Archive for June, 2009

I have two great weakness when buying Northwest Coast art: I love to see artists trying out new media, and I love work that shows the lesser-known figures of mythology. With these preferences, it seems inevitable that I would have bought Morgan Green’s Mouse Woman platter.

Morgan Green is a twenty-five year old artist who seems to be in the middle of deciding what art she wants to do. She is represented in the galleries mostly by her painted leather cuffs, but she has also done fashion design, carved masks and poles, and assisted older artists with painting and metal casting. Add an art teacher and potter for a mother and master carver Henry Green for a father, and it is no wonder that she always seems to be galloping off in all directions (in fact, every time I’ve met or contacted her, she seems about to be preparing for a journey or just returned from one).

The Mouse Woman platter is one of several pieces of ceramics that Green is exhibiting at the Edzerza Gallery. Made from clay that Green recently brought back from Arizona, it is as untraditional as a Northwest Coast piece can be. Ceramics were not a part of the northern coast first nation cultures, and, unlike argillite a century ago or glass in recent decades, have never really caught on, although you can find occasional pieces – usually not very skilled and mostly for the tourist trade.

As for Mouse Woman herself, she remains a bit of a mystery. Few, if any renditions of her survive. But the stories make her a powerful, although minor character. She generally appears as a helper of a hero in a quest. In several tales, for instance, a hero helps a mouse over a log, and then, that evening, comes to a long-house where he is greeted by a noble woman who feasts him and gives him good advice. In other tales, she whispers practical advice about everyday concerns that the hero passes on to his people. In many ways, she is all that Raven is not: domestic where he is a wanderer, a maintainer and restorer of order where he is a bringer of chaos and change, and a representative of civilization where he is the eternal outsider. Where Raven is often a child, she is more often described as a grandmother, perhaps an elder.

Since no one is quite sure what Mouse Woman is supposed to look like, in depicting her, Green is free to let her imagination run wild. She chooses a simple design that goes well the rough, terra-cotta background – a combination that vaguely suggests petroglyphs, an art form that flourished several centuries before the northern formline became codified. Most of the lines are thin, except for those associated with what Green presumably intends as Mouse Woman’s distinguishing characteristics: her incisors, round eyes and ears. For these features, the lines are heavy, giving them added prominence, and elevating them to the equivalent of the orca’s fin or the eagle’s hooked beak – the features that tell you what creature is intended even if the complete shape is not depicted.

The result is a fragile but alert-looking creature, with ovoids that suggest cheeks stuffed with food. The result is a surprisingly naturalistic figure of a mouse, that, at the same time, also suggests a tiny but alert and active grandmother. How artists of a century and a half ago might have depicted Mouse Woman remains unknown, but I’m sure that they would recognize instantly the subject of Green’s depiction.

I don’t know whether Green will continue working with ceramics. Considering her restlessness, my guess is that she won’t for the time being, although she may return to them eventually. But I suspect that her recent YVR scholarship couldn’t have come at a better time. The Mouse Woman platter is a minor piece (in scope, I mean; at twenty-five centimeters it is definitely not so in size), but it suggests to me an artist who is starting to find the themes that interest her.


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Mostly, I know the work of Salish artists John and Luke Marston from pictures. These days, they seem to be working largely on commissions, and such smaller work as they do is displayed mostly in galleries in Victoria. The few I’ve seen have been mostly at the Inuit Gallery, which has now taken the next step of hosting a show with some two dozen pieces entitled “Honouring the Ancient Ones.” I attended the opening of the show last Saturday, and I was appreciative of the skill I saw there, but a little taken aback by the prices.

The two Marstons are often spoken of in the same breath. Even if they weren’t brothers, that would be inevitable, because both begin in with the Salish tradition, often base works on historical artifacts, and show considerable promise as carvers. However, if you see “Honouring the Ancient Ones,” you are unlikely ever to mistake them again.

Assuming the show is any indication, John Marston favors boxes and rattles.



When he does a mask, it is generally on a stand.


Throughout his work, he shows a strong sense of line – something that loosely resembles the formlines of the northern first nations on the coast, but which follows few of its rules with any consistency.


The result is a body of work that is hauntingly familiar, yet fresh at the same time.

