Archive for June, 2010

Sometimes, my life seems to divide into distinct periods. The current period, apparently, is one in which quarrels end. Perhaps that impression is simply the result of my wish to see patterns or progress in the random events of my life. Or maybe I feel there’s a larger pattern because my only part in events was to agree to them. But, in any event, in the last two months, I have seen two longstanding disagreements end, and feel better for doing so.

The first is a family matter. Never mind the details; they’re complicated and not mine to tell. Enough to say that, for the past thirty years, my part of the family hasn’t been talking to another part.

However, in April, a young relative from the other part of the family, who hadn’t been born yet when the defining moment of the quarrel occurred, contacted me, asking if I were my parents’ grandchild. I corrected her misapprehension, and an occasional email correspondence has sprung up. So far, we haven’t managed to meet (although not through lack of trying), but we probably will sooner or later. The young relative may also meet with one other member of my part of the family.

This new state of affairs, from what I’ve been told, doesn’t sit well with some people on both sides of the divide. But the quarrel was never more than indirectly mine, and I am not so petty as to extend it to someone who could not possibly bear any responsibility. To tell the truth, I’m cautiously pleased at the idea of maybe having another relative, since I don’t have very many.

The second case involves a friend from high school, whom I met again a few years ago. We corresponded for a while after we met, but the interaction, as innocent as it was, slowly soured. She cut if off with a curtness that I considered rude and unwarranted, and I immediately withdrew, too proud and hurt to ask for explanations. Once or twice, I did try to renew the connection, only to be met with silence, so after a couple of years, I stopped trying.

I was toying with the idea of making another effort (which frankly I probably would never have done) when she contacted me recently with an apology. Despite misgivings, I responded, and apologized for my part in the quarrel with a minimum of rehashing of what happened.

We are now Facebook friends – which can mean many things, but in this case seems to express a general feeling of goodwill so long as not much effort is involved. Nor do I think my former acquaintance is interested in the usual Facebook banter. We haven’t really talked, but I suspect that we’re both being cautious, and I appreciate the possibility that an actual friendship might emerge some day.

Neither of these episodes makes much change in my daily life. Nor can I claim to know the other people involved very well. Possibly, I will never know them better than I do now.

All the same, both episodes are gratifying in a way that is both unexpected and hard to express. Any feud, no matter how justified, seems spiteful and ungracious after a while. By contrast, its ending feels a general tidying of loose ends – as well as the triumph of the better side of everybody’s personality. That remains true even if nothing more comes of the reconciliations.

I don’t mean to suggest that I plan to forgive everybody I have a grievance against. In some cases (and if any of them are reading this, they know who they are), there would have to be a major demonstration of contrition before I would even consider patching up the quarrel – and I don’t think that any of the people I’m thinking of would be capable of such a gesture.

But these are the exceptions. With a certain pride, I have discovered that, for all my occasional temper,  I would rather participate in the ending of a quarrel than share any responsibility for perpetuating one. My only regret is that I did not play a more active role. Still, it’s a good thing to learn about myself.

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The last time I saw a Robert Davidson retrospective was his Eagle of the Dawn show in 1993. Back then, all I knew about Northwest Coast Art was that I liked it. But, having learned a little since then, I appreciated the Surrey Art Gallery’s “Eagle Transforming: The Prints of Robert Davidson” as a chance to put my thoughts about Davidson’s work in some sort of order.

My superficial impression has always been that Davidson’s prints have changed dramatically in the last forty-two years. However, my second time around the gallery, I started to see the continuities.

For instance, from the start of his career, Davidson’s formlines have varied dramatically in thickness. He is especially fond of long tapers at the end of a line, such as the end of a feather, or at the end of elongated fingers or claws. Because of this habit, his formlines keep the eye moving far more than most artists’, which would account for the sense of movement in many of his designs.

Frequently, too, Davidson promotes red from the secondary to the primary formline color (although he uses a brighter red now than when he started), sometimes omitting black altogether, or else using it as the background for a print. When he does use a traditional black formline, he often used red as the primary formline on limbs or figures inside a larger one.

