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Archive for April, 2010

Mitch Adams is an artist I’ve been watching for some time. From the pictures he’s posted on Facebook in the last year, I suspected that it was only a matter of time before I saw one of his works that I wanted to buy. And, sure enough, when I walked into the 2010 Freda Diesing School Student Art Exhibition, his “Blue Moon Mask” immediately caught my eye. I consider it one of the finer examples of contemporary Northwest Coast art that I’ve seen in the last year – an opinion with which some traditionalists strongly disagree.

I am not the only one to think so highly of the mask. I know of at least half a dozen people who would have been happy to buy it, and who wished that it had not been marked as not for sale. Two of those people were frankly envious when I told them that, after I expressed my admiration, Adams decided not to send it to the upcoming Spirit Wrestler show after all, but to sell it to me. One even asked me if I would resell it.

Similarly, when I posted a picture of it in my review of the exhibition, one viewer called it “the most stunning mask I have ever seen.”

To me, such reactions seem perfectly logical for anyone who has troubled to look at the mask. Although “Blue Moon Mask” is covered entirely with paint, the paint is not so thick that you cannot see the smoothness of the carving.If anything, the palest blue on the mask tends to emphasis the plans of the carving, making them into shadows rather than lines.

The careful selection of the shades of blues is equally obvious, from the pale, almost white skin color to the darker blue on the outer rim, and makes the mask seem ever-changing, especially with the tear tracks falling from the eyes. Depending on the light and the angle, the mask can look serene, corpse-like, or even like the heavy makeup of a Goth on Friday night. It is a work that is both accessible and ambiguous at the same time.

Some aspects of the work are traditional. Looking through galleries or museums, you should have no trouble finding other moon masks of the same general shape. Many details are traditional, too, including the eyebrows and nostrils, and the array of U-shapes and ovoids surrounding the face.

Yet the work departs from the northern tradition in at least two key ways. For one thing, in the northern tradition, blue is a third color, used in small amounts if it is present at all. Black and red are the typical colors, with a third being added by the natural color of the wood. A departure from this norm is, by itself, enough to define a work as contemporary.

For another thing, the use of paint on the entire mask is unusual in Adam’s Haida and Tsimshian tradition (although not entirely unheard of, either). The northern tradition tends to be sparing in its use of paint, with designs painted across the mask that ignore the features beneath them. Adams’ decision to paint the entire mask would be more common in the Kwakwaka’wakw tradition, although, even there, his use of different shades of the same color instead of contrasting ones would be more characteristic of modern artists such as Beau Dick or perhaps Simon Dick.

To make these departures is a risk – but I believe it is a necessary one, of the kind needed to keep Northwest Coast art developing and relevant. Nor is it a unique one. Historically, the art form has long been a combination of local conventions meeting industrial societies’ technologies and sensibilities. So-called tradition has long changed and benefited from artists’ discoveries of metal tools, industrially produced paints, and, much later, of power tools. Similarly, the first European influence on subject matter is over a century and a half old, in top-hatted figures on poles and sailing ships on argillite plates. From this perspective, what Adams does in “Blue Moon Mask” is not radical, and should be easy to appreciate.

Yet, sadly, a minority noticed “Blue Moon Mask”’s departure from strict tradition and could not get past it. I am told that one teacher reacted strongly to it, and that another one joked about it. Even worse, some students, seeing the teachers’ reactions, immediately imitated them rather than using their own eyes.

These reactions strike me as both unfortunate and short-sighted. The basis of Northwest Coast art will always be the traditional work. If nothing else, the contemporary needs the traditional to react against.

Yet I do not see why admiration for the traditional must include a rejection of everything contemporary. True, you may prefer one over the other, or prefer one in your own work. But what you like and what is done well are by no means synonymous. Nor does preferring one require that you condemn the other.

Personally, I refuse to take sides. “Blue Moon Mask” is a technically skilled piece, and amidst our collection of traditional works by artists like Norman Tait or Richard Hunt and of contemporary pieces by artists like Alano Edzerza or Ron Telek, it claims a place on our wall on its own merits. It’s a piece that I consider myself lucky to live with, and I’m proud to have our keeping.

