One way that you know an artist is talented is when other artists are eager for their work. Gwaai Edenshaw is in that enviable position among the Northwest Coast artists who live in Vancouver. A some-time botanist and Bill Reid’s last apprentice, he works largely in gold, although he has been known to sketch, carve wood, and even experiment with animation. Having admired his work since we first saw it, Trish and I recently celebrated our anniversary by buying two of his rings.
Mine is based on an episode in “Raven Traveling,” the Haida narrative of the Trickster’s wanderings near the beginning of time. On the beach, the raven encounters a group of crows. They begin to cook a salmon. The raven falls asleep, but the crows can’t wait for him to wake, and devour the salmon. Belatedly, they realize that the raven will be angry when he rouses, so they take the remaining crumbs of salmon, and wedge them between his teeth. When the raven wakes, hungry for his meal, they point out the crumbs and ask, “Don’t you remember? You ate it before you went to sleep.” Angry at the deception, Raven throws the crows into the fire, turning them forever from white to black.
I appreciate the story for its broad humor, as well as its extrapolation from nature; crows really do mob ravens, especially when their young are in the nest. If crows could play practical jokes on ravens, they undoubtedly would. Also, the story is not one of the ones that is generally depicted, like raven’s stealing of the light, or even his theft of the salmon from the beavers.
I suggested the subject to Edenshaw, and waited with all the patience that anticipation would allow for six months until he had time to get to it.
The result was more than worth the wait. Edenshaw chose a style that fits the humor of the story, showing the raven with his beak open and crows rollicking around him, pushing the crumbs of salmon into his mouth and their beaks open in excitement, no doubt chortling with glee at the thought of putting one over on their rival.
Since the raven has teeth in the story, and the Haida storytellers must have had plenty of chances to notice that birds have none, I assume that he must have been in human form when he met the crows. However, the fact that Edenshaw chose to show the raven as a bird with teeth in his beak does not detract, any more than the teeth in the beak of the parrot in Aladdin. It is a comic touch, and the result is reminiscent of the lively cartoons that you see in the margins of medieval manuscripts. I especially like the mischievous crow that is pushing a piece of salmon along the raven’s back (You can see the crow’s beak just behind the top of the raven’s head).
At the same time, I appreciate the economy and skill with which Edenshaw rendered the story. Like a business card (only more so), a ring provides a very limited space for depicting anything, yet Edenshaw manages to focus on the main event of the story, while selectively choosing details so that, while the feathers on raven’s head are not visible, the pieces of salmon clearly are. The detail is all the more amazing when you consider that the ring is cast, not engraved.
So far as I am concerned, Edenshaw produced a ring that is utterly unique, and wonderfully rich in humor and detail. After wearing it for several weeks, and having appreciated the small extra touches with which it was delivered (in a small wooden box, with the promise that the mold would be kept, in case the original was lost), I fully intend to buy more of Gwaai Edenshaw’s work. But if, as I suspect, his prices rise as he receives the recognition he deserves, at least we have a couple of samples of his work to console ourselves.