Six weeks ago, Haisla artist John Wilson sent me pictures from the Freda Diesing School’s mid-term show. Since then, I’ve been trying to contact the artists whose work impressed me. Eventually, I hope to buy work from three or four of them. But, so far, the only one whose work has found its way into our house is Todd Stephens.
I’ve exchanged a few emails with Stephens, but I know very little about him besides the fact that he is Nisga’a, a young father, and one of last years’ recipients of the YVR Art Foundation Awards at the school. But I do know that he is an artist with a studied simplicity of form and enough understanding of the traditional northern style that he is already showing a strong signs of a personal style.
You can see Stephen’s simplicity of form in “Red Warrior,” the first piece of his work that attracted my attention. This small acrylic on canvas uses the barest minimum of lines to suggest a traditional maskin a non-traditional style. The thickest parts on the face – the eye and brow, the nostril, and the mouth – ate the parts most likely to be painted on a mask. On the outside, the columns of three lines, with irregular spaces between them help to break up the thickness of the line. The black background and the use of red as a primary color add a touch of innovation to a piece that otherwise is effective largely because of its simplicity. That Stephens should have reisisted the urge to elaborate is very much to his credit – generally, only a much more experienced artist would have trusted so much to simplicity.
In “Industry,” Stephens paints a traditional beaver in a traditional pose. He takes considerable care to avoid the thickening of formlines, mostly by tapering them and arching them where they meet.
At first, his major innovation in “Industry” seems to be in having the tail down, rather than held up parallel in front of the body. But, if you compare it to other versions of the beaver in this position (like the Richard Hunt print below), you notice thta it is a rectangular form, rather than the usual squae one. This change makes the body much leaner than in other artists’ versions, especially in relation to the head and hands, resulting in a much less-stolid figure than usual.
Even more importantly, the thinner body leaves less room for secondary designs than in other people’s versions. As a result, the arms, legs, and body are decorated simply with only one or two elements apiece, which further emphasizes the outsized hands and feet – an exaggeration that fits in with the title of the piece. And, because so much of the beaver is rendered simply, the head and the tail are, too. The result is a boldness that makes “Industry” far more effective than most Northwest Coast Beavers.
Another of Stephen’s pieces that we have agreed to buy but not yet paid for is “Jorga and I,” a depiction of Stephens and his young daughter with the heads of the animals of their tribes (since the Nisga’a are matrilineal, of course, his daughter belongs to her mother’s tribe). The fact that the mythological heads are black, the traditional primary color in northern works, and the human bodies are red, the traditional secondary color makes the piece a statement of identity, saying clearly, “We are Nisga’a first” — and, because the hands are also black, perhaps “and artists” should be added to the statement.
The protective hunching of the figure of Stephens, and the placement of his hands over his daughter’s eyes gives a modern and gently moving touch to the piece. Another modern touch is given by the overlapping of the artists’ hands and his daughter’s eyes, an element I do not recall seeing anywhere else. However, like “Industry,” much of the design of “Jorga and I” is traditional yet distinctive, with close attention paid to formlines, and the use of the distinctively Nisga’a T-shape inside forms to help further reduce their thickness.
This ability to combine a modern sensibility with a mastery of traditional design is the main reason that I think Stephens has a career in art if he wants one and is willing to work hard enough. Stephens still has things to learn, such as trusting to the power of white space enough to give wider margins on his designs, but the fundamentals are so obviously there, especially in the more complicated “Jorga and I,” that he seems likely to learn them – and fairly quickly, too.