece than it seems that two or three others worth having hove into our attention. But, far from being a recent whim or interest, it’s really an interest that goes back to the days of my earliest literacy and imaginative awakening.

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As a journalist, I don’t often come straight out and endorse anything. Having worked as a marketer, I have had a strong reaction against hype of any sort, including my own. Nor is endorsement my style. Anyway, just by writing on an issue, I can often do far more by encouraging others to support it than I could if I were to volunteer time or money. However, every once in a while, a cause comes along that is so obvious worthy that I make an exception.

Take, for example, the Free Software Foundation’s high-priority list. How anyone who is the least interested in free and open source software (FOSS) could not support this cause is almost inexplicable to me.

As you may know, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and thousands of other groups have been working for years to create a computer environment that users control – one that they can use on as many computers as they want, that doesn’t require registration or activation, and doesn’t report on your activities to the manufacturer without your permission. That environment is almost there, in the form of GNU/Linux and a few other operating systems like FreeBSD. Only a few gaps such as an unecumbered Flash player and 3-D drivers for the leading video cards remain to be done, and they should be ready in a matter of a few years.

The high priority list is a way to call attention to these last remaining gaps in functionality. A couple of weeks ago, the FSF relaunched it as a campaign, soliciting donations to help in the development of the needed applications. These donations will not be used to pay developers directly, but may be used for such purposes as organizing face to face developer sprints to help the projects developing the applications, or to make people aware of the need.

The donations were kicked off by Russell Ossendryver of Worldlabel.com, whom I like to think of as a friend I haven’t met yet. Russell is a small business owner, but believes in free and open source software enough that he has pledged $10,000 to the high priority list.

You can argue over which applications are needed most, and about the content of the list (and the FSF encourages you to submit your thoughts). Very likely, you can’t match Russell’s donation (I can’t myself).

But if you have any interest whatsoever in FOSS, the high-priority list is a matter of getting down to basics. What could be more basic than finishing the free desktop? That’s been the goal all along – not our present 90% free and 10% doing without or compromising with proprietary software for the sake of expediency, but a completely user-controlled desktop. Anyone involved with FOSS who doesn’t donate what they can, or at least join the discussion about what should be on the list should ask some serious questions to themselves about their own sincerity.

With support, the FSF’s relaunching of the high priority list could be one of the major moments in FOSS. What more can I say, except to repeat my request to support it?

And before you ask, yes, I plan to sync my money with my mouth and send my own small cheque before the end of the year. Like I said, this is one time that my usual words in public aren’t enough.

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After several months of down payments, we’ve added the first mask to our collection of Northwest Coast art: “Spirit Moon Mask” by Ron Joseph Telek.

Telek is a great original – perhaps the great original in Northwest Coast art today. Inspired, they say, by a car accident in which he was legally dead for a few minutes, his work is largely concerned with images of transformation and shamanism. While his work obviously comes out of the northern tradition in British Columbia, it breaks with the tradition as much as it keeps it.

His work is quirky, asymmetrical, and fully of little details, and often more than a little disturbing. I’d call it the carved or sculpted equivalent of a Gothic novel – a dark, romantic, and highly individualistic style. Others have called him the first surrealist of the Northwest Coast, and likened some of his more disturbing images to Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

His imagination alone would make him one of the top carvers and sculptors on the coast today, but Telek is also a painstaking craftsman, much like his uncle Norman Tait, whom he once studied under. Like Tait, Telek is a master of using the grain of the wood to enhance his subject matter.

The same is true when he turns to other materials – there is a walrus tusk he did a couple of years back languishing in a Vancouver gallery which is so eeriely beautiful that it had to be moved further away from another piece of ivory so as not to outshine it.

Another characteristic of Telek’s work is that, in contrast to what might almost seem his imaginative excess, his finishing details are always meticulous and restrained – you won’t find any tarting up of a mask with rings of unmatched abalone or endless cascades of horse hair in Telek’s work, the way you do in less talented artists. And you never do see paint, which other artists sometimes cake on to hide defects. Like Tait, if Telek adds a finishing detail, it’s for effect.

And if all this wasn’t enough, Telek’s imagination seems endless. Other artists may have periods in their development, in which work after work resembles each other, but Telek’s periods don’t seem to last for more than a piece or two before he moves on to something new. Possibly, this restlessness works against him in the galleries, where many buyers want something familiar, but, I prefer to think of it as one more sign of an inventive and agile mind.

“Spirit Moon Mask” is one of Telek’s smaller, tamer pieces, but it strikes an interesting balance between tradition and the west coast contemporary style of architecture. But the type of odd details that make his other work so lively are there. The wall-eye, the bit of abalone that could either be a nose-piercing or a wound, the strained-looking cheekbones, the arms of the spirit rising from the moon that look like tentacles, the spirit’s arched back and round-mouthed scream — for such a simple piece, the number of unusual touches crammed into the mask is overwhelming.

Since our townhouse is small, we had been thinking of limiting ourselves to one work by each artist who attracted our attention. But, already, we are talking about making an exception in Telek’s case. Perhaps, too, we’ll save for eight or nine months and buy one of his really big works, even if we have to rent the townhouse next door to display it properly. Frankly, we’re hooked.

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At times, I’m not sure whether I’m a romantic or a skeptic. On the one hand, I love popular legends and mythology. On the other hand, I love efforts at debunking. Was Richard III the victim of propaganda after his death? Did Benjamin Franklin pass information to the British? Was Bonnie Prince Charlie a semi-literate sot who guzzled his way through the 1745 Rebellion? Topics like this always fascinate me, even when they fail to convince. For that reason, I find Maria Tippett’s Bill Reid: The Making of an Indian endlessly fascinating, even when it seems dubious or exaggerated.

