Archive for March 5th, 2011

I first became aware of Calvin Morberg’s work through a shark mask he sold to the Inuit Gallery. I was too late to buy it, but I did catch a glimpse of it. Although the finishing was a little rough, I was impressed by the originality of the design, and decided to keep an eye on his work. I tracked him down on Facebook, and, a couple of months later, I bought this eagle frontlet from him.

With its red background, abalone and harbour seal whiskers, in many ways, the frontlet is a typical Tlingit design. The general design is one that I have always admired for its boldness and embellishment – two traits that seem more common in Tlingit work than in any of the other northern First Nations. Tlingit work, I have always thought, has a touch of exoticness missing in Haida or Tsimshian or Nisga’a work, which I like to think helps to explain the traditional Tlingit reputation for being shamans. But, regardless of whether that is true or not, Morberg has carved a striking version of a common general form.

True, like the shark mask, this frontlet has a rough touch or two. In particular, the abalone is not well-matched, and, if you look closely, you can see the drilled hole in each piece that suggests Morberg has bought what was convenient – and not what best suited the piece.

However, these are minor flaws. As in all the other frontlets of this general design that I have seen, they are part of the background. What draws the eye is the central figure, and there Morberg shows his skill.

The central figure offers a set of planes consisting of the lower and top beak and the nares, all at contrasting and complementary angles, drawing the eye down to the wing feather tips at the bottom. From the bottom, the wing tips draw the eye back to the painted lower half, circling the design there until the inverted T-shapes at the top draws the eye back up to the eyes, and finally back to the beak via the eyebrows so that the process begins again. This is exactly what successful formline should do – trapping the eye, and keeping it moving around the entire shape. In fact, in moving about the central figure, you soon stop to notice the rest of the frontlet.

Nor is there any roughness to the finishing that would distract the eye in its progress. If the abalone provides a rough surface, the central figure provides a smooth one without sharp edges, and together they create a contrast as obvious at a glance as at a touch.

Another part of the central figure that I appreciate is the painting. To start with, Morberg has taken the unusual step of adding paint to the lower half; in several other eagle frontlets that I have seen, this area is usually occupied entirely by carved wings.

But even more interesting is the pale copper green, which seems to be a hallmark of Morberg’s work just now. Given the red background, he could hardly use red as the secondary color, and the green is an ideal choice, because it complements some of the shades in the abalone.

Also, of course, for those in the know, the color is a reminder that copper was a measure of wealth on the coast – a reminder that is especially fitting since frontlets are an indication of chieftainship, or at least high rank.

I don’t know where Morberg’s developing talent will go next. However, because of pieces like this eagle frontlet, I expect to hear more of him in years to come. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if, sooner or later, I buy other pieces from him.

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