Patrick Amos is one of the leading Nuu Chah Nulth artists. From the first time I saw his work, I knew it was only a matter of time before I bought something by him. However, until I was browsing the Quintana Galleries web site about six weeks ago, I hadn’t found the right piece. There, I saw his acrylic on paper “Supernatural Wolf Transforming into Killer Whale,” which appealed in so many different ways that I immediately contacted the gallery before anyone else could snap it up.
I assume (but haven’t been able to verify yet) that the piece refers to a myth apparently shared by both the Nuu Chah Nulth and Haida nations of a great wolf that was such a savage and wasteful hunter that shamans transformed it into a killer whale so that it would not de-populate the animals of the land. This is a story that I have never seen depicted in art before, which gives the piece an immediate interest for me – I mean, Raven stealing the light is a powerful story, but it’s as common in Northwest Coast art as Madonnas and crucifixions are in European Renaissance art. I simply like to see my imagination stirred by a story less often told.
However, “Supernatural Wolf” is also an office in the important Wolf Society, although why one should be transforming into an orca isn’t clear to me.
At any rate, transformation is a subject that often brings out the best in many Northwest Coast Artists, and this piece is no exception. Amos’ acrylic shows the wolf twisted in the throes of transformation – throes that seem all the more agonizing as it struggles in the confines of the circle.
At the moment depicted, the most obvious sign of the transformation is the dorsal fin on the wolf’s back that it is evidently twisting to see (and maybe bite). However, at a second look, the wolf’s head is also sprouting the fin that is one of the killer whale’s distinguishing features in Northwest Coast Art. Moreover, if you look closely, one front leg may be changing into a flipper, while the other, with toes that seem elongated compared to the hind foot beside it, seems to have just started to change. The tail, too, is presented in a three-quarters view that makes it look flat, and more an orca’s flukes than a wolf’s brush.
An additional indication of change may be the irregular and asymmetrical shapes that make up the wolf’s legs. They give a strong contrast to the wolf’s body, which exists only in outline, except for the two stars that perhaps suggest the wolf’s spirit, remaining unchanged despite the physical transformations that arre happening.
For me, the piece is all the more effective because it is in stark white and black. Not everybody appreciates black and white or grayscale these days, which may be why the piece languished in the gallery for a while. Personally, though, I have always felt that, with the right subject, a lack of primary colors makes for boldness and drama, which is certainly the case here.
One additional note: The small mark in the lower right is a finger print, presumably Pat Amos’. The gallery was apologetic about this flaw, but I was more philosophical. Your eye is hardly drawn to it, after all. Besides, if I ever wanted to establish provenance, I shouldn’t have any trouble (to which the employee I was dealing with replied that you could have no doubt that Amos had a hand in the work).