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Archive for May, 2010

I spent the afternoon at the opening for the Northern Exposure show at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery. This is an annual show for the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art, featuring the graduating class and the pick of the work by first year students. Besides giving students some extra cash, the show also teaches students how to deal with a gallery and an exhibition. So, naturally, when I was talking to the students, a common topic was whether they should try to place more pieces in galleries or find other ways to make a living from their art.

The question, I found, is hard to answer in the abstract. Not only does the answer depend on the galleries involved, but I suspect that the details of the answer are starting to change.

On the one hand, a gallery that is enthusiastic about an artists’ work can be the best advertising that the artist can have. The gallery staff can draw visitors’ attention to the artist to increase their sales. The gallery can act as an unofficial agent, passing commissions on to the artist. I’ve heard of gallery owners advising artists about what is selling, and the prices that buyers are willing to pay. They can promote an artist in a group show – or, better yet, a solo show. Artists can’t expect a gallery to promise to buy regularly (“That would mean we were taking on responsibility for an artist earning a living,” one gallery employee remarked to me), but an unofficial agreement that an artist will give a gallery first right of refusal for new works can benefit everyone.

On the other hand, horror stories about galleries are common. I have on good – but strictly anonymous – authority that certain gallery owners regularly break verbal agreements, all the while insisting that written contracts aren’t necessary. Some, too, delay payment for months; in one case I know about, the artist had to wait ten months for over ten thousand dollars. Artists who ask about such delays have had gallery owners scream abuse at them.

However, regardless of how a gallery treats artists, all of them have one thing in common: They stand between artists and their audience. This relation has the advantage of freeing artists from having to promote themselves. But it also means that 40-60% of the total price of a piece goes to the gallery. Considering that literary agents charge 15-20% for the same services, artists may feel that the price is too high, no matter how good the services are.

Fortunately, for artists who feel that way, the Internet provides some alternatives. Websites, Facebook fan pages, and microblogs like Twitter all provide ways for artists to interact directly with their audiences, bypassing the galleries entirely, if they choose. With free software content management systems like Joomla! or Drupal, artists can even conduct online auctions, using Paypal or credit card services for payment. As for pricing, artists can charge more than the wholesale price they receive and still offer prices that are lower than a gallery would charge.

And, increasingly, artists are taking full advantage of these alternatives. One senior First Nations artist says that 80% of his sales come from the Internet. Another estimates that about one-third of his sales are online, and is trying to boost that fraction every way he can.

But artists pay a price when taking control of their sales in this way. They have to learn marketing skills, which can make them nervous and uncomfortable if they are inexperienced or introverted. They have to learn the principles of commercial design, which are very different from the art they create. They not only have to create their initial web pages or Facebook pages, but keep them constantly replenished with new content, because nothing looks less professional than a long outdated web presence. If buyers are unsatisfied, they have to deal with the problem themselves. Most important of all, they either have to spend time on business and promotion – perhaps as much as a third of their working hours, especially at first – or find a sympathetic friend or family member or maybe a consultant to do the work for them. With these demands, some artists might feel that the price for taking full control of their career is too high.

Yet another problem is that an artist can make a living promoting themselves, but, in doing so, they become invisible to the traditional art market. If that happens, then the artists may not be mentioned in art books, or approached by governments and other institutions for large commissions.

My own suspicion is that, despite the disadvantages, an increasing number of artists will start to market themselves. Most Northwest Coast artists I know are doing some online promotion, although none (so far as I know) are doing all they could. In the future, galleries will continue to exist, but they may have less control over artists than they have traditionally had, because the alternatives will be too well-known.

Whatever happens, artists today have a choice that they didn’t have fifteen years ago. However, what choices they should make depends very much on their own skills, personality, and preferences.

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The Northwest Coast art in our home includes many contemporary pieces. However, I am also fascinated by traditional pieces, particularly recreations of historical masks according to modern sensibilities. That is why, when John Wilson’s “Voices of Our Ancestors” (aka “Portrait Mask”) became available, I jumped at the chance to buy it.