If you don’t live in Canada, particularly in British Columbia, you might not know why Bill Reid is a subject for debunking. Briefly, Bill Reid was a jeweler and a sculptor working in the Northwest Coast tradition. He is generally considered the chief figure in the renaissance of Northwest Coast art, and the major Canadian artist of the late 20th Century, with his work on the back of the Canadian $20 bill and one of his sculptures on display at the Canadian embassy in Washington. Ten years after his death, he remains so admired that if an artist, gallery owner or collector of Northwest Coast art refers to “Bill” with no surname, they are referring to Bill Reid — a touching and clear indication of his ongoing importance.

Tippett clearly admires Reid’s work, and its fusion of European and First Nations sensibilities. However, she also states that Reid was bipolar, and – on very little evidence – that he was sexually promiscuous and adulterous. More importantly, she suggests that it is wrong to see him as the sole instigator of the Northwest Coast art revival, and that, especially in the last years of his life, he carefully crafted his own image as an Indian to further his career (hence the title).

These claims were greeted with outrage by a number of reviewers when the book was first published four years ago; a review in the Georgia Straight, for example, referred to the book’s “slash-and-burn” approach to its subject. In the end, though, it is surprising how little her claims actually matter. Regardless of their truth or falsehood, even Tippett cannot deny Reid’s importance as an artist.

Personally, however, I wish that Tippett had balanced her claims more, and, in places, elaborated on them. A man struggling with mixed European and First Nations ancestry in the mid-20th century, and later with Parkinson’s disease has every right to depression and moodiness. As for her claims about his sex life, they are based to a large extent on hearsay, and, not really the concern of anyone except Reid and his wives. I suppose the claims have to be there for the sake of completeness, but they have little to do with his art, which is almost completely void of the sexual elements in 19th Century Northwest Coast art.

Similarly, it is true that other artists were keeping the tradition alive when Bill Reid began his career. However, to imply as Tippett seems to that the tradition would have its present popularity without him seems absurd. True, artists like Ellen Neel and Mungo Martin were active in the 1950s, but to suggest that they could have sparked the current interest without Reid seems questionable; he developed into a first-rate talent who influenced dozens, and Neel and Martin were second-rate at best. Might-have-beens are endless, but, without Reid, the tradition would probably not be nearly as popular as it is today. Even artists of the excellence of Robert Davidson and Norman Tait might not have been able to promote it, not because they are any less talented than Reid – they’re not – but because they lack Reid’s flare for self-promotion.

But self-promotion, of course, is something that artists are not supposed to engage in, according to many outsiders. Apparently, they are somehow truer to their craft if they live in poverty. And Tippett seems to share this self-righteous puritanism in full measure – if anything, she seems more shocked that Reid should cleverly promote himself than that he should sleep around. She reacts with a cynical naivety, using anti-Indian statements by Reid from earlier years to create the impression that his political activism in his last active years was a calculated marketing decision. She does not consider the possibility that marketing can be based on honesty, much less than Reid’s adoption of a First Nations identity may have been a resolution to his life-long conflict about who he was.

Still, better a debunking book that lacks generosity than a hagiography that ignores its subjects’ faults. Tippett could argue her case better, but, even if her interpretation is faulty she at least presents a portrayal of a human being – and one whose faults, real or imagined, don’t change his importance in the least.

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As I wrote a few months ago, how a building is used can create an atmosphere. A hospital, for instance, nearly always make you uncomfortable, even if you are not involved in anything going on there. After thinking for a couple of weeks, I can think this same truism helps to explain the appeal of buying art.

For me, buying art is not an investment. Nor is it a hobby like collecting coins or stamps, in which you try to collect a complete set. Still less is it a sense of ownership; I firmly believe, for instance, that you should not buy art that you have no room to display properly, which is why we wouldn’t buy a Northwest Coast button blanket – even if we could afford it. We simply don’t have the fifty square feet of wall space to display one properly.
Instead, buying art is an effort – a slow, piece by piece one, in our case – to transform the atmosphere of our living space. Consciously or unconsciously, everyone does something similar if they live in one place long enough.

But, in most cases, furnishings are chosen because they are comforting or show an awareness of the latest trend. You find very few people, even interior designers, who create rooms that are a bold statement of personality or aspirations.

About the closest you usually get to such a declaration are the people who buy an antique house and spend years living with sawdust and the noise of construction until they have refurbished it into as close a replica of the original as modern tastes can stand. In effect, such people make the house itself a work of art.

Living in a townhouse, I’m not in a position to do that. Nor do I have the tolerance for breathing dust and living with table saws and lathes for years on end. But, what I can do is decorate my living space with what I think is the most inspirational or provocative art that I can afford.

Some of the art that we have bought or hoped to buy is not comfortable – some of it makes people whose idea of decorating is pretty pictures very uneasy. But what it all has in common is that it is the product of the human mind at its best, If some of it is challenging, that is all the better, so far as I am concerned. I want to be challenged and inspired by the best as I go about my daily business. I don’t want merely pretty pictures.

In fact, I am convinced that you are better for surrounding yourself by art. Where a prison or a hospital upsets, art soothes and relaxes. It makes you more observant as, living with a piece day by day, you slowly unravel the secret of why it is a triumph of design. It also, I find, inspires you to live up to it, not only in little ways, like trying to keep the place neater so it is a suitable environment for the art, but also in large ways by challenging you to do your best in your work or pastimes, to make yourself worthy of your surroundings.

That is why those who think that art is only the concern of a small elite, as well as those who mistake art for fashion are both wrong. Art, like exercise, is good for everybody, and you can’t replace excellence with conformity. Really, it’s as simple as that.

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