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.