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Archive for December, 2009

A couple of months ago, Haisla artist John Wilson told me about a promising first year student at the Freda Diesing School named Colin Morrison. After seeing some minor pieces by him, I commissioned a painting. It turned out to be his first professional sale.

I am absolutely confident that it won’t be his last – and not just because I would like to boast ten years from now that I had the foresight to see his potential before he became well-known. “The Spirit of the Wolf” is an accomplished piece that illustrates Morrison’s potential better than anything I can say. It is all the more remarkable because it comes from a man in his mid-twenties.

On the surface, “The Spirit of the Wolf” is a traditional piece, reminiscent of Roy Henry Vickers’ work. It shows a strong interest in style, with a variety of ovoids and U-shapes used throughout and a variety of tactics used to control the thickness and joints of the formlines. The sheer number of tactics could easily result in a mishmash, but Morrison controls it by having shapes mirror and contrast each other in disciplined way. The mirroring is especially obvious when the primary and secondary formlines are adjacent to one another.

At the same time, you do not have to look very long before you realize that “The Spirit of the Wolf” has a playfulness that suggests a very contemporary outlook as well. The design is basically a play on the various interpretations of the title, with wolves spread throughout the design – everything from the physical wolf to the Wolf as a clan crest. This dichotomy is suggested by the vaguely yin-yang shape of the overall design.

There is even, Morrison says, several spirits in the metallic paint of the design. So far, I have to admit, I have been unable to detect what kind of spirits they might be, or if anything specific is intended, but I find the idea immensely appealing all the same.

You could even go one step further and say that, since Morrison himself is a member of the Tsimshian Wolf Clan, that the painting itself is a manifestation of a wolf’s spirit.

You might call the painting a kind of Northwest Coast “Where’s Waldo?” If you wanted to say the same thing more seriously, you could say that the content is as inventive as the style.

Asked to say something about himself, Morrison replied, “I’m Tsimshian, Ginadoiks tribe, Wolf Clan. I’ve been an artist since I was young; I started painting when I was 18, and didn’t take it seriously till I was 23 years old. I’ve been painting off and on since that time, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life.

“Then, one day last year, my Mom started going to a carving class in school. She wanted me to go and dragged me there. I started painting again, and liked what I was doing. My instructor (Harvy Ressel) saw the raw talent and asked me if I wanted to go to the Freda Diesing School. I said yes. Since then, I have found my calling.”

Since doing “The Spirit of the Wolf,” Morrison has completed his first mask and is in the process of finishing his second. I expect that the world of Northwest Coast art will be hearing more from him, but remember (I said, with a certain pride) – you heard of him first from me.

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Every Christmas, after the turkey and stuffing and yams and mashed potatoes and trifle, the other members of my surviving family settle down for a nap. While they are snoring, I go for a walk or a run. By then, the restlessness that comes when I don’t exercise is stealing over me. Besides, I don’t get to my native West Vancouver very often, so the exercise is a chance to see what has changed in the neighborhood where I grew up.

Superficially, very little has changed over the years. True, the distances seem shorter than I remember, and the streets seem slightly shabbier, no doubt thanks to the small size of contemporary budgets for infrastructure. But the traffic is as light as ever and the trees as many, and overall, the reality syncs with my memory of a quiet suburb of moderate privilege.

The main difference is in the houses. Real estate prices being what they are, the middle class bungalows that I remember from my teen years are being steadily replaced by monster houses built as high and as close to the edges of the lots as the bylaws allow. Also, places that once seemed not worth building on are now subdivisions – never mind that they are so close to creeks that the basements are rumored to have their own pumping system. No doubt owners call these changes maximizing their investment, but to me these monster houses always seem a decline in aesthetics, especially when they pop up in unlikely places.

Every year since I moved away from my parents’ house, I half-hope that I’ll see someone I knew at school. The possibility isn’t completely unlikely; a surprising number of classmates never left the municipality, and others, like me, have family ties that might take them back on Christmas Day.

But I never have seen anyone I know, not once in all these years, although I peer hopefully at everyone I see walking or jogging, and often pass by the track at my old high school, where some of the people with whom I used to run might be expected.
Instead, as I pass by familiar scenes, I remember.

