Kwakwaka’wakw artist Rande Cooke has been on my short list of Northwest Coast artists for a couple of years. I knew I wanted one of his works, and it was only a matter of time before I found the right one. When I saw an artist’s proof of “The Poet” at the Alcheringa Gallery in Victoria, I knew I had found the right piece, because it fit so well into my emotional landscape.
You see, “The Poet” is a private edition of twenty prints in honor of Joan Rodgers, the wife of print expert Vincent Rickard, who died on May 23, 2010, at the age of 57. The title takes its name from the fact that Radgers wrote several volumes of poetry (although according to Elaine Monds of the Alcheringa Gallery, did not publish them).
I have met neither Rodgers nor Rickard, but, by the ugliest of coincidence, my wife died on July 5, 2010, aged 55. The synchronicity is not exact, but close enough I responded immediately to it.
The print shows Rodgers kneeling in the middle with two plants below her to represent her love of gardening or creativity (another similarity with my wife). Above her is the raven, with his wings enclosing her. As a being able to travel freely between the mundane and supernatural worlds, the raven is an appropriate psychopomp, or escort of the newly dead into the afterlife.
The surrounding black frame is broken, suggesting the suddenness of Rodger’s death and the disruption that it leaves behind. Another broken circle is suggested by the positioning of green in the design. Another indication that “The Poet” is a memorial piece is suggested by the positioning of the raven’s mouth to suggest a frown.
All of which I can thoroughly relate to just now.
Even so, I would not have bought if the design was not engaging in its own right. It has a fluidity – like all of Cooke’s work that I have seen – that turns the semi-abstract traditional forms into pure abstraction. Caught by the flow of the lines, the viewer’s eye has trouble focusing on the individual forms – until, suddenly, have traveled the diameter of the design, the eye moves into the middle and the forms suddenly come into focus.
I am struck, too, by the use of the pale green as the third color in the design. Green is a common enough color in Kwakwaka’wakw design, but usually it is much darker. Nor does it generally overlay the bolder black and red lines, as it does with the plants in “The Poet.” Here, its sparseness makes it seem almost fragile in comparison to the other colors in the design, and its presence in both the plants and the raven’s wing and face suggests a connection – although one fragmented and incomplete – between the states of life and death. This suggestion is reinforced by the fact that the black decorations on the raven’s wings, just below the patches of green, seem vaguely plant-like.
As an artists’ proof of such a small edition, my copy of “The Poet” should be extremely collectible – an exception to my contention that most prints should not be bought as an investment. However, what strikes me is not the investment potential (which would never lead me to purchase a print), but the subdued dignity it gives to its subject – a kind of refinement that seems highly suited as a memorial to the dead.