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This was only the second year that I attended the Freda Diesing School’s year end exhibition, but the show has become a must-see for me. For one thing, it is one of the largest exhibitions of Northwest Coast art in any given year. For another, I never know what I might find, either because a student is unknown, or has taken a giant leap forward in their understanding of their art.

The 2010 show was slightly smaller than the previous year’s, and emphasized carving more than design, although a few limited edition prints and drawings were available up in the loft, as well as a sampling of giclee prints by second year student Mitch Adams. But in compensation, the level of carving was higher than last year, probably because, instead of specifying that each student submit three pieces to the show, the teachers urged students to focus on producing their best work, and starting it early (even so, there were many groans about last minute all-night sessions).

Close to the door were masks by people whose work I have bought in the past. John Wilson contributed his hawk woman mask to the show, which I had seen pictures of, but was glad to see in person:

Wilson also contributed a large spoon, whose beaver handle included more detail work than I had seen before in his work:

Besides Wilson’s mask hung Colin Morrison’s second mask, whose red design made the wood look like a sun-tan, and contrasted with the white hair he used:

Moving on from Wilson’s and Morrison’s masks, I quickly discovered work from artists I remembered from 2009. Previous YVR award winner Shawn Aster, whose main interest seems to be design rather than carving, contributed a mask whose interest is largely in the painting:

Second year Metis artist Mathew Daratha was one of the more prolific contributors to the show, displaying several masks, such as this one:

Still another second year student, Latham Mack, the two-times recipient of the YVR Award, was allowed to carve in his family’s traditional Nuxalk style, producing a strikingly different Thunder Mask:

Mack also danced a similar mask after the graduation ceremony.

But perhaps the most development among the second year students was shown by Sheldon Dennis, whose carving showed a considerable advance over his work last year, as well as a strong sense of originality:

Female students continue to be a minority at the school, but those enrolled in the first year class this year made a strong showing. Cherish Alexander showed a talent for combining feminine faces with bold designs:

Carol Young, the winner of the first Mature Student Award, showed a similar interest in women’s faces, and added a traditional labret to indicate high status in one of her masks:

Another first year female student, Nina Bolton chose a more traditional shape for her mask, but gave it a strong, contrasting design when she painted it:

Some of the most striking work in the show was created by Chazz Mack, Latham Mack’s cousin. Chaz Mack include two pieces in the show: a small print, and a mask whose painted design shows a strong sense of line in its curves:

However, if the show had a single outstanding piece, it was Mitch Adams’ “Blue Moon Mask.” The piece was the despair of at least one of the school’s teachers, all of whom work in the northern style and favor masks with much less paint than “Blue Moon Mask,” but its clean lines and carefully selected palette made it a crowd favorite, with at least half a dozen people clamoring to buy it:

When Adams agreed to sell it to me, several other would-be buyers frankly expressed their jealousy, and cursed their lack of initiative; apparently, I was the only one who actually asked Adams if he was firm about the Not For Sale label.

In fact, if the show had a fault, it was that most of the best pieces were labeled as not for sale for one reason or the other. If I had had my way, I could have returned home with another three or four pieces from this years’ show.

However, that’s a selfish wish. Many of the pieces marked as not for sale were reserved for the upcoming Northern Exposure show at Vancouver’s Spirit Wrestler Gallery. For many students, the show is their first chance to display their work to a large audience, so I can hardly blame them for withholding their work from sale. All of them thoroughly deserve that chance, and I hope that I will have many chances in the future to buy their work.

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On April 23, I did something I had been waiting to do for ten months: I stood up at the graduation ceremony for the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art at Northwest Community College in Terrace, and gave out the first Mature Student Award. Trish and I hope it will be the first of many, and I think the award got off to a good start by having Carol Young (Bagshaw) as the first recipient.