By contrast, Luke Marston seems interested in carving household goods, such as bowls and ladles.



He is also the maker of the only two bracelets in the show, although his metalwork skills seem less advanced that his woodcarving ones.


He also seems more interested in masks than his brother, including a transformation mask and a contemporary piece called “First Woman,” whose depiction of a woman’s face in the flames was for me the highlight of the show.


None of his work shows the same focus on line that his brother’s does, but – at least in this exhibit – he seems more interested in the historical roots of his art, citing several times in the catalog that various works are his rendering of a museum piece.

Both artists are worthy of admiration, but I know that the prices they are charging are causing some concern among Northwest Coast artists and galleries. There is an unspoken understanding that artists’ prices reflect their experience, and many people feel that neither Marston has paid enough dues to justify their prices. When I say that Luke Marston’s “First Woman” mask is in the same price range as master and elder carver Norman Tait, you will understand what I am talking about. I even know one gallery that decided against trying to host a show of the Marston’s work because its curators decided it could not afford the initial outlay of buying such expensive pieces.

On the one hand, this criticism has some justification. John and Luke Marston are outstanding carvers, but they are still relatively young and, for all their promise, they are still perfecting their skills. Not that anything is wrong with their finishing skills, you understand, but when you compare them to those of someone like Ron Telek or Stan Bevan, you can see that Marstons still have things to learn. For example, neither shows a strong sense of the grain, and their matching of abalone inlays while adequate, is not always as close as it should be.

On the other hand, the Marstons can obviously receive the prices they are asking. Despite the recession, sales were brisk at the opening. As I write, three days into the show, two-thirds of the works on display have sold, including some of the most expensive.

Judging from the crowd, I suspect that one reason they can charge as they do is that they are breakout artists – ones whose appeal extends beyond the usual Northwest Coast collectors and enthusiasts and appeal to the local mainstream art crowd. You might wonder if their work will increase in value as quickly as other artists’ given its initially high prices, but what are they supposed to do – deliberately undercharge what the market will bear? That seems too much to ask of anyone.

In the end, I decided the question of their pricing was secondary (especially since most of their work was beyond my bank balance). The way the Marstons are developing, the issue is likely to become moot in another five to ten years as their skill is generally recognized.

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The other day, I read that Kodak would no longer be producing analog film. The newspaper did its best to make the new an end of an era story, with people lamenting the end of a tradition. But I admit that the laments left me cold. Technological nostalgia simply is not part of my personality.

It’s not as though I haven’t live through changes in technology. But many, such as the size and fuel of cars, are minor in the sense that they don’t affect the pace of daily life. Whether you ride in a sub-compact or a luxury car, the immediate experience is much the same. I feel the same way about black and white as opposed to color television, despite my fondness for film noir.

Other changes in technology seem improvements to me. A push-button phone is quicker and easier to use than a rotary one, although I remember being fascinated by the dials when I was in kindergarten.

As for typewriters, I understand that some older writers are used to them and want to stay with what they know. But give me a word processor and computer keyboard any day. I remember having to fiddle with whiteout and carbon paper, and having to retype a page because it had too many errors, and I have no wish to deal with these nuisances ever again. Nor am I fond of being restricted to red and black ink and (assuming you were lucky enough to have an IBM Selectric) a very limited set of typefaces – none of which had the collection of accents and umlauts needed to deal with every western European language, let alone anything else. While I took some time to get used to writing on a computer, now I wouldn’t go back to a typewriter at any cost.

The same goes for the old photographic processes that are now being lamented. I put in time at my high school’s darkroom and had a makeshift one at home for a few years, and I admit that there is an esoteric feel to developing films or producing a print with an enlarger (perhaps working in darkness or infra-red light has something to do with that feeling). And for years, it made sense that professionals should stick to the old techniques when digital cameras lacked the features they needed. But those days are at least five years past. Digital cameras and graphics editors get the same results while being cheaper, quicker, less fussy, and more efficient. So why would I want to stick with the old techniques?

Maybe my interest in results is part of why I don’t get nostalgic about technology. I tend to focus on similarities more than differences, an attitude that makes me see word processors and typewriters as means to a similar end. If I can get the same results with less effort from one means, that’s the one I’m going to use.