John Wilson, "Spirit of Our Ancestors"

“Voices of Our Ancestors” is based on two historical Haisla masks in J. C. H. King’s “Portrait Masks from the Northwest Coast of America,” a book first published in 1979. It is a mask well worth studying for its own sake, all the more so because examples of Haisla design are relatively rare. When you do see them, you have no trouble placing the Haisla geographically, because their art often seems like a combination of Kwakwaka’wakw and Tsimshian traditions. Nor is Wilson’s mask an exception.

Artists Unknown, Historic Haisla Masks

However, what especially interests me is Wilson’s reinterpretation of the historic masks. To start with, Wilson chooses a less rounded, more northern shape for the mask. This change is accompanied by some changes in proportions, such as a wider space between the lips and nose, and a higher placement of the ears. He has also decided not to include the teeth that are in the originals, and replaced the originals’ rounded eyes with more smaller, more slanted ones. In addition, the cheekbones of Wilson’s mask are far less prominent than in the originals. The result is a less human, more supernatural look – a fitting change, considering that the mask is a work of a modern man looking back on the past.

Another noticeable difference is in the selection of colors. This difference is not just a matter of what was available; one of the older masks actually has a brighter red than the one that Wilson uses. By contrast, even allowing for aging, the historical piece has a more subdued blue than Wilson uses. Wilson also accents the red by drawing thicker formlines, and using it in places where the historical piece uses blue.

Wilson has followed the general designs of the original, including the stylized mustache and goatee, but almost always he has put his own interpretation on them. For instance, he has taken the rows of parallel lines just visible on the colored original, and added them as a design element below the nose, replacing the rather uninspired blobs of cross-hatching, and perhaps suggesting mustache stubble.

However, the largest difference between Wilson’s mask and its inspiration is in the form lines. Although formline influence is obvious in the originals, Wilson’s formlines are more disciplined, with more variation in thickness and more balance. For instance, where the formlines on the forehead in the original meets above the left eye, Wilson’s meet between the eyes. Similarly, where the original has formlines meet on on the cheeks, Wilson’s meet at the nostril.

Probably the most obvious difference in the design is on the cheeks, where the formline helps to replace the cross-hatching, and the blue u-shapes are greatly reduced in size. Even more importantly, the red formline that follows the line of the cheek curves upwards rather than downwards as in the original, doing more than any single element to make the modern mask less human and more arresting than the originals.

“Spirit of Our Ancestors” is obviously influenced by the sources that Wilson acknowledges, but clearly it is more than imitation, or an unthinking copying of a classical piece. Wilson’s mask is more balanced piece of work than either of the originals, with a stronger northern influence as well. Although somewhat of a new direction for Wilson, it more than succeeds on its own terms. Wilson has not simply copied, but repeatedly improved as well.

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For someone who earns a living as a writer, I have a shocking confession to make: I am a good speller, not an excellent one, and I don’t greatly care.

Oh, when something of mine is published with a mis-spelling or typo, I wince. If the publication is online, I correct it as soon as I can. And, once or twice, when upsets in my personal life have left me distracted, and I’ve gone through periods where my copy editing was poorer than usual, I was left with plenty of self-doubts. After all, I’m supposed to be a professional, and part of that status means submitting copy ready to publish. The fact that editors are supposed to have my back when it comes to proofreading does not diminish my obligation to be my own first line of defense.

However, my concern is limited. I make the corrections as they come to my notice, and move on. I have no sympathy with the apparent glee with which some readers find mistakes and point them out, and only point out other peoples’ errors when they are unintentionally humorous. In my heart of hearts, spelling is not a great concern for me.

Part of the reason for this attitude is the way I read. I not only read phonetically, but hear every syllable in my head, even when I’m reading silently. Because of that inner voice, when I come across a spelling mistake, the only time that I have trouble understanding is occasionally when letters are transposed.

For another, I am well aware of how illogical English spelling is. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who claimed – not entirely accurately– that, under the rules of English spelling, “fish” could be spelled “ghoti” (“gh” as in “tough,” “o” as in “woman,” “ti” as in “attention”). While I doubt that the efforts to simplify spelling will ever succeed, I do tend to regard proper spelling as an artificial convention, slightly more useful than heraldry, but just as arbitrary. Moreover, like a knowledge of heraldry, a knowledge of spelling sometimes seems to serve mainly as an indicator of class.