A member of the Haida Eagle side, Young did not grow up with traditional culture, but absorbed much of it indirectly from her mother. Later, as a single mother of four, she began selling a variety of handicrafts and art pieces loosely based on Northwest Coast design on eBay. Although she says she never thought of herself as an artist, she sold over a hundred pieces of every description imaginable. Masks, rattles, miniature canoes, and, most of all, Haida-inspired dolls – all of these and more she managed to produce as a way of bringing in extra money.

With her children grown, Young decided to do something for herself, and enrolled in the Freda Diesing School last September. Her teachers and fellow students tell me that at first she seemed to have trouble feeling comfortable in the dorms or the class room, and that learning formline design didn’t come easily to her after years of doing things her way.

However, in the second semester, especially after hearing that she had won the Mature Student Award, Young started to hit her stride. Her design took on a new discipline and maturity as she absorbed what the teachers had been telling her, and she found a place among the other students, most of whom were far younger – although at times, she told me with a smile, she felt that her role was that of den-mother in the dorms.

By the end of the school year, Young had become the speaker for the first year students, announcing them at the graduation ceremony, and appearing with fellow student Sheldon Dennis on a CBC podcast about the school. She also took it on herself to present me with a school cap and T-shirt, and, when I requested one for Trish (who was unable to attend the graduation), gave me hers, claiming that she didn’t wear T-shirts anyway – a kindness that I was grateful for, although I wondered if it was true.

During the podcast, Young said that attending the school had given her “a whole new life.” Previously, I had only contacted her briefly via email, but when I met her during the graduation ceremony and exhibition, she seemed like a person who was happy about the direction she was heading. Not only was she in the middle of preparations and cleanup for the weekend, but she talked about how she hoped she could present a female perspective in her carving, which she felt – despite the name of the school – had been under-represented or explored. She said, too, that she would like to establish an award for women at the school, and would like to teach after she graduated next year.

My impression is that Young is the sort of self-starter who can get where she wants to be under her own power and on her own terms. But I would like to think that the Mature Student Award made her self-development a little easier and quicker than it might otherwise have been.

As the first recipient of the award, she sets a high standard. If next year’s winner is even half as deserving, I will feel that our ongoing involvement in the school through the award has been worthwhile.

Carol Young, First Recipient of the Mature Student Award at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art

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One of the many songs inspired by the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 is “Little wot ye wha’s coming.” It is little more than a list of the clans that supported Bonnie Prince Charlie, and I’ve heard it sung slowly by Ewan MacColl, and faster and faster by The Corries. Just back from the Freda Diesing School graduation exhibit in Terrace, I’m reminded of the song because I feel as though I’ve spent the last two days meeting people.

Some I knew online but had never met, others by reputation. But let me see if I can generate a list, roughly in order since I arrived at the exhibit at 2PM on Friday:

  • Jill Girodat, the Associate Registrar at Northwest Community College, who helped us set up the Mature Student Award, and is well-known among students in need for her ability to find funding for them. Jill kindly volunteered to show me around the campus.
  • Stephanie Forsyth, Northwest’s president, who saw me taking photographs when I arrived and was puzzled about who I was until I got up to give the Mature Student Award that night, but remained polite.
  • Todd Stephens, a graduate last year from the Freda Diesing, who supervises the carving shed at the George Little House. Last year, we bought his “Jorja and I,” which hangs over my computer desk.
  • Shawn Aster, one of this year’s graduates, who remains a promising artist, both in terms of his ability and in terms of his promise that one day he will finish the painting we’ve discussed.
  • Gayton Nabess, one of the first year students, who showed me a left-handed stone paint pot found on the banks of the Skeena, and pictures of a non-traditional piece he recently completed (which I’m sorry that I never had time to see).
  • Dean Heron, the newest teacher at the Freda Diesing,who kindly gave me a tour of the nearly completed longhouse on the Northwest campus, and drove me out to see the work being done at the Kitselas Canyon project.
  • Ken McNeil, one of the teachers at the school, whose work I have long admired.
  • Stan Bevan, the program coordinator at the school, who let me see not only the four crests for the longhouse, but also his home and work area, and drove me around on Saturday evening. I also appreciate the book he presented me — a reprinting of a transcript of oral tales that were originally recorded almost a century ago. It’s the sort of genuine record of First Nations culture I’m always looking for, but rarely find.
  • Rocque Berthiaume, who teaches art history at the school, whom I’ve heard praised by many students but whom I had never previously met.
  • Carol Young Bagshaw, this year’s winner of the Mature Student Award, who introduced the first year students at the graduation ceremony, and saw that I not only had my own cap and T-shirt from the school, but also a shirt to bring home to Trish.
  • Colin Morrison, whose first mask we bought. He turns out to be much taller in person than I had imagined.
  • Mitch Adams, who kindly agreed to let me buy his “Blue Moon Mask” rather than send it down to the upcoming Spirit Wrestler Show. It was one of the most sought-after pieces in the end of year exhibit, and he could have had half a dozen other buyers, had he chose. Mitch also invited me down to hear his band play, although by 10PM on Saturday, I no longer had the energy.
  • John Wilson, who is clearly the most accomplished artist in this years’ graduating class, even if he doesn’t always receive the credit he deserves. Over the last year, we’ve chatted so often on Facebook that, when he walked up, we started talking as if we met face to face everyday.
  • Latham Mack, another of this year’s graduates, who danced his Thunder Spirit Mask on Friday night, and kindly got me permission from his elders to post pictures online of the performance (which I plan to do some time this week).
  • Chaz Mack, who showed me some of his vivid and powerful works in his dorm room.
  • Dempsey Bob, the school’s Senior Advisor and one of the master carvers of his generation, who made some effort to draw me out at dinner on Saturday, when I looked overwhelmed by all the new faces.
  • Diana Wong Adams, Mitch’s spouse, whose taste for the Pogues instantly told me she was a person worth knowing.
  • Ron Telek, whose work we’ve been collecting for several years. Somehow the disasters and mishaps that have averted our previous efforts to meet were absent this time, and we actually got to hang out.
  • Peter Jackson, who drove up from Prince Rupert to talk over dessert.

These are only the people I had extended conversations with (although possibly I’ve left out one or two). Were I to include everybody I was introduced to, or exchanged a few brief remarks with, the list would be over twice as long.

 

But whether I mentioned people or not, my thanks to all those I met for their friendship, kindness, and hospitality. Together, you stimulated and exhausted me in equal measure. I look forward to renewing our acquaintance at the Spirit Wrestler show next month, and at next year’s graduation.

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Most people are probably unaware that the South Terminal of the Vancouver airport even exists. Decades ago, it was the main terminal, but now it is reserved for small local airlines, and the occasional celebrity hoping to slip into town unobserved. A ten minute shuttle ride from the main terminal will take you there, but the effect is like stepping back in time. Looking at the two-story, yellow brick building and the small, aging Dash-8s on the tarmac, you half expect to see Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains standing around in trench-coats talking about what they will do next over a bottle of Vichy water.

Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but the scale and the pace are very different from what you find at the main terminal. For one thing, the building is no more than seventy meters long. Inside, it looks more like a shopping mall than an airport terminal. Counters for half a dozen companies line one side, and the center of the building is dominated by a cafe. At one end is a gift shop, full of the inevitable smoked salmon and vaguely Northwest Coast designs. You have to search to find the security checkpoint, which opens on to the single waiting area, which might manage to hold a hundred people, if it were ever full (which, in my experience, it never is).

The crowds are smaller, too, and their members more casually dressed. You don’t get many executives flying out of the South Terminal – or, if they do, they are flying upcountry to small towns where blue jeans and a T-shirt are acceptable as business casual. Who you do see are many men and women in middle age, heavy set and looking as if they might have fished or cut timber thirty years ago. A few music players and netbooks are visible if you look, but not many. You can count them on the fingers of one hand, if you choose, because, there’s rarely forty people waiting at any given time.

This setting makes traveling far more casual than at the main terminal. If you have to wait in line at the counter, it’s only for a couple of people at the most. The counter staff are relaxed and chatty. So are the security staff; while they are by no means slack, they are the only security staff I’ve ever encountered who could be described as friendly and forthcoming. When I forgot my keys in a tray after my belongings were scanned, one even hurried after me with them. They almost make an annoying and pointless procedure bearable, apparently well aware that the chances of suicide bombers targeting a flight to Campbell River or Terrace are remote. Of course, they don’t have to hurry, since there are almost never two planes taking off at the same time, but I appreciate the general atmosphere all the same.
When you line up and are led to your plane along the pedestrian walkways painted on the tarmac, you find the same casual efficiency is found on board the aircraft that fly from the South Terminal – or at least you do on Hawkair, which I’ve flown twice now. When was the last time you remember that WestJet or Air Canada held an in-flight raffle? Or handed out complementary newspapers (even if it was just The Vancouver Province)? Or invited you to take advantage of the empty seats to give yourself more room? Admittedly, once on a SouthWest flight into Phoenix, the pilot announced that we were ahead of schedule and detoured so we could see the sunrise over the Grand Canyon, but I can’t remember the same atmosphere anywhere else.
If you can’t guess, I love flying out of the South Terminal. If the airlines attached to it flew every place I wanted to go, I would use it exclusively and never come near the main terminal (except to view its display of Northwest Coast Art). Given that my parents didn’t have the decency to let me born independently wealthy, it’s probably the closest I’m ever going to get to flying in a private charter.

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The Geek Feminist Blog, which is always a source of intelligent reading as I start my daily routine, recently posted an answer to question about how to maintain self-confidence. The poster responded with suggestions, several of which were about how to boost self-esteem – for instance, talk to supportive friends, celebrate your accomplishments, and “don’t forget to be awesome,” which apparently means to feel good about yourself and what you do. However, what neither the poster nor most of the commenters on the entry ever seemed to consider is that self-doubt might have any advantages, or, at the very least, be preferable to self-esteem.

One of the peculiarities of North American culture is that it emphasizes the extrovert. In the popular conception, to be confident and outgoing is to be successful – and not just at one end of a personality perspective.

By contrast, to be diffident and private is nearly synonymous with sociopathy. Geeky high school kids, for example, are widely viewed as the ones most likely to gun down their classmates.

Yet, when you stop to think, both these views fall far short of reality.

Confidence is based on experience, on having gained an understanding of a situation or the ability to handle a situation. But the problem is that North America favors the appearance of confidence – especially in men – and is careless about whether it is real or not. The result is a culture in which, all too often, criticism is ignored and those who argue risk being branded “not a team player.” The dangers of risk-taking are ignored, because to doubt is to show a lack of of confidence and to reveal yourself as being less than leadership material.

Sometimes, the result pays off, because audacity can take people by surprise. But, if you look around business, more often the result is rash, ill-considered, or just plain wrong decisions whose shortcomings a moment’s reflection would have revealed.

For instance, I once worked for a company that brought in a CEO armed with the latest managerial theories. His inevitable response to any company financial crisis was to purge the staff. He would protect his officer team, but otherwise his purges were random. Frequently, he fired key employees who were the only ones who understood major parts of the software that the company was producing. Not that he meant to fire key employees, but the problem was he couldn’t recognize them and was just as likely to fire them as anybody else.

The result? Survivors were demoralized, because not even the jobs of key players were safe. Often, a few months later, the key players were hired back at the more expensive rates of consultants. Other times, the company blundered on alone, trying to recover the lost knowledge instead of doing original development. Four purges and two years later, the company sold its resources and ceased business. What looked like bold and decisive action to the board of directors in the long-term destroyed the company because it was uninformed.

By contrast, self-doubt carried to extremes causes indecision. But what few people seem to consider is that, kept within reasonable limits, self-doubt can be a healthy and creative attitude. Where the artificially confident plunge unthinkingly ahead, the self-doubter looks for information and considers alternatives. Afraid they have left something out, they ask for feedback from other people. Before they act, they double-check, and try to allow some flexibility. While they may miss opportunities that require immediate response, the self-doubters are far less likely than the self-confident to do something wrong – or, if they do, they may have a plan to correct or mitigate the problem.

In other words, doubting yourself can be a source of creativity and painstaking. In fact, of all the accomplished writers and artists I have known, and of all the entrepreneurs I have known who were successful over a period of years or decades, not one of them fell into the category of the artificially self-confident. They might have a facade of confidence, especially the entrepreneurs and especially the men, yet talk to them in private and you would be in no doubt that they were self-doubters. Some of them were not the most naturally gifted, yet they succeeded because their self-doubts drove them to compensate for their perceived deficiencies.

What I have suggested seems a paradox: those who appear most likely to succeed aren’t. Yet I think this paradox is central to creativity and planning.

Robert Graves expressed the paradox elegantly in his poem, “Broken Images:”

He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.

He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images,

Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.

Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact,
Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.

When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.

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A few days ago, I received an invitation to participate in a study about why people blog. I deleted it without a reply, partly because I never answer phone or email surveys on the grounds that I always have something better to do. Also, I suspect that, as someone who makes a living through writing, I am not a typical blogger, so my replies wouldn’t help the study much. Still, having recently written my 400th post, the question seems legitimate: Why do I blog?

In many ways, I can more easily explain the reasons that do not motivate me. I do not blog for attention. I get enough attention, positive and negative, from my professional writing, and, like many writers, I have enough of a love/hate relationship with that attention that I feel no need to find more.

For the same reason, I do not need to assert to the world that I am writer. Since 2004, I have written approximately 850 articles that I have been paid for. That makes me a journalist by any reasonable definition, even if one obsessive critic always likes to follow my name with “who calls himself a journalist,” as if to create doubts in people’s minds that I am one.

Say what you like about the purity of amateur writing – or of so-called “indie” publication or what we used to call vanity publishing in a more honest era – there is nothing like having other people pay you and asking you to write for them to make yourself think of yourself as a writer. After the first fifty or sixty publications, the truth starts to seep in. I still get a small thrill at publication, or when a story of mine gets picked up on Slashdot, but not as much as I did six years ago. Largely, I take publication for granted, since in six years I have only had one story rejected, and a couple heavily queried.

Nor do I blog for the ego satisfaction of building an audience. Although my blog sometimes touches on free and open source software (FOSS), the general subject of my professional writing, I usually only blog on FOSS when I have something to say that I could not turn into an article for which I could get paid. I know that I could easily get a couple of thousand visitors a day if I blogged about FOSS, because those are the sorts of numbers that I have when I do. But I don’t mind in the least that this blog lopes alone at one-tenth of those numbers. If anything, I prefer the lower numbers, because I can often tell when friends have logged on.

So why do I blog ? I mean as opposed to writing in general, which is an even more complicated and difficult question to answer.

Partly because I’m writing anyway. Most of my blog posts begin as an entry in the journal that I’ve kept for years. A few journal entries are too private to go out, and remain safely in their password-protected file, but many are transferred directly into the blog.

Those that are transferred to the blog are usually on subjects that I don’t generally get paid to write about – increasingly, on Northwest Coast art. Often, they are warmups at the start of my writing day, or what’s left of my writing energies at the end of the day.

However, there is one great difference in a piece of writing done for a journal and one for eventual blog publication: for a public piece of writing, I am far more concerned with structure. Nobody – I hope – will ever see my journal entries, so they can be unfiltered streams of consciousness, in which I pay little attention to how ideas are arranged. But, when I publish anything that other eyes will see, I feel an obligation – both to myself and to readers – to organize it.

Accordingly, I do not write what most people do in a blog. My blog entries are small personal essays, which is one reason why they are much longer than a typical blog entry. By following this rule, I make a journal entry not just self-expression, but an exercise in structure. By writing blog entries as essays, I force myself to practice the art I follow, and, I hope, become more skilled in it. At the very least, I write more easily because of this rule.

Of course, this orientation sets limits on my subject matter. I rarely write about my partner to preserve her privacy, and there are huge chunks of my life that are unlikely to appear in a blog because I won’t share them.

Yet, even so, I never have any serious problems finding a subject. Writing is one of those things that I do, and this blog, essentially, is for practice.

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