With this attitude, I’m neither a technophobe nor a technophile. I neither feel threatened by technology nor get excited by new technology, although I do keep informed about areas that interest me. When upgrading makes sense, I upgrade. With this attitude, I’m unlikely to feel any strong attachment to technology one way or the other. It’s a tool to me, and nothing else.

Still another reason I’m not nostalgic about technology is my memory. I have only good recall, but my recognition borders on the photographic. By that I mean that, although I can’t always generate detailed memories unaided, putting the right artifact or place in front of me is like starting a movie on the DVD player – it’s that vivid. So, when older technology is discussed, I’m not under any illusions about it, pro or con. And accuracy of my sort, I suspect, is incompatible with nostalgia. It’s hard for the reworkings of the mind to occur when you can access direct memories.

But the main reason for my lack of reaction seems to be my suspicion that most nostalgia for technology is really a nostalgia for when you are young. Just as most people’s attitudes or sense of prices tends to get stuck somewhere between the ages of 25 and 35, so most people’s sense of how technology should look and function gets stuck at a similar age. So, when people become nostalgic for an obsolete technology, what they are really doing is lamenting the fact that they are no longer young.

That seems just another form of distortion to me, and one that I am determined to avoid. Trying to perceive accurately isn’t always easy or pleasant, but I am determined to attempt it.

Sometimes, an older technology will have advantages that a newer one doesn’t – for example, so far, paper books are still more convenient and portable than ebooks (although that might change). But, for the most part, technological change simply happens, and I am content to observe and stoically accept.

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(Note: Because the staff was unsure which exhibits the artists had given permission to photograph, I was unable to take pictures)

When I go to an art gallery, I come prepared to be pleased. Just as when I go to a movie or go to a book, I generally arrive with few expectations. I try to practice the concept that I should understand a work in its own terms, and not through the filter of expectations that I bring with me. Over the years, I have found that this approach has allowed me to appreciate things that I might otherwise have dismissed.

I mention my perspective because I have to report, very much against my wishes, that the new exhibit at the Bill Reid Gallery, “Continuum: Vision and Creativity on the Northwest Coast” is a disappointment. The fact that it comes after the gallery’s first successful show that highlighted Bill Reid’s career, and shares space with the dazzling permanent collection of Reid’s jewelry only makes the show’s failure all the greater.

For the most part, the problem is not with the artists. True, a few of the artists chose to submit the physical equivalent of one-liners. For instance, Shawn Hunt’s “Trickster,” which shows Raven perched atop a can of clam chowder is amusing at first glance, with its reference to Andy Warhol’s famous silkscreen (and also an indication of how Bill Reid’s “Raven and First Men” has altered the traditional story in modern minds, since the recorded historical versions mention a different type of shell). But, on second glance, what the incongruity means remains elusive. It seems only a poke at the commercialization of Northwest Coast art in a way that has already been done before. Personally, given the design ability displayed in Hunt’s Raven, with the grinning faces as part of the body and wing, I would far rather see what he does with less derivative work, especially since he is a relatively new artist.

A similarly limited work is Moy Sutherland’s “The Negotiator.” Sutherland, whose work I have often admired elsewhere, is not the first artist to add First Nations politics into his work. But where Charles Heit (Ya’Ya) rarely lost sight of his art and his comments had an angry wit to them. Sutherland’s use of Canadian flags, five dollar bills, and a dangling carrot is simply angry. It can be reduced to a single short sentence: He is angry with the people negotiating land claims on behalf of his nation. Any work that can be reduced to fourteen words, I submit, is not art at all, regardless of whether I sympathize with the sentiment, as I do with Sutherland’s.

However, the majority of the work exhibit present an interesting variety. In contrast to Sutherland’s work, Mike Dangeli’s “’Redemption’ Ridicule Mask” presents a much more complex reaction to the situation of the First Nations, using an old tradition to comment on contemporary politics.

Similarly, Ian Reid creates a new effect by placing Chilkat patterns and colors on a raven mask. He did so, he explained as an acknowledgement of Tlingit and Tsimshian women who introduced the Chilkat patterns into Heiltsuk society. At a time when many First Nations people are descended from multiple nations or are half European in ethnicity, he said, this acknowledgement seems particularly appropriate. The juxtapostion of two different traditional media more than justified Reid’s motivation, resulting in an arresting and original effect.