That house used to belong to a fellow athlete who, the last I heard, had been living where he grew up to take care of his mother. She’s supposed to be dead now, but I wonder if he is still living there. I heard Eighties rock from the sidewalk and wonder if he is spending Christmas alone, but somehow I don’t have the courage or the inclination to knock.

I look up at the house where a girl I once knew grew up. We never dated – we just exchanged sympathies on the miserable states of our separate (mostly theoretical) love lives – but I wouldn’t mind seeing her again. Too bad her family moved away years ago.
I pass the house where four of us used to gather for blackjack and board games when I was in grade eleven. I wonder if my former friend still has family there, but I see a basketball hoop and a hockey net, signs of teenagers, and judge it unlikely.

Cutting through a park, I glance on the bridge on the house where a boy I thought obnoxious once lived. Then I remember that at the reunion three years ago the boy had grown into an equally obnoxious man, and increase my pace, as if thinking about him might make him reappear.
Now heading home, I consider passing by the house where a girl lived who was once the object of my unrequited crush. But I tell myself that would be indulgent, to say nothing of several blocks out of my way, so I continue on my planned path.

Nearing my old elementary school, I look up at the house where yet another crush lived. After the last reunion, we emailed each other a few times, but we haven’t had any contact in months, and aren’t likely to in the future.

A few houses further on, another crush used to live. At the reunion, she had seemed prematurely aged and bitter, and somehow I hadn’t had the heart to talk to her. I wonder what her story is, and part of me is glad to realize that I’ll probably never know.

By now, the sunset is near, and what little heat remains is being leeched with the light from the air. I ask myself what I am doing, growing melancholy over people who probably haven’t thought of me in years. I am no better, I tell myself, than the ex-friend who phoned us on Christmas Eve, full of news of other ex-friends in whom I have only a passing interest.

If anything, I am worse, because I have no reason to suddenly feel lonesome. I hurry through the school grounds and back to my parents’ house, my exercise in sustained nostalgia over for another year, and no more successful than it has been in the past.

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When I was a university instructor, the semester was over by Christmas Eve.When I was a consultant, I could usually contrive to take the day off. Consequently, I’ve rarely had to work on Christmas Eve. But looking back, I think that the last Christmas Eve I did work was a major reason why I made the move into freelance journalism.

At the time, I was working in Yaletown, at a small software company that had limped along for twenty years without ever finding much of a market for its product. Realizing that the company’s time was running out, its board had hired a new CEO for one last shot at profitability. The CEO was full of management theories, and was fond of saying that he wanted passionate employees. At the same time, his core approach to leadership must have been modeled on Josef Stalin’s, because he had the habit of periodic purges.

In six months, the CEO had three purges. Between the difficulties of losing key information with key employees and the waiting for the next purge, morale was deeper than the Mariana Trench, and falling.

Having just come off two successful positions in which I had been in the inner circle of decision makers, I found the CEO’s antics hard to tolerate. My frequent thought that I could do a better job was not conceit – I had done so, and little credit to me. Frankly, anyone with sense could have done a better job than the CEO, too.

Surprisingly, the CEO sprung for a Christmas party. Looking back, I wonder if he calculated that, the office being in Yaletown, an ex-warehouse district where every block had half a dozen restaurants, most people would have put in a full day before the party began. More likely, he had simply read in one of his management books that a Christmas party was a way to win over the staff.

Whatever his motivations, the party was not exactly a success. The food was better than average, but the talk was about the rumors of a new purge, which made the occasion as festive as a school tour of a slaughter-house. Spirits rose a little with the gift exchange, but it seemed a dismal occasion compared to the one in which I had participated a couple of years earlier in Indianapolis. A few games of pool and foosball later, everyone had gone except the CEO and a couple of other company officers.

Still, the party had encouraged everyone to think that the CEO might unbend enough to let people go home early on Christmas Eve. But he had said nothing on December 23, so everyone arrived the next day uncertain what was expected.

The CEO showed up early in the morning, then went out. As usually happens in an office on Christmas Eve, most people made a pretense of trying to work, and the more conscientious actually put in an hour or two . But by 11AM, people were drifting between offices, leaning in door frames and chatting. Occasionally, they shifted positions so as not to be too obvious.