If schools tend to focus on aspects of literacy such as spelling – as witnessed by the renewed popularity of spelling bees (currently, there is apparently even a fad for strip spelling bees among adults) – the focus has more to do with the easy of assessment than any usefulness. Determining who is writing well is partly subjective, but in the last two or three centuries, we have standardized spelling until we can easily say whether a spelling is correct. True, our ability to write has not improved, but, all the same, for those who need to assess students, the descent from the art of writing to the simple right and wrong of spelling must be a relief, and never mind that it serves only limited purpose.

I can even rally my bachelor’s degree in communication to rationalize my attitude. Basic communication theory holds that the signal – what you communicate – can still be transmitted with a high degree of noise – irrelevant or ambiguous information or errors. Often, you do not even need vowels or full words, as anyone who has used abbreviations while texting understands. In other words, not only does correct spelling do nothing to improve the quality of writing, it does next to nothing to improve the transmission of writing, either.

Similarly, I can use my degree to rationalize that, the more complex the concepts you are trying to convey become, the likelier that problems are going to arise. In the same way that a complex piece of technology such as a jet requires regular maintenance because its complexity means more can go wrong, so the more complex the ideas you are trying convey, the more that spelling mistakes and other errors are likely to creep in.

As I try to correct mistakes, only to find other ones (and, occasionally, to introduce new ones in my corrections), the image in my mind is of the cartoons in which a character is trying to nail down floorboards. No sooner do they nail down one board, than another one springs up behind them. At times, the idea of eliminating every error seems next to impossible.

But the main reason I have only limited concern about spelling is nothing more than personal preference. What absorbs me as I write is not producing flawless copy, but developing ideas and structuring and expressing them so that they are as clear as possible. Once I have done these things as well as I can in the time available – because, often, I am working to a deadline – my interest recedes sharply. Proofreading is an after-thought, much as bibliographies were when I was in high school and university: necessary, but dull. While writing is a creative act, and editing and revising is an analytical one, proofreading is simply rote work, and often repetitious. Even with a spell checker and macros to catch my most common errors, such as using two spaces where I only need one, copy editing my own work is still repetitious and uninteresting. I never have the satisfaction from copy editing than I do from finishing a draft that comes closer to expressing my thoughts.

If I have been writing all day and need to email a piece before I go to bed, I may also have little energy left for the task. Often, I become more careless than I would be when I am fresh. To a degree, then, part of my disinclination is undoubtedly the natural tendency that everybody has to disregard a task for which they suspect they have no particular talent

Having been afflicted with some of the obsession for spelling and grammar that infests North American education (although less than some, since I was in an experimental program for four years of my five in high school), I feel that I should be ashamed of my disregard. Yet, talking to other writers, I realize that my attitude is probably shared by most of them.

A reasonable ability to spell may be a basic skill for writers, but it is a minor one. In fact, I would almost go so far as to say that it is more a marketing skill than one fundamental to the craft of writing. You need to know how to spell so that editors will read your work easily, not because spelling polysyllabic words improves the quality of what you write. You could become a champion speller and still not have anything to say or the skills to express it. I would even go so far as to say that, if a would-be writer wants to improve their skills, then spelling should be one of their last concerns.

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In my adult life, I have been vilified in the worst terms possible. Other times, I have been praised extravagantly and far beyond my worth. Yet I’ve only recently realized that, having endured the extremes, I find that the two tend to cancel each other out, making both of them impossible for me to take seriously.

On the one hand, I have been called just about every name you can imagine. Communist, pervert, paid shill, ignorant, clueless, gay (by people who obviously meant it as an insult) – I’ve not only heard them all, but heard them repeatedly, because the people who use such language often have a strong streak of obsession-compulsion and like to gossip as well. I don’t doubt that, even now, if I were to stray into certain company, I would be treated as an absolute pariah by people who have repeated these names so often that they believe them to be true – and never mind that most of them have never met me or barely knew me at best.