Dan Wallace also placed Chilkat patterns in a new medium by engraving them on his silver bracelet, “Remembering our Royalty.” Like Reid, Wallace emphasizes the importance of looking back at history while reflecting on the current situation, and, like Reid, produces a new artistic effect as he does so.

Other pieces worth seeing included a traditional Tsimshian mask and a stop-action video of its carving by Phil Gray, Sonny Assu’s graffiti-like canvas with its reds and pinks and grays, Dean Hunt’s traditional-looking mask “Pk’vs: Wild Man of the Woods,” and Aaron Nelson-Moody’s red cedar and copper panel “Copper Man.” Nor should I forget to mention the wealth textile works, such as Marianne Nicolson’s “Tunic for a Noblewoman,” done in memory of her grandmother; Krista Point’s untitled Salish blanket; Teri Rofkar’s “Tlingit Robe,” and Carrie Anne Vanderhoop’s “Dream of Dragonflies.” Individually, all these works were well-worth lingering over and returning for second and third and fourth looks.

The problem is, while most of the works in the exhibit stand on their own merits, they seem to add up to nothing as an exhibit. Part of the problem may be that the show seems to have changed directions, starting as an exhibit of young artists but transforming into an exhibit with the theme of the tensions between the contemporary and the traditional and adding older, more established artists. But, for whatever reason, the result is a seeming random collection of artists.

For all the obvious skill of individual artists, there seems no particular reason why these particular artists were chosen. Any of four or five dozen other artists could have been swapped in instead, and the impression left by the exhibit as a whole would not be significantly changed (As if in confirmation of this statement, after I left the exhibit, I saw Andrew Dexel, the graffiti artist, at one of the Aboriginal Days booths outside the Vancouver art gallery).

Another problem is that, with only one work allowed per artist at the most (one bracelet was the work of three), you have trouble appreciating anyone’s work. A quarter of the artists, and four or five works apiece would help visitors to gauge each artists’ range. Given the number of newer artists in the exhibit, that sort of context would have been welcome.

As things are, the result is that seeing “Continuum” is not much different from seeing the latest work at a commercial gallery. In fact, I have seen larger shows at commercial galleries, as well as chances to meet the artists that did not include a request for donations at the door.

Nothing is really wrong with such a show – I guess. But the Bill Reid Gallery is not a commercial gallery, and is obviously struggling to be something more. Its difficulty is that it is still struggling to define what that something else might be. In “Continuum,” I suspect it temporarily lost its way in academic critical jargon and posturing (if the catalog is any judge).

I can only hope that, with its next show, the Bill Reid Gallery returns to the success of its first show. If it does, then I will be happy to report the fact. Meanwhile, so far as “Continuum” is concerned, “disappointment” is the mildest word that I can honestly choose.

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Last night, I was at the reception for Tahltan artist Alano Edzerza’s new exhibit, “Gift of the Raven.” The show features Edzerza’s work of the last six months. Also on display were a number of pieces by Morgan Green, a recent recipient of the YVR Art Foundation Scholarship and (as she may be tired of hearing) the daughter of Tsimshian master carver Henry Green.

The evening started with a performance of “Raven Steals the Light” by Victor Reece’s Big Sky Multi-Media Storytelling Society. The performance was held in the courtyard of the Waterfall Building, the complex in which the Edzerza Gallery is located. It featured a dancer with suitably nervous bird-like movements and a light mask with mirrors for eyes, and ended with him climbing to an overhead walkway to conclude the performance – all in all, a successful blending of the traditional and the contemporary.

Then, the crowd squeezed inside the gallery for the viewing.

The show did not include any new traditional style work by Edzerza. Otherwise, it was a good representation of the different strains in his work. My main problem was dodging the crowd and finding gaps in it that lasted long enough to snap a picture. Combined with the fact that some paintings were hung high, the result is pictures that are less than professional quality (to say the least), but should give some idea of what was on display.