By 12:30, people were concluding that the CEO wasn’t coming back. In fact, he had left without a seasonal greeting to anyone – and no mention of whether people were expected to work the entire day.

Before long, people started to sneak out. By 2PM, the last of us decided that there was no point being martyrs, and exited together. I don’t think the CEO ever did learn what had happened.

Being a contractor, I noted that I owed two hours, and made up the time in the next week. But I kept thinking of the CEO’s abandonment of his responsibilities.

Perhaps he felt that he could not officially condone people going home early, and his disappearance allowed him to offer the holiday without officially knowing what people were doing. But, considering his purges, I doubted he had such a humanitarian gestures in him. I think he left early to please himself, and never considered the employees at all – and that his behavior was only an extreme form of what I had seen elsewhere in business.

Frankly, I was fed up.

I am not one for New Years’ Resolutions, but, that year, I promised myself that I would not celebrate another Christmas at that company. By next summer, I had moved on. But the company officers at my new consulting gig proved just as unempathic, so, with Christmas approaching again, I took the jump into journalism.

I have never worked in an office since. But this year, as I’ve spent a leisurely Christmas Eve going to the bank to pay for our latest work of art, then coming home to exercise and wrap the last few presents, I feel overwhelming relieved not to be in an office at Christmas. So far as I’m concerned, people like this CEO rank next to malls crowded with shoppers – both are things I’m grateful to be able to can avoid.

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Last Friday, the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia were officially renamed Haida Gwaii, the name preferred by the First Nations people who live there. I suppose I should have a twinge of uneasiness about the fact that part of the geography I learned so painfully in elementary school has disappeared into the recycle bin with Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, but my main feeling is that the change was long overdue.

In fact, in the last couple of decades, I’ve hardly heard anyone refer to the Queen Charlotte Islands. The only exceptions I can recall are The Globe and Mail, which I often think of a newspaper written by seventy-year-olds for seventy-years-old (and as too Eastern to know better), and members of the Monarchist League, who blindly defend anything with the remotest connection to royalty. The people who live on the islands call them Haida Gwaii, and that is enough for most people, either because they’re polite or out a vague sense that the people who live there should have a right to determine the name.

I mean, it’s not as though one person in ten knows who Queen Charlotte was. I know, but, then I read history. Yet although in theory I have a good deal of sympathy for Queen Charlotte, who had to endure George III’s madness, in which he sometimes yearned for a woman other than her, in practice she doesn’t have much to do with British Columbia. Her sole association is that a ship on George Dixon’s voyage of discovery in 1786 was named for her. She probably would have hard-pressed to locate the islands without help.

At any rate, the 18th century explorers of the Pacific, Cook and Vancouver included, may have been fine surveyors, but I don’t see why we should regard their poverty of imagination as unchangeable. When they came to naming landmarks, their resources were painfully limited: First, their officers, then their ships, then all the members of the English royal family they could remember, then start all over again. If you read about their voyages of discovery, you soon sense an air of desperation about their names. Sometimes, I’m surprised that we don’t have coast lines full of No Name Bays, Capes #42, and Mounts Whatyoumacallit.

By contrast to the arbitrary names of the European explorers, Haida Gwaii is deeply meaningful to those who live there. Translated as something like “Islands of the People,” the new name acknowledges the people who have lived there for a minimum of ten thousand years, developed and still practice some of the most genuinely moving art that I have seen, and who are now moving rapidly towards self-determination. All this seem far more worth acknowledging in a name than a half-forgotten royal consort. Besides, if anyone wants to remember Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the islands still include a Queen Charlotte City.

But when you think of it, the name change isn’t really radical at all. It’s just a recognition of how things are – and have been for some time.

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Last year, when I attended the Freda Diesing School Student Art Exhibition in Terrace, I noticed that most of the awards were for students 25 years old or younger. The school has some fine younger artists, but I thought that the older students deserved some recognition, too. To fill the gap, Trish and I decided to sponsor a Mature Student Award of $1000 per year, and to work towards making the award self-funding.

