I first crossed paths with John Paul Wilson a year ago. Another artist wanted to send me pictures, and John agreed to take and send them. Since then, we have been in touch once or twice a week, and I have enjoyed watching his art move from promising to a first maturity. It is hardly surprising, then, that “Summer Moon Maskette” was under our Christmas tree this year.
The moon is a popular subject in Northwest Coast art. So far as I know, the moon is nobody’s crest, so the question of having permission to use it never arises. Perhaps just as importantly, it is a subject that requires no special knowledge of mythology to appreciate. Wilson himself describes the moon as one of his favorite subjects, and, if you look at his Flickr site, you can see several different ways that he has approached it.
What makes “Summer Moon Maskette” stand out is its simplicity. It has no complicated design, and no red, the second most important color in the northern style. Even the black paint is applied sparingly, being confined to the mouth, nostrils, and eyebrows, and not to the pupils.
This simplicity means that the piece’s carving stands out more than usual. Wilson has responded to this situation by carving with more realism than usual. He has shaped the mouth more, and made the nose fuller than usual on the sides. He has also given close attention to the cheekbones and the area where the nose, eyes, and eyebrows meet.
However, what really makes “Summer Moon Maskette” stand out is the eyes. Slanted, with an inner fold and no pupils, they are very different from most eyes in the northern style – so much so that I almost wonder if they are a portrait. They seem to be closed, suggesting a sleepiness that is appropriate to a hot summer night.
Another result of the simplicity is that, after the paint, most of what catches your eyes is the grain. Wilson has always excelled in sanding the grain until it conforms with the contours of his carving, but “Summer Moon Maskette” is an especially fine example of this practice. For example, if you look, you can see how the grain conforms to the line of the cheekbones and the forehead, or the hollow beneath the eyes. The effect is almost hypnotic in itself, relieved only by a small imperfection which is confined to the chin – and which is also a relief after your eye has been following the apparently billowing lines of the grain.
This simplicity is an indication of how far Wilson has advanced in his art. A less experienced artist would be tempted to tart up the mask with abalone or copper. By contrast, Wilson lets the maskette speak for itself, which makes it all the more powerful. That is a risky approach, but the fact Wilson succeeds is a measure of his advancing skill and confidence.