In one corner of the front of the gallery was a collection of Edzerza’s glass boxes:


Elsewhere, you could see some of his experiments with color, such as this collection of closeups of traditional formline designs done in the electric colors of pop-art on a back wall:


The same pop-art sensibility appeared in a couple of contemporary paintings of frogs, which were inspired, I am told, by a tattoo on a woman’s back:


But the major works in the exhibit were the multi-panel ones, like this one that was hung near the ceiling, facing the door:


Another orca design, a triptych, was hung just inside the door, and a triptych featuring ravens on the back wall. The raven triptych was especially dramatic, as one of its panel shows:


All these multi-panel works shared features that are characteristic of Edzerza’s work: A three-dimensional contemporary take on traditional Northwest Coast designs, an experiment with color in mainly grayscale designs, and a dramatic sense of movement that is enhanced by the separate canvases and draws your eyes from one to the next.

Morgan Green is not as an experienced an artist as Edzerza, but, in the last year, her work has matured quickly. Previously, the work by Green that I knew best were her leather cuffs and a somewhat over-ornate wolf helmet in the gallery, but the works I saw last night shows some other sides to her work, and an interest in different media that, if anything, is even greater than Edzerza’s.

Green’s works included a wall hanging and a variety of earth-colored ceramics inspired by a recent trip to Arizona and the First Nations work she saw there. A plate depicting Mouse Woman was particularly striking:


So far as I know, no historical depictions of Mouse Woman survive. But Green’s rendering seems a reasonable one, with features like the ears, the round eyes and the incisors providing the defining features that you would expect in a traditional design. At the same time, placing the design on grainy ceramic creates a pictograph-like effect, all the more so because the formline is hinted at more than fully realized.

Perhaps the most accomplished work by Green on display was a Dogfish Woman robe she had created for an elder. The design was fairly standard (that is to say, more or less a descendant of Charles Edenshaw’s sketch via Bill Reid), but the cutting of the design and the assembly of the robe made for a first rate piece of work. As Green was discussing it with some of the guests, one of them agreed to model it:


The evening was a fund-raiser, with a quarter of all sales going to the Vancouver Foundation. How successful the evening was a fund-raiser, I didn’t ask. But from the perspective of spotlighting two promising young artists, no one could have asked for more. I came away from the evening with increased respect for both, and an even greater determination to watch and enjoy their future growth.

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Earlier this week, we received “Master Shaman on His Throne of Power,” the latest sculpture by Ron Telek. We had been waiting for it since last December, so I consider it an act of supreme will power that we did not scream with frustration as we unwrapped the layers of paper, towels, cardboard and duct tape protecting it.

But the result was worth the wait, and then some. We had some photos of the work in progress courtesy of John Wilson, and were impressed enough then, but the finished piece goes beyond anything we could have expected.

The unfinished sculpture

The unfinished sculpture

“Master Shaman” is a carving in African wonderstone, with a black finish that makes it resemble argillite. In fact, Telek told me that he consulted an argillite carver about how to apply the finish. Back in December, I had no idea how he would finish it, but, recently we have started to look more closely at argillite, so his decision was a bit of serendipity so far as I was concerned.

The finished sculpture

The finished sculpture

The subject of the sculpture is self-explanatory: it depicts a shaman on a throne imbued with the spirits he controls transforming into a raven. You can see the spirits in the seat on the supports for the chair’s arms, while on the back, one of the shaman’s enslaved spirits presides over four confined spirits.

The sculpture depicts the shaman in mid-transformation. The spirit of the raven is erupting from his chest and the back of his head has started to sprout feathers while his feet and hands are half-turned into claws. His nose is hooked, suggesting that it is becoming a beak.

As always with the transformations that Telek depicts, you cannot say whether changing shape is an ecstatic or agonizing effort (I tend to think both). However, it is unquestionably intense. The shaman and most of the spirits seem to be screaming, and the shaman’s fist is clenched and his eyes bulging. His erect posture seems more an act of will, as though he would be doubled over in pain if he let himself relax.

Even more ominously, the shaman seems on the verge of losing control. Although the spirit on top of his head seems serene, screaming spirits seem to be erupting from his arms, in contrast to the close-mouthed on his rigidly-positioned knees. Meanwhile, his left hand has been replaced by another spirit that, considering the half-transformed shape of his feet and other hand, might well be an intruder. The overall impression is that the shaman is at best only partially in control of the process he has begun, and that, if he relaxes or allows himself to be distracted, he will lose control entirely.