On the other hand, I have also been called humanitarian, intelligent, talented, thought-provoking,influential, a patron of the arts, and more. A few times, I’ve been treated as an honored guest in public, kept entertained and ferried around practically at my whim. Once or twice, people have declared themselves honored to meet me, often on just as limited grounds as I have been repeatedly insulted.

I suppose I could have listened to the abuse until I was unable to hear the compliments. Conversely, I could have left the compliments possess me until I was so conceited that the abuse no longer bothered me. Instead, I realize, something I didn’t expect has happened: The two extremes have canceled each other out, so I take neither very seriously. After all, both portraits of me can hardly be true.

That’s not to say that I can’t be irked by the extremes. I often find myself telling detractors that, while I don’t mind that they disagree with me, I would wish that they disagreed with something I actually said (that’s probably the former English instructor coming out, who has read too many papers in which the argument was based on misreading or taking statements out of context). I am surprised, too, by the venom of some of the abusers, who seem to be able to summon and maintain a level of hate that is entirely beyond my own capabilities.

Similarly, being praised or treated extravagantly does little except embarrass me. The reason isn’t that I lack a healthy ego – simply that I know that the actions of mine that are being praised weren’t particularly altruistic.

Anyway, I would rather have a lively discussion over a drink or two than be singled out. Fortunately, many people quickly sense that preference, yet, all the same, I understand now what I understood imperfectly in the days when I used to attend science fiction conventions: when guests of honor hang out together, they’re not being snobbish; I suspect that they’re simply hiding in the company of people who will treat them as equals. Most people have a very low tolerance for being lionized.

However, on a basic level, both extremes reach me less and less. The contradiction between them is so great that each of them disproves the other. Increasingly, I take the abuse as a sign of ill-will, and compliments or attempts at respect as a sign of well-wishing, and tell myself that a good deal of exaggeration is involved in both.

In the end, both reactions seem to little to do with me. Frequently, the abuse is based on hearsay or words taken out of context – on willful misunderstanding, I could almost believe – so it seems to be unconnected with my actions. The praise seems equally undeserved, because it assumes a nobility of motives when really I only acted or spoke out of interest or idleness.

Either way, how can I take the reactions seriously? I can never believe that either makes more than a passing reference to reality as I experience it.

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A couple of weeks ago when I was in Terrace, Dean Heron drove me the fifteen kilometers northeast to the Kitselas Canyon National Historic Site. We left the highway, bounced up a gravel road through some second growth forest to a gate and, after opening it, descended to the top of the site.

I’ve been hearing about construction on the site for a couple of years and the work that teachers, students, and graduates of the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art had been doing there, but nothing really prepared me for the site or the scope of the effort. The top of the site was dominated by a nearby mountain, so dramatically close that I could never quite keep it out of my glance, or resist looking up at it (or be unaware of it at my back):

To date, four longhouses have been completed. A fifth is largely complete but unpainted and will eventually display a wolf design, if I remember correctly.

In front of the line of longhouses, are the carved figures of a grizzly bear and a beaver:

Each of the longhouses, Heron explained to me, would become the showcase for a different aspect of the local Tsimshian culture. About a hundred meters across the gravel was the future gift shop and the washroom.

However, the current buildings were just the start of the plans. Eventually, part of the leveled gravel will become a ground for dances and ceremonies. And, behind the gift house, a path lead down to the archaeological site where the original village had been located. I would have liked to descend to the site, where an interpretive center was being built, but Heron was unsure of his right to go there. He had a key to the gate, and having worked on the top of the site, had no hesitation about going there, but the archaeological site was another matter – perhaps because he was not a member of the Kitselas First Nation.

Nor could we enter any of the longhouses, because alarms had been added recently to them. Naturally, I was disappointed, but I was glad that some pre-cautions were being taken, because apparently one of the longhouses had already been broken into. In fact, considering some of the art work there, I can see a day coming when the site has security staff around the clock.

Still, even without seeing everything, I was impressed, both by what had been done and what I imagined the finished result would be. Between the magnificence of the setting and the carvings by Dempsey Bob, Stan Bevan, and their current and ex-pupils, Kitselas Canyon has every chance of being the cultural and tourist landmark it is intended to become. Personally, I can’t wait to see what it should become in a few years — and I’m grateful to Dean for the preview.

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I have read about and seen something of the culture of the Haida, Tsimshian, Nisga’a and other First Nations of the northern British Columbia coast. However, I know little about the Nuxalk of the central coast beyond the fact that the nation prefers not to be referred to as the Bella Coola, as they once were. For that reason, when Latham Mack, one of this years’ graduates of the Freda Diesing School danced a Nuxalk mask, I was an attentive member of the audience.

I am used to thinking of Latham Mack, who twice won the YVR Art Foundation scholarship, as a designer more than a carver. Certainly, he has done far more designs than masks to this point, including a limited edition print. However, as part of his final work in the Freda Diesing program, Mack finished two Thunder masks, a blue one for the year end exhibit and the upcoming  show at the Spirit Wrestler gallery, and a black one that he has announced that he will keep in his private collection.

Both masks reflect the story of the four brothers who saw a dancing figure on the mountain who created the thunder – an important story in the Nuxalk tradition. The hooked nose and flaring nostrils are a traditional part of the figure’s depiction.The small branches attached to the head, presumably to suggest lightning, are also traditional, although Mack’s mask makes greater use of them than several others that I’ve seen pictures of. This tradition, as Mack emphasized to me, is separate from the Thunderbird of the Kwakwaka’wakw or other First Nations, with the central figure representing the spirit of the storm.

Latham Mack tells me, “Two major dance rituals make up our winter dance ceremonies, the Sisaok (ancestral family dances) and the Kusiut (secret society ceremonies). The Thunder dance is performed by members of the Kusiut society. According to Bella Coola belief, the supernatural ones in the upper land resemble human beings in performing Kusiut dances. Corresponding to the prowess of his patron, the dance of his human protégé is one of the most important Kusiut rituals. Only the strongest of course danced the Thunder because of the movements and physical fitness you had to be in to actually dance it. Only the families who owned the story actually danced it, but as the years have gone by, we have lost the identity of those owners. So now it’s basically owned by the whole Nuxalk people.”

Mack goes on to say that, “The dance of Thunder can be performed with four, two or one masked dancers, depending on the prerogative of the protégé. When the dance is done with four Thunders, these represent the four brothers in the oral tradition. Numerous dances lead up to the Thunder dance, the Herald introduces the dance of Thunder. He beats his stick on the floor and announces the impending Thunder dance.”

Many dances can lead up to the Thunder dance, but, in this case, the performance was divided into three sections, each introduced and narrated by a member of Mack’s family who also provided a rattle accompaniment.

Since the mask had never been used before, the ceremony began with a blessing of the mask by sprinkling down over it.

Then, before Mack’s actual dance, three female members of his family prepared the area in which he would dance with their own dance. It was a stately dance, done with upraised palms and constant circular steps. The narrator explained that this preparation was a traditional role for women in Nuxalk dances.

Then Mack danced. He wore an apron threaded with loose pieces of wood that he shook for percussion, and wooden clappers on his back.

Frequently, he threw himself down on his knees and climbed to his feet again.

His hands and lower arms made constant flickering gestures, as if to shoo people away, but actually to bestow blessings upon the audience.

It was an energetic dance, enough to scare several young children at the front of the audience, who quickly moved away. He also wore cuffs around his ankles and wrists and the modern innovation of knee pads (which was wise, since he was dancing on a concrete floor, and would have otherwise damaged his knees). It was an obviously exhausting performance, powerful and contrasting sharply with the graceful motions of the women’s dance a few moments before

All too often, those of us who are not directly involved in First Nations culture can forget that the masks that we admire have a ceremonial purpose — or are supposed to have. Mack’s dance was a small reminder of this basic fact, and left me wondering where I could find more about Nuxalk culture.

(Note: Ordinarily, this dance is not photographed, but Latham Mack’s grandfather, Lawrence Mack (Lhulhulhnimut), a chief of the Grizzly clan from the ancestral village of Nusq’lst gave permission for those in attendance to photograph it. He also graciously gave me permission to post the pictures I took on this blog. Needless to say, any mistaken cultural references here are due to my ignorance or to lapses in my memory, and not to his kindness. Should anyone see any mistakes, please let me know so that I can correct them.).

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