In addition, from very early in his career, Davidson has looked for unusual shapes to contain his designs. Although working in an art tradition that tends towards the symmetrical, Davidson often makes his designs asymmetrical. He is perfectly capable of a traditionally symmetrical design, as in “Eagle: Oliver Adan’s Potlatch Gift,” but his symmetrical designs have a stiffness (or perhaps a formality) that his other work does not. You might almost think that his symmetrical designs were exercises – and not wholly successful exercises, at that. Other artists succeed with symmetrical designs, but Davidson, I would suggest, is not strongly interested in them.

Accompanying the asymmetry is a search for form. A few years into his print designs, Davidson is already projecting his design on to a whale fin. Circular designs are also frequent in his work, both confining shapes and appearing as negative spaces in such works as the 1987 “Seven Ravens.” I was surprised not to see many split forms in the exhibit, but perhaps the reason is that split forms tend to be symmetrical by definition.

This interest in irregular and different shapes has served Davidson well over the years. “Butterflies,” printed in 1977, escapes the potential banality of its subject by placing the design into two circles. Similarly, a hummingbird design from a couple of years later avoids the usual cuteness of the subject by making it a stocky creature with wings attached to powerful shoulders.

Davidson’s least successful works? Those with extensive areas of cross-hatching, which work well in engraved metals or on carved wood, but tend to look unfinished in a print – especially since Davidson does little to vary them.

Nor is Davidson at his best with more than a few colors. Davidson’s palette is relatively small. In addition to red and black, it includes a royal blue and a turquoise. But, when he ventures beyond these four colors, the result can seem garish rather than bold, which may be why his color choice remains relatively cautious.

For me, one result of seeing so much of Davidson’s work side by side is that I now realize that his movement towards abstraction in the last decade is less of a break than I had previously thought. I knew, of course, that he had continued to do more traditional works while doing his annual prints, but I had tended to view the abstractions as facile works – as small ideas printed large to lend them an interest that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

I still think of these abstractions, which often take the form of closeups of a small part of a larger design, as working against themselves, because they expect the eye to linger when the basic tenets of the tradition have the effect of keeping the eye moving. However, even though I consider them unsuccessful, I can see now that they are a natural extension of interests that he has had all along.

My only complaint about the exhibit as a whole is that, by including only prints, it robs the individual pieces of part of their context. Davidson is a carver and jewelry-make as well as a print designer, and, to my eye, many of the prints in the show show the influence of these other media (for example, the cross-hatching).

However even with this omission, “Eagle Transforming” is well-worth a few hours and several trips around it. If you are like me, you will only notice some aspects on the second or third viewing.

And to those visitors who left comments saying that they don’t care much for Northwest Coast Art, all I can say is that they are barbarians who don’t know fine art when they are confronted by it. For myself, the only reason that I don’t look forward to the day when some of Davidson’s designs join Bill Reid’s on Canadian currency is that, when that day comes, he will probably be dead, and then we will have nothing new from him to admire.

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I’ve been looking forward to the virtual gallery of Bill Reid’s works ever since I heard a first whisper of it over a year ago. However, perhaps I anticipated too much, because, now that The Raven’s Call is online, I find myself disappointed. I’ve bookmarked the site, and plan to return to it regularly, but, all the time I’m using it, I keep thinking that it could have been something much more.

The first problem with the site is the navigation. The home page offers four menu items – of which only two, Who was Bill Reid? and Bill Reid’s Art, actually deserve to be at the top of the menu. Of the other two, The Unfinished Story is amusing but slight, while In the Classroom appeals to a narrow group of visitors, and suggests possibly unjustified assumptions about the users of the site. Are visitors really elementary and high school classes, or are they mainly adult art lovers and students of First Nations culture?

The second problem is that while the site has an astonishing amount of material, both visual and aural, most of it is simply categorized and labeled as though it is a museum specimen. For instance, in Who Was Bill Reid? You can view a pictorial history of his life, and a series of aural clips by both Reid and others. Similarly, in Bill Reid’s Art, you can see slide shows labeled Sculptures and Containers; Paintings, Prints and Drawings, and Jewelery. However, because nothing is done to place any of this material in context, the effect is like browsing through the drawers of a museum archive.

The result is an experience is interesting but dry and minimally engaging – so much so that it fails to do justice to either Reid or his work. It is only in the biography Bill Reid’s Journey that any of this material is put into context. Rather than just the bare facts about where a photo was taken or when a piece of jewelry was created and what it is made of, I suspect that most users would prefer to have a few hundred words giving anecdotes and explanations of how each item fits into Reid’s life or development of an artist.

Still another problem is that site designers show more interest in fitting graphics into the viewing page that displaying them at a size where they can be studied in detail. This tendency is especially obvious in larger pieces like “Mythic Messengers,” where the insistence on presenting the work as a whole results in a view that is only marginally better than the thumbnail. Some details of these larger pieces would go a long way towards helping viewers appreciate Reid’s work.

I would like to say that The Raven’s Call is the online monument that Reid’s genius deserves. If nothing else, I would prefer to offer praise commensurate with the three years that the site took to assemble. However, in all honesty, I cannot. The Raven’s Call might almost be a remnant from the mid-1990s, rather than a modern site.

Even its terms of use, which tries to limit borrowing from the site to fair use, seems archaic in web terms. After all, Reid’s work is well known, so there can be no question of anyone claiming it as their own. For another, the pictures are low resolution, so any use of them is going to be extremely limited anyway. Had the site designers contented themselves with a Creative Commons Attribution license, asking only that borrowers acknowledge the source of the material they were using, there might be some chance of the license being respected. Instead, the site simply looks old-fashioned in opting for terms of use that cannot possibly be enforced.

I’d like to think that the present version of the site is only the beginning – that, slowly, it will evolve the context that is currently lacking. But, for now, the main impression I take away (aside from the awe that Reid’s work always leaves me with) is of good intentions and results that were far less than should have been.

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After four years, our parrot Beau has changed his behavior. In the last month, he’s started seeking us out to preen us.

If you know nothing about parrots, you probably don’t realize what a milestone that is. It’s not the same as a cat enjoying having its stomach scratched, or a dog licking your face. Cats and dogs can learn to enjoy interacting with humans in these ways, but these are not the behaviors of mature animals. They are the behaviors of very young animals that cats and dogs have kept because they are rewarded for them, and because they are pleasurable.

By contrast, parrots of all ages preen – not just their mates or their young, but other parrots in the flock as well. Partly, exchanging preens is a necessity, because, like many birds, parrots have places they just can’t reach themselves, such as behind the head and under the beak. Moreover, feather cases growing in can be uncomfortable.

But, just as importantly, preening is an important part of the complex, ever-shifting relationships in a flock. Who preens who (and in what order) can be a matter of status as well as trust. A parrot needs to preen and be preened almost as much as he or she needs water and varied food. For a parrot, preening is not just an indulgence; denied this social interaction, a parrot is unhappy and often despondent.

All this is true at any time, but it is even truer when a parrot chooses to preen a human. Parrots raised among humans may reach the necessary level of trust quicker than a wild parrot, but even a hand-fed one does not have the long history of domestication than a cat or a dog has. Even today, most domestic parrots are no more than a few generations removed from the wild. They are not creatures selected over centuries for subservience to humans.

Parrots that preen a human may be desperate for interaction, but they are still choosing to trust. Equal to equal, they are expressing friendship.

For these reasons, a preen by a parrot is not anything that you can take for granted. But it is especially touching in a neglected parrot like Beau, particularly since he has taken so long to reach this stage. We adopted Beau four years ago from the Greyhaven Exotic Bird Sanctuary, and he arrived in our house with baggage. He may have lost a mate, and he had apparently spent several years exiled to a laundry room, with only the sound of the washing machine and dryer for company. He may have been in mourning when he arrived in our house (parrots do mourn), and he was definitely seriously under-socialized.

When not crazed by his own hormones in the spring, in the past, Beau would accept a brief neck scratch, and sometimes a tickle under his wing, but, until now, he has not been much interested in returning the favor.

Now, he is preening with a persistence and enthusiasm that he never had before. If a hand is nearby, he will start preening between fingers or knuckles. If an arm is nearby, he will start on the arm hairs. But what he seems to like best is to scurry up a shoulder and preen hair and cheeks for minutes at a time.

As a veteran of decades of bird preens, I can tell he is tentative. But mostly he is eager, almost as though making up for lost time. His preening can be a little nerve-wracking, because ears tend to get him so excited that he bites, but gradually he is learning the rules, just as I am learning to relax under his ministrations.

Despite my nervousness, I feel honored by the change. I always do, but, in this case, I also take the preening as a sign that his rehabilitation is nearly complete. Like many parrots, Beau may never completely recover from being abused, but at least now we know for sure that he has made progress to a more normal life, and is comfortable in his new surroundings.

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