Turn the sculpture around, and you get another dimension – not only literally, but figuratively as well. The face on the shaman’s forehead has a more or less neutral expression, suggesting at most the shaman’s disciplined state of mind. However, the back of his head is hollowed out and contains a figure ripping its abdomen open in direct reflection of the raven spirit erupting from his chest. This figure grimaces in pain, revealing the true state of emotion beneath the shaman’s efforts to remain calm. It also raises the question of whether the transformation is real, or only happening in the shaman’s mind, a question that some of Telek’s other works, such as “Transformation Make: Human to Eagle” also raise.

All these aspects are enhanced by Telek’s usual attention to details. For example, although you cannot see from the pictures, the shaman’s back is separate from the back of the chair far more deeply than strictly necessary, while the feathers sprouting on his head are each individually carved. Similarly, the abalone on the sides of the seat are carefully matched, and both include dark lines in their pattern that complement the black finish of the rest of the sculpture.


In some ways, “Master Shaman” is a typical Telek piece, balanced uniquely between traditional design and modern sensibilities. A seated figure is reasonably common in traditional argillite carvings, and so are transformation themes, but who other than Telek would add such a modern sense of ambiguity or such a psychological edge? It also has the three-dimensionality and amount of detail that I have come to expect from his work.

However, I know of no other piece by Telek that carries these tendencies to such an extreme as “Master Shaman.” The piece has a Gothic quality that combines traditional roots with the sensibility of the best dark fantasy novels; in fact, I would love to see a graphic novel or piece of animation done in the same style (although I wonder if it would be possible to depict more of the world than the sculpture does).

Phoning to tell me that the piece was ready, Telek commented that he thought the piece was his best yet. Maybe that was just an artist high on having finished a major work, but I’m not about to argue.

“Master Shaman” is an intense, unique work, and I haven’t tired of looking at it after three days of living with it. It sits a meter away from me as I type, and my eyes keep straying to it, even when I’m not writing about it.

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With no Northwest Coast art on layaway and no must-haves in the galleries or on the web, we didn’t expect to buy any new pieces this month. But luck struck unexpectedly, and early this month we were told that Trish’s ticket had won the pendant being raffled as part of Lyle Wilson’s North Star exhibit at the West Vancouver Museum.

Five centimeters in diameter and made of engraved silver, the pendant is a miniature version of the aluminum piece that was the logo for the show. Wilson’s aluminum sculptures are much more finely cut than most large scale Northwest Coast installations in the same metal, and, mounted some distance from the wall, cast shadows that quite literally give them another dimension. However, Wilson is known primarily for his jewelry, so the pendant is perhaps more representative of him.


Like much of Wilson’s work, the pendant is a mixture of European and Haisla tradition. The pendant is a compass rose, with the four cardinal points marked by arrows, and the figure of what I believe is a bear in the middle. The pendant differs from the aluminum logo in that the cardinal points do not extend beyond the circumference of the design, and the image of the bear is slightly smaller in diameter.

What the pendant has that the logo lacks is a variety of different hatching techniques. At the outer rim, the hatching is a series of finely etched vertical lines, each extremely fine but distinct. A band of unadorned metal separates the uttermost hatching from a smaller band that continues the vertical lines. The fourth ring of hatching is an equally fine stippled effect that extends into the compass points. The inner figure is separated by yet another fine ring of vertical lines, and is itself a small show piece of diagonal lines, with the face, the lower left and the upper right slanted to the right, and the upper left and lower right to the right. Most design teachers would advise students not to mix so many hatching styles in such a small space, but it speaks volumes about Wilson’s virtuosity that he is able to ignore such standard advice and produce such an intricate design.

The bear design, of course, is appropriate because the north star is in the constellation of Ursa Minor, the little bear. Perhaps, the pendant is the north star itself, with the outer vertical lines the rays of light radiating from it. Or, if you consider the design for a while, you might conclude that Wilson is playing with the idea of the bear being both a constellation and an earth-bound creature. To my eye, at any rate, the outer rim of vertical lines could suggest either the rays of the sun, or perhaps the northern lights, while the heavy stippling suggests the earth. These two realms are bridged by the points of the compass, which are identifiable by taking a bearing (if you pardon the pun), on the north star.

At the same time, you could take the contrast between sky and earth as a reflection of the two cultures that Wilson is caught between. With the emphasis on the compass in the pendant’s design, the sky could be interpreted as modern scientific culture, and the earth as Wilson’s first nation roots. Alternatively, you could reverse the interpretation, and see the bear in the sky as the mythologizing that informs the first nation cultures, the earth the mundane reality of the city in which Wilson lives. The interpretation works either way, because what matters is the contrast.

However, such readings are not my first reaction to the pendant. My first reaction is respect for Wilson’s attention to detail. Looking at the pendant, I am never in any doubt that I am looking at a piece by a master carver, and it is appreciation of his skill that makes me grateful that we have the right to house it.


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OK, I confess: I am not a team player – at least, not in the sense that the expression is usually used around an office.

This admission is so burdened with nasty connotations that finding the courage to make it has taken most of my adult life. Nobody ever says so in as many words, but the implication is that something is wrong with you if you are not a team player.

In an office setting, not being a team player means that you are uncooperative, unwilling to make sacrifices for the sake of the company for which you work, and probably first in line to be fired. It suggests that something is deeply wrong with you, and that maybe you have other nasty habits as well.

In many ways, the usage reminds me of the admonition by a crowd to be a good sport. In both cases, the implication is that you should conform and do what others want to do, regardless of your own inclinations.

In other words, the threat of being called “not a team player” encourages you to be polite and do what is expected of you. Otherwise, you are letting people (or the company) down.

Such behavior may make daily life easier for a manager. If nothing else, people afraid of having a negative label applied to them can be coerced in endless hours of over-time. But, while I don’t go out of way to be unpleasant, personally I would rather eat sushi made from raw slugs that conform for no better reason than someone else’s convenience.

More importantly, from my observations the sort of behavior implied when the concept of a team player is raised is the exact opposite of what you want when you need to accomplish something.

When I was growing up, I did my share of team sports, mostly soccer and rugby. Perhaps, I was lucky, but, at the time, the pseudo-military atmosphere that prevails in football had no place in those sports. Nor could it; you can easily memorize a few moves from a standard position, but soccer and rugby both require a more active sense of smarts that can adjust to an ever-changing situation.

In such fast-moving games, the last thing you want is conformists. Instead, what you want to know is that the people on your team can think for themselves – that they will be in the position for you to pass the ball to them because they have anticipated what is about to happen on the field. You relied on your team mates’ competence, not their dedication to the team.

In my favorite sport, long distance running, this lesson was even more obvious. Sure, there were cross-country teams and points were tallied for each school at a track meet. At times, someone who was slower might even run interference to help a faster team member break away from the pack. But, mostly, you were alone with your own training and sense of strategy. If your team won, it was because those on it were prepared and alert.

As an adult, I find the same lesson in the free and open source software (FOSS) community. Operating systems like GNU/Linux or applications like Firefox, or Apache have not excelled because they were made in an organization of conformists. Instead, they have succeeded because their development model assumes the competence of those involved. For the most part, people coordinate their work with everyone else, then do it largely on their own and return it to the community for peer review. It is this system of individuals coordinating their separate work that is the secret of such projects’ successes.

A group of team players in the ordinary use of the term needs to work much harder to achieve the same level of excellence as such projects – assuming, that is, they can reach it at all. As for innovation, forget it. So-called team players simply aren’t geared for it. Nor are they likely to have the degree of personal responsibility and discipline needed to work in such a loosely-knit way.

When I have worked in offices that emphasize teamwork, I have always found that my efforts to achieve excellence swamped by the need to appear loyal and to swallow my opinions and interrupt my concentration with endless meetings. Team-players are skilled in jingoism and giving the appearance of getting work done, but the chances of them achieving anything beyond the bare specifications is minimal. When they do, you almost always find that the source of the excellence is someone on the fringes of the team who works on their own as much as possible.

If that is what being a team player means, then I, for one, want nothing to do with the label. To me, it is a code word for mediocrity. I achieve more personal satisfaction – and, in the end, help those around me more (including my employers) – if I work on my own with consultation as needed, and can trust those around me to do the same.

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The other evening, we received a call from someone we knew fifteen years ago. We hadn’t heard from him for several years, and, while we had nothing particular against him, we were content to drift out of touch. But there he was, a disembodied voice bringing up names that these days we hardly thought of from one year to the next, and urging that we should get back in touch with people with whom we no longer had anything in common. The experience was sad and guilt-provoking in equal measure. At the same time, I resented it, because our caller believed he still had the right to make demands on us.

All in all, it was a perfect example of what American fantasist Harlan Ellison once called taking a tour through his life. He meant, as you can probably figure out, somebody leaping to conclusions about how he thought or felt, then acting upon them rather than responding to what he actually said or did.

I don’t have one-fortieth of the name recognition that Ellison had in his heyday, but as a writer who publishes mostly online, I have people taking tours through my life all the time. They miss the sarcasm, take a phrase out of context, or misread, and then they take me to task for what they imagine I said or believe.

For example, once when I did a brief commentary in which I suggested that a woman-only distribution of GNU/Linux might be worth trying. Among other things, I wrote, “I’m not a great believer in the idea that women are less aggressive than or interact differently from men. Yet even I have to admit that most of the regulars on free software mailing lists for women are politer and more supportive than the average poster on general lists.” Then one of the commenters inferred that I must be single and a loner who knew nothing about women, because they obviously were different from men. He apparently stopped reading with the first sentence of the passage, and was willing to blast me on the basis of his incomplete understanding. Never mind that another five seconds’ reading might have prevented his mistake and public embarrassment.

As an ex-university teacher who tried to encourage careful and sympathetic reading among students, my first impulse is to correct such statements as politely as I can. However, experience has taught me that the effort is usually a waste of time. Nobody likes being proved wrong at the best of times, but, when they are also proved incompetent, most people become defensive and angry. I save everybody’s time and keep my blood pressure lower if I don’t respond, or, at the very most, stop the email exchange after my second message.

That probably leaves the commenter thinking that they’ve won, but I can live with that. I don’t know them, after all.

But some tourists through my life are not simply on a self-conducted tour, but trying to sell other people tickets as well. There’s only two or three of them, but they spend a surprising amount of time on their blogs and web sites attacking me for what I did or didn’t do, or for what they imagine I said.

Why they attack me in particular, I have no idea. Maybe it’s because I write online and seem accessible.

What disturbs me about these tour guides is not that they disagree with me. They have every right to do so. Occasionally, they even point out actual mistakes (although they frequently confuse the concepts of “mistake” and “different opinion”). It is not even their relentless anger (explicable to me only as too much caffeine and too little sleep), their refusal to follow even the basics of civilized discussion, or the question of why they don’t write about someone important.

Rather, what disturbs me is the cognitive dissonance that sets in when I read their comments about me or my articles. Possibly, they get carried away by their own rhetoric, but the image they present of me or my articles is so far from any possible perspective that I can’t even call it a distortion. I suspect they are projecting an image drawn from their own imagination or systematic misreadings and over-simplifications. A Microsoft shill or dupe? A writer who is one with Dan Lyons and Laura Didio? Considering that an even larger group of readers identify me as completely biased to the free software school of thought, these accusations would be laughable if only they were not so humorless and ill-natured.

Emotionally, what they say about me has no resonance whatsoever. It simply strikes me as bizaare.

When I first started receiving these attacks, I used to respond to them, thinking that I couldn’t let such outrageous comments stand unchallenged. But doing so, I quickly found, is an even bigger waste of time than responding to those on the self-guided tours. The tour-guides never give in.

For these reasons, I rarely read the tour-guides. The occasional pingback to my blog or a note from a friend tells me that they are still out there, but I mostly catch only snippets of their latest rants. I tell myself that to be known as someone attacked by such people is a mark of honor, and, considering their other targets in the free software community (many of whom I’ve met and liked, although not always agreed with), I should consider their attacks a sign of distinction, no matter how undeserved.

But increasingly, just as with the former friend who called, when I happen across the tour-guides, what echoes inside my head is Ellison’s reply to the similar people in his own life:

“I don’t know you, and you don’t know me.”

And I, for one, am very content to keep things that way.

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