The official description of the award reads:

This award is given annually to a mature student (25 and over) from the
Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art who has demonstrated
leadership and mentoring qualities in the classroom. Faculty from the
School of Northwest Coast Art will select a student after confirmation of
enrollment in the second semester of the certificate or diploma program.

The award recipient must; be a First Nations Freda Diesing School of
Northwest Coast Art student; identify and work with a mentor to facilitate
the ongoing learning process; reside in British Columbia; demonstrate
potential in visual arts in the Northwest Coast style; and display
mentoring and leadership qualities in their relationships with other
students in the school both inside and outside class.

The award will be given for the first time in January 2010.

I have two main reasons for starting the award. First, as a late bloomer in my own craft of writing, I sympathize with the mature students. Being a student is hard enough when you are twenty, but when you are thirty-five or fifty, returning to school is even harder, because you probably have a family, and you are more set in your ways. Often, it means giving up a steady income when you’ve been used to one for years.

At the same time, I know from years as a university English instructor that older students are worth encouraging. They add a maturity to the discussion, and often serve as role-models and mentors to younger students.

Second, I am a buyer and lover of northwest coast art, especially art in the northern style taught at the school. I am not one of those people descended from Europeans who feel personally responsible for the wrongs against the First Nations that began before I was born, but I do believe in paying my debts and in doing the little I can to alleviate current problems. Northwest Coast art has given me hours of pleasure and learning, and I want to repay those hours with more than simple payment for each piece. I’d like to think that the award would help a student a little in the short term and in the long term maybe help them to launch their careers.

Compared to the other awards that the school gives, the Mature Student Award is starting off slowly. But I hope that it will eventually match the other awards, and become self-perpetuating.

If you are an artist, an art dealer, or someone who appreciates Northwest Coast art, please consider donating to the Mature Student Award. But don’t contact me. Instead, please contact Jill Girodat, the Associate Registrar at the Terrace campus of Northwest Community College at 250-638-5477 or jgirodat AT nwcc DOT bc DOT ca.

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“I’ve been doing art all my life,” Mike Dangeli, the up and coming Northwest Coast artist says. But although he identifies himself mainly as an artist, you cannot talk to him for very long before realizing that he is also many other things — a member of the Git Hayetsk Dancers, the heir to a chieftainship, and a man passionately committed to living in the culture of his Nisga’a, Tlingit, and Tsimshian ancestors within the context of modern technological society. Nor can you separate any of these things from the others, because Dangeli is at least as well known for his artistic work for ceremonies and regalia as for his commercial offerings.

Mike Dangeli

The interconnections go a long way back, although Dangeli took some time to bring them all together. He got his start in art early, making his own dance regalia when he was four or five with his grandmother, artist Louise Barton-Dangeli. He went on to learn acrylics, water colors and oils from her, as well cedar pouches, bags, and beaded necklaces.

At the same time, he learned “everything from weaving to painting to beadwork” from his mother, Arlene Roberts, both individually and as part of the yearly programs at the Chilkoot Cultural Camp in southeast Alaska.

At the camp, he learned from its organizers, Richard and Julie Folta and Tlingit artist Austin Hammond . From an old couple he only remembers as Mr. and Mrs. King, he also learned how to make drums — “that’s everything from taking a deer skin and scraping off the fat to making your own rawhide to string the drum,” Dangeli explains. He enjoyed the process so much that he estimates that by the time he became a professional artist at the age of 27, he had made “over five hundred drums.”

Beaver Drum

Another important early experience was spending the summer travelling on the Alaska ferries with his mother and grandmother, stopping at each port to sell what they made. Dangeli recalls that they did well enough to pay for their fares and his clothes for the coming school year. Through this experience, he also learned from his guardians “how to talk to galleries, to tourist shops, and cultural centers.”

Dangeli’s first training in carving came from his uncle in Prince George. “I spent a summer with him learning basic design and carving bowls and helping him with his work,” Dangeli says. “It was a lot harder than it looked, and I was a teenybopper with a lot of different interests.”

The road to an artist’s life

As a young man, Dangeli staged his own form of rebellion by joining the American army as an Air Ranger. He explains, “I’ve heard all my life that I’m in line to take a chief’s name. When you hear something like that all your life and you have to be good because of it, you decide you’re missing out and think, ‘I’m going to do my own thing.'”

The army seemed a natural choice, because he was thinking of going into law enforcement. “I didn’t see myself as an artist and living that kind of of lifestyle.”

Dangeli spent ten years in the military, rising to Staff Sergeant, but continued carving and designing in his spare time, and visiting family members when possible. It was on these visits that he started gaining a more deliberate understanding of his nation’s Angiosk –traditional territory — and Ayaawx — customs.

Adjusting our frame of reference

When he became a reservist, he attended the University of Alaska and working with his uncle Reggie Dangeli, a historian with the Alaska State Historical Commission. Eventually, he transferred to Washington state.

Matters came to a crisis when he got into a fight with another Staff Sergeant. “He said, ‘That’s the problem with you Indians,’ and of course he said effing Indians, so I smacked him up one side of his head.” At least partly because of the experience, Dangeli decided to leave the military, a move that cost him his university funding.

Finding himself in a well-paying but dead end job, Dangeli drifted towards Robert Boxley’s Seattle dance troupe and eventually apprenticed to him. He went through “a nasty divorce” due to his change of lifestyle, and headed “home to the Nass Valley to lick my wounds.”

The trip got sidetracked in Vancouver when he was asked to finish a pole in Woodland Park.

“I didn’t want to do it,” he says. “It wasn’t a very nice chunk of wood, and I didn’t want to do someone else’s work. So I said, ‘If I do it, it won’t be mine. It will be a community project.'” Hiring ten youths, he finished the pole and celebrated its completion with a potlatch — and, in the process, discovered that he had found himself a community.

“It was such a sad little pole,” he says. “It had been stolen twice, spray painted and a chunk was taken off the side, and someone took a Louisville [baseball bat] to it. It was horrible. But I look at it in retrospect as a physical manifestation of where I was in that moment in time — just beat up and kind of sad. It ended up being something very beautiful — not necessarily the totem pole itself, although it’s still up there and humbling to look at, but because it represents a massive amount of growth. What I created was a community here in Vancouver.”

Lifting up my god-son mask

While carving the pole, Dangeli found studio space at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre at Hastings and Commercial. He remains there to his day, running a program called The House of Culture. At first, the program was a cooperative, through which artists passed like Robert Davidson, Reg Davidson, Henry Green, Simon Dick, and Lyle Campbell, as well as younger artists such as Ian Reid and Phil Gray.

More recently, The House of Culture has become a rental space, because “there were a couple of people who had abused the space because they were abusing themselves in their addiction,” as Dangeli explains the situation. Dangeli now shares the space with Woodlands artist Don McIntyre, and Mari Torizane, a Japanese master painter who works as Dangeli’s assistant. Space is also found from time to time for other artists, such as Ian Reid, whom Dangeli regards as a brother.

Such experiences have left him with a strong interest in collaboration. One such result can be seen on the west side of the Friendship Centre, where Dangeli recently painted a mural with Don McIntyre.

Dangeli now works in a variety of media, including stone carving, wood carving, jewelry making, painting, and sculpture. He works twelve to fourteen hours a day and completes 10-30 pieces per month.

“I love a bit of everything,” he says. “You get lost in what you’re working in, so there is no favorite medium. It’s whatever I’m working on. but I always have five of six projects on the go in various stages. You get bored with one and you want to pick up something else. but then the clock’s ticking on a couple of pieces, and you’ve got to get going on them.”

Ceremonial, commissioned, and commercial art

“What’s become really important to me is the performance and ceremonial part of our art,” Dangeli says. “You can ask every Northwest Coast artist, and they’ll tell you that some of the best carvers and west coast artists are the ones who have an understanding of ceremony. It’s a lot different than creating something for the galleries.”

Part of the difference is that a mask intended to be danced “needs the inside to be functional. It needs to be carved to the dimensions of the face of the person who’s wearing the mask.”

Another part is the “responsibility and rights and privileges that you learn by attending ceremonies and understanding them.”

However, the largest difference, Dangeli says, is the spirituality. “In our languages, masks were naxnox— ‘beyond human power.’ These naxnox embodied the wind, they embodied the spirits, and were able to connect us to that spirit world. There’s an understanding that if you don’t treat these naxnox right, they’ll bite you.

“And I’ve seen that happen. I’ve seen a guy who played around too much with a mask and he was dancing on stage at this one event, and he fell right off the stage. It was a good five foot drop. That was part of the mask saying, ‘I didn’t appreciate that.’ I’ve seen it happen in our own dance group. I’ve even had it happen to me.”

Another consideration is the stories that are told in ceremonial and commercial art. “With a lot of our naxnox, there’s an oral history that’s owned by families that I don’t have the right to go and use. There’s even traditions that belong to my family that I would never go and openly sell. When I do art for potlatching or for individuals who ask me for things that display their clan crest, there’s always a different price. I don’t ever charge the full price in these cases, because the best payment is having one of your pieces used. It’s more of an exchange” of services or goods or artwork.

By contrast, “when I’m doing things for a gallery, there are certain stories that are universal to everybody” that can be used instead. Dangeli suggests that this is not a limitation, so much as a situation that calls upon his ingenuity as an artist. He likens the distinction to his experience of dancing, where there are some dances that are not recorded and others that are brought out for public performance.

Dangeli acknowledges that other artists do not observe the same distinctions, but seems to feel that their choices are not his business. “I find it really sad when I see artists breaking those laws [about what can be publicly displayed], but it’s up to their elders, their chiefs and their matriarchs to put them back into line, not us as artists. Although there are some things you look at and think, ‘Gosh, I can’t believe they did that.'”

These distinctions are increasingly easy for Dangeli to observe because, while he has had work in galleries, today, commissions and ceremonial work mean that he does not rely on the commercial art market to make his living. While he praises some galleries like the Eagle Spirit and the Leora Lattimer Gallery, and speaks of their owners with respect, he is concerned that meeting the galleries’ needs can be restrictive for artists.

In fact, in some cases, dealing with galleries can be “abusive,” he says. He recalls selling a drum and a mask to one gallery, and being told by the owner, “‘Now, don’t go drinking this all up in one spot.’ So I looked at him and said, ‘I don’t need this,’ and I ripped up the cheque and handed it back, and took my pieces.”

This experience was reinforced a few years ago by an incident online in which his building and launching of a canoe received condescending criticism from an academic, and others rallied around him.

“It was really wonderful having support from my own people, indigenous people, and people from museums from all over the place, and I let go of that final fear about what people think of my art. It’s none of my business. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, that’s fine. I think [this attitude] has made me a better artist, and that taking on more commissions has helped me to focus on more personal items and concentrating more on things for potlatches. It’s wonderful to have that freedom, and I would wish it for every artist.”

Art and the community

Dangeli takes his role as an interpreter of his culture seriously. “There is a responsibility, because artists are our historians. They are people who are able to act as a conduit between our culture and our people to the outside world. They’re historians, they’re writers, they’re creators of things that will be used inside those ceremonies. So, yeah, there’s a lot of importance in being a leader and an artist.”

For Dangeli in particular, this responsibility and importance is augmented because he is heir to two chieftainships, one of which he grew up expecting to inherit and one which he has only recently become heir to. This situation, he says, “has affected me in wanting to convey more of my messages. And taking on that larger chieftainship means that I have more responsibilities, both financially and culturally. Financially in the way of making sure that I can get home to attend feasts and potlatches, culturally by being able to create things for my people. It has affected some of what I create and definitely the responsibility not to do anything embarrassing as well.”

Sunset

However, asked if artists help to restore pride to First Nations communities, Dangeli characterizes the idea as an outsider’s view. “I think that, as an outsider looking in, yeah, it could be construed that way. But are you being made aware of it because individual artists are opening your eyes to what’s going on inside those communities? Because, growing up and witnessing all these wonderful things happening within my community, there’s always been pride. There’s always been this sense of beauty and right and wrong and putting your best foot forward. A lot of artists, especially in the generation before mine, have all grown up with that responsibility.

“There’s a huge responsibility being an artists and growing up in that culture, which is why some artists choose not to be part of it. It is too much responsibility. Everyone always wants you to create things for some sort of giveaway or to do this or that. So there has to be a balance.” For instance, Dangeli will often repurpose a piece, or ask permission to make a print of an original painting, so that he can respond to a request without taking too much of his time. He cites Joe David and Beau Dick as two of the older artists who are models of how to find this sort of balance.

“We have a responsibility because we’re able to function in so many worlds, whether it be the white world, within the art world — and it’s not just the art world, it’s the First Nation’s art world as well — within our communities, culturally, and academically and with art historians. I’ve been able to walk in all these worlds, and been intimidated in all of them.

“I remember when Mique’l [his financee] had moved up here. I was looking through some of the readings she had to do for her Master’s in Art History, and I became worried because art historians analyze everything. And I was like, ‘Look, I was poor this month, and people will say, this is Mike Dangeli’s blue period because I didn’t have anything else but blue paint. That was part of my fear: Is what I’m doing now going to be analyzed and picked apart twenty, forty years down the line?. And that was something else I had to let go.”

But, for all the fears, the responsibilities, the obligations and the need for balance, Dangeli clearly remains committed to all that he has taken on. “I love what I do. It’s not a job, and it’s not a career –although it is both — it’s a passion. I absolutely love it. So to be able to have that opportunity to take what’s inside me, to make my thoughts tangible –”

He trails off for a second, then starts in a new direction.

“I’m able only to put out so much in thirty or forty years. That’s a short time in a person’s life. And I started this when I was a little older than most artists. I was 27 when I decided to become a professional artist. so I have a lot of catching up to do. And, at the same time, I’m grateful to be able to create art and to have people see value in it.”

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Northwest Coast art has a new medium. It’s called forton, and it’s a mixture of gypsum, fiberglass and plastics, and has the advantages of being non-toxic, lightweight, weather resistant, and capable of imitating anything from marble to plaster or bronze. So far, you can see the largest collection of sculptures in forton in Vancouver at the Douglas Reynolds Gallery, including one cast from James Hart’s Celebration of Bill Reid pole that was officially presented to the public on December 5.

The Celebration of Bill Reid pole is a permanent fixture at the Bill Reid Gallery in downtown Vancouver. Carved by James Hart with the help of Ernest Swanson, Tyson Brown, Carl Hart, and GwaLiga Hart, the pole is topped by a raven whose chest is a stylized version of Bill Reid’s face. Through the Douglas Reynolds Gallery, eighteen copies of the raven are being made in forton – six imitating plaster, and 12 bronze, including three artist proofs.

Hart spoke briefly at the launch, arriving after the crowd had already gathered and was well into the buffet and wine. A tall man with long gray hair, he wore a bright Guatemalan jacket and carried a string of trade beads in his hands that someone gave him as he came in the door. He walked with a stoop and a slight hesitation. As he stood halfway up the stairs in the gallery, he was surprisingly soft-spoken for a well-known artist who is also a chief.

Hart spoke briefly about the pole and its intent to honor Bill Reid. He explained that he not only learned carving from Reid, but how to survive in the city, including such details as how to use an elevator, something he had rarely encountered in his rural youth. Turning to the plaster raven in the corner, he emphasized that it was a white raven, a representation of the trickster before he stole the moon and was singed black in his effort to escape with it through the smoke hole.

Afterwards, I managed to talk briefly to him as he mingled with the crowd. He said that the project was his first effort to work in forton, and that he liked the way it could be carved and was resistant to weather. He also expressed his enthusiasm for the new medium and designs that younger artists from all the local first nations were developing the traditional art forms.

Until the new raven cast, most of the works in forton that I’ve seen were done by Don Yeoman at the Douglas Reynolds Gallery. However, Reynolds mentioned the side of a house in Whistler that recently had several dozen forton panels added to one side, and I suspect that any artists who encounter it are likely to be as interested in it as Hart seemed to be.

One look at the cast and you can understand why. Made from a mold of the cedar original, the pseudo-plaster cast picks up so much detail that you can actually see the wood grain and tool marks in it. With forton offering so many benefits and no drawbacks so far as I can discover, I strongly suspect that, just as local first nations artists adopted to argillite a century and half ago and glass in the last few decades, many are going to seize on forton as yet another medium for their work.

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