Gary Minaker Russ is probably the most imaginative argillite carver at work today. Resisting the pressure to do endless imitations of Bill Reid’s “Raven and the First Men” or to embellish his work with flashy but overdone inlays, he approaches each piece with imagination and integrity. The disadvantage of this approach is that his work is sometimes overlooked because it lacks the predictability needed for a successful brand, but the advantage is that he often produces works that are both beautiful and original, such as “Octopus Eating a Cockle Clam.”
“Octopus Eating a Cockle Clam” is an argillite rattle, with abalone eyes. The rattle itself is a clam shell with broken shell inside and surrounded by a web of red cedar made by weaver Maxine Edgar. Leather wraps the handle of a rattle, which rests in an argillite base.
Although the top of the base has a simple salmon-eye design, the rattle as a whole is a naturalistic rather than a formline design – an approach you sometimes see in historic argillite pieces, but rarely see in modern work. All eight tentacles are present, and, if you look closely, you can see the striations of muscle along the tentacles, and the lines of suckers where the underside of the tentacles are visible. The imitation of life is not total, giving way to artistic considerations in such details as the roundness of the head, the abalone eyes, and the darkness of the argillite, but in general the realism is much greater than you normally find in Haida art.
There is realism, too, in the general concept of the rattle; an octopus actually does crush clams and other shellfish in the way that the rattle depicts. Once you see it, the idea seems simple and ideally suited to the shape of a rattle – yet, so far as I have been able to find, no other artist, historic or contemporary, or in any medium has seen the analogy except Minaker Russ. The day that I bought it, he showed it to several passing Haida friends, and not one failed to exclaim about how unique the design was.
Another important aspect of “Octopus Eating a Cockle Clam” is the fact that it is mixed media. Viewing Northwest Coast Art, it is easy to forget that what you see would have been historically a part of everyday life. However, the fact that this piece is not only a functional rattle but also includes a staple seafood and the work of another artist firmly embeds it in the culture that it comes from.
The connection is all the stronger because, according to Minaker Russ, the clam shell was picked up on North Beach near Masset on Haida Gwaii, which is traditionally the place where Raven discovered the first people in a shell. Historically, the shell was not a clam until Bill Reid depicted it as one, nor did Reid depict a cockle shell; yet, all the same, to a modern audience, the clam shell emphasizes the cultural connection.
I admit to a certain guilt at buying a functional rattle that I will only shake gently from time to time, for fear of breaking the shell. But, aesthetically and culturally, “Octopus Eating a Cockle Clam” is a piece I feel privileged to see every day. It naturally draws the eye, so I’ve given in to the inevitable and positioned it on the focal point of the living room, where it belongs.