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Archive for April, 2011

Bentwood boxes have always fascinated me. The intricacy of their making, which requires steaming the wood until it can be coaxed into shape, has always seemed an indication of just how technologically advanced the First Nations cultures of the Pacific Northwest were. In the same way, the fact that they are both decorated and utilitarian indicates the sophistication of these cultures. I have wanted a bentwood box for years, looking longingly at the works of Richard Sumner, the leading specialist in making them, but somehow never quite finding the right one.

Then last summer, after my partner Patricia Louise Williams died, Mitch Adams and John Wilson, two Terrace-based carvers and friends, said they would make a box as a memorial for me. Adams was experimenting with making the boxes (using a giant plastic bag, apparently, to trap the steam needed to shape the wood). He had already made one for his wife Diana after one or two tries, and, after another attempt had snapped, he produced a second one, passing it to Wilson to carve and paint.

For me, an agony of waiting followed, punctuated by jokes online how it was going to be the first see-through bentwood box, or would be painted pink and lime green, or some other non-traditional color, such as purple. But John had a living to make, and was nervous about wrecking the box. He also suffered a repetitive stress injury that kept him from carving for weeks, and slowed his notoriously fast carving. All too quickly, the days of waiting turned from days into weeks and from weeks into months.

I hope I didn’t nag him too often or too insistently. And I’m reasonably sure I didn’t actually utter the death-threats that impatience sent flitting through my brain, because, the last I checked, John was still talking to me.

Still, with one thing or the other, it was only when Mitch and Diana came down to Vancouver for the Chinese New Year in February that I finally held the box in my hands. I had spent the morning while we ate dim sum, wanting to ask if the box had been carried down on the plane as promised, and not wanting to ask in case it hadn’t. So, as soon as I had removed enough bubble wrap to smell the Varathane, a big sloppy grin was slapped across my face.

If possible, my first sight of the box made my grin wider still. According to John, the red side represents Trish, and the black side me. Considering that black is the primary color in formline designs and red the secondary, these seem the appropriate colors for the living and the dead, and I’ve taken to turning the box on my dresser according to my mood, turning to the red side when I’m thinking of Trish, and to the black when my grief weighs on me less than usual. So far, it tends to have the red side outwards four days out of five.

I didn’t quite hunch over my sports bag as I took the box home on the Skytrain, but it was a near thing altogether. Had anyone tried to snatch the bag from me, they would have seen my wolverine imitation, but the trip passed uneventfully.

I have no plans to sell any of the art I’ve bought. However, if I ever did, the box would be among the last. It’s become a symbol of more things than I can quickly describe, and often it’s the last thing I look at before turning off the light at night.

Thanks, guys, for the right gift at the right time. I know that Trish would have appreciated it as much as I do.

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The Freda Diesing School’s year-end exhibit has become a fixture on my calendar. Not only is it one of the largest annual shows of First Nations artists anywhere in the province, but I enjoy seeing how the students develop over the two years of the program. Over the last three years, it has also become a place for renewing old friendships and acquaintances, and making new ones.

Held April 16-17, the 2011 incarnation of the show was no exception. It was smaller than previous exhibits, but made up for its size by the general quality of the work.

The variety was also impressive, although, when I heard that the final project for the second year students was a moon mask, I half-expected otherwise. Perhaps a lack of time prevented uniformity; when I arrived during setup on the afternoon of April 15, many of the students were yawning and taking every chance to sit, having been up late finishing their pieces for the show.

The quality of the second year students’ work was especially high, much of it equaling or surpassing the pieces seen in Vancouver galleries. Chazz Mack, who has gained a reputation for the skill seen in his two-dimensional designs in his two years at the school was forced to miss the first day of the show because of an illness that the hospital diagnosed as dehydration, but contributed “Eagle Trance,” a mask in the distinctive Nuxalk style of high head dresses, large noses and strong primary colors:

Stephanie Anderson, a winner last year of a YVR award, staggered late into setup with a striking eagle frontlet that still reeked of fixative – and was possibly the strongest piece in the show:

Another second year student, Colin Morrison, whose first mask I bought eighteen months ago, demonstrated his growing skill with two masks, “Resurrection of the Ancestors” and “Black Wolf,” a mask meant for a flat surface or stand:

Even more development was shown in the work of Carol Young Bagshaw, the winner of last years’ Mature Student Award. While last year at this time, you could tell which teachers she was working with on each of her masks, this year, she displayed her own sense of style. Her masks are less stylized than traditional northern work, looking more like portraits, and taking full advantage of the beauty of the grain and the unpainted wood:

These graduates set a high standard, but at least some of the first year students seem likely to equal them. Nathan Wilson, who has already sold professionally, produced a solid piece entitled “Moon in Human Form,” that hinted at his skill, even though it was far from his best work:

Another emerging professional in first year, Kelly Robinson, easily rivaled the second years with “Visions Within,” even though he talked of adding some finishing touches to it:

Yet another talented first year students was Paula Wesley with the fine line and unique hair of her cannibal woman “Thu-Wixia,” which she danced at the end of the opening evening:

Accompanying Wesley in the dance was Evan Aster, who won one of this years’ Honorable Mentions for the Mature Student Award. Like Wesley, Aster promises to be a strong artist when his carving equals his painting:

The same could be said of Nigel Fox, a first year student who also paints in a style reminiscent of Canadian Impressionism. Fox’s “Surface Tension” was an interesting take on colors running together in the water:

Unfortunately, though, the painting overwhelmed the carving. Fox was on much more solid ground when he created an Escher-like design out of traditional butterflies in “Butterflies #3” (which is now in my possession):

Still other first years showed a mastery of the fundamentals of traditional design that should allow them to come into their own during their second years. They included Barry Sampare, this years’ winner of the Mature Student Award:

as well as Robert Moses White, who received an Honorable Mention for the Mature Student Award:

The pick of the show moves south on May 29 to Vancouver’s Spirit Wrestler Gallery, where I predict brisk first day sales. But although Spirit Wrestler is much closer than Terrace for me, I was glad to see the complete show, especially in Waap Galts’ap, the Northwest Community College longhouse, which is a comfortable blend of traditional design and carving and modern building and safety codes.

My thanks to everyone at the college and in the Terrace First Nations art community for making my visit such a pleasant one.

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Over the past weekend, I was in Terrace in northern British Columbia to attend the graduation ceremony and exhibition for the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art. I would have wrangled an invitation anyway that I could, because the art show is worth seeing, but fortunately I didn’t have to. I was invited to attend so that I could announce the Mature Student Award, and, just before I rose to spoke, a touching thing happened.

The award was started by me and my late partner, Patricia Louise Williams two years ago, after I noticed that many of the awards for First Nations carvers required that the recipient be under twenty-five. Knowing that older students give up even more than young ones when they return to school, and how much older students add to the class room, we decided that they deserved an award, too.

This year was the first time the award had been given out since my partner died and the award was listed as being in her honor. I knew, too, that Carol Young, last year’s winner, was going to give a eulogy for Trish – something I knew that I could not possibly do without becoming incoherent with tears. So I knew going into the graduation ceremony that my emotions would be running high.

Carol gave a brief speech that had me fighting to keep control. She spoke of Trish’s lifelong interest in Northwest Coast Art and of the crafts that she was always doing. She spoke, too, of Trish’s generosity, and how she used to cut the blossoms from her miniature roses and hand them out when we were on our weekend errands.

Then she announced that, in honor of Trish, each student would take a rose and hand it to someone in the audience.

That was it. I lost all hope of control and started crying. By the time Carol announced me, I could barely see for crying.

I walked slowly to the front, buying time to dredge up some composure. To say the least, I didn’t succeed very well.

Somehow, I managed to stand straight and talk slowly. Afterwards, people said I talked well, but I don’t know if they were being kind or not. I don’t even remember what I said.

But I got through somehow. I may have said that, because of money donated at Trish’s memorial service and raised through the sale of her craft supplies, that this year the award was being given to three students, two of whom were honorable mentions. I’m not sure, though. All I know for sure is that I announced the winners, and handed each a wrapped book, and faltered back towards my seat.

The ceremony ended soon after, and the crowd followed two drummers to Waap Galts’ap, the campus longhouse, which is a happy blend of a traditional Tsimshian and a modern building. There, we heard the students talk, and watched Nuxalk and Tsimshian/Salishan dancers moving around the flats and glass cases of the exhibition.

Occasionally, as the evening continued, I saw people in the crowd holding one of the roses. Usually, they were women, and often seniors, although once I heard a lover give a male student a rose, on the grounds that men rarely receive roses. That seemed especially fitting, since Trish had said something similar to me on my twenty-first birthday.

But no matter who held the rose, the sight never failed to leave a catch in my breath and tears in my eyes. Later that night, as I stared up into the dark in my hotel room, I reflected how strange it was that a gesture carried out by people who had never known Trish should be so much more moving that the memorial service held a few weeks after her death. I was not the least ashamed of crying, because I knew that Trish would have sobbed to see it, and I knew I had to cry in her place. I drifted off in melancholy satisfaction, and slept well I awoke, grateful for the gesture and wondering if it might be repeated next year.

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On July 5, 2010, I was unexpectedly widowed. I’ve spent the months since then learning how to live alone. I am starting to adjust, although I dislike parts of how I live now, and probably always will. But one thing I have not accustomed myself to is the difference in how women regard me.

For me, one of the bonuses of being in an obviously happy relationship was that other women could relax around me. They trusted me not to come on to them. If I helped them, they understood that I had no agenda beyond being helpful. If I found them attractive (and, of course, sometimes I did), I wasn’t about to act upon the attraction.

What I liked about this perception of me is that it allowed me to talk to women, and to get to know them as people. Of course, I’m sure that some women entertained lingering doubts about me, and that their interactions with me were hedged with reservations. But, so far as the culture permits, as a married man I could be friends with women.

Now that I’m suddenly single, much of that is gone. Although I’m not aware of having changed my attitudes or behavior, how I’m perceived by women is suddenly changed — even by women who have known me for years. Although I’m still operating on the assumptions built up by years of marriage, I’m reclassified as single.

Being relatively young and looking younger, I am assumed to be looking for another relationship As a widower, I’m assumed to be missing regular sex. Suddenly, my speech is being scanned for innuendo, and my actions are viewed with skepticism. At best, there’s a reserve and a questioning in the women I meet that wasn’t there before.

And, just to make matters worse, my awareness of that reserve makes me more nervous, which makes many women more nervous still, creating a vicious cycle that I don’t know how to break.

The irony is, I am far from sure that I want another relationship. I can’t say that I would turn one down, or that I don’t have excruciating bouts of loneliness, but the possibility barely registers with me. I’m still recovering from the last one, thank you very much, and I’m not sure which would be worse: being widowed a second time, or leaving someone I loved to survive my death.

I can’t help thinking, too, of how Raymond Chandler and George Orwell made fools of themselves after their wives died, begging every women they met to marry them. Orwell even went so far as to suggest that any woman who married him would soon end up a wealthy widow with control over his writings, a piece of bribery that strikes me as both gauche and as being at odds with the upright image he affected in his writing. I would hate to be a figure that attracted similar ridicule and disdain. Chandler and Orwell sounded so desperate.

But the main reason that I contemplate staying single is that I never did care much for the mating game. The ritual has changed since I was last single, but for all the loosening of outdated tradition, it still seems to degrade men and women alike. I mean, no wonder there are so many breakups and divorces: the game is so stylized that you have practically no chance of getting to know a lover or a spouse until after you’ve moved in together.

True, I was lucky once. But the odds of repeating that luck seem slight. And why should I settle for second best? The thought of looking for another relationship seems so tiresome to me that it’s hardly worth the effort.

Right now, all I really want is friends with whom I can talk, regardless of whether they are male or female. A cause or two to distract me wouldn’t hurt, either.

But the frustrating part is that there is no way to communicate this attitude to the women I meet. If I tried to express my attitude, it would either seem too personal too soon, or else some roundabout strategy in the mating game. There are no rules in the rituals of male and female for declaring that you are not playing, and no way to protest your classification.

So the fact remains: against my wishes, I am suddenly a single man. And every woman knows what a single man wants, right?

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After months of wondering, now I can finally say: It turns out I’m a tidy person after all.

Probably, it seems strange that a middle-aged person wouldn’t know such a fact about themselves, so let me explain:

My late partner Trish was in many ways an exemplary person, more generous and loyal than anyone else I’ve ever known. But even those who loved her would not say that she numbered tidiness among her virtues. Although she kept herself and her clothes clean, she reacted early and strongly against her mother’s obsessive housekeeping. In her adult life, she was infamous for being able to create clutter around her within minutes of sitting down in a spot –even if she was in someone else’s home. It didn’t help, either, that she was always buying craft supplies against a possible future project.

I never cared much for the resulting clutter, although I didn’t object that much, either. I always kept tidy the areas of the townhouse that I frequented, like the computer workstation, as well as the kitchen and bathroom, but despite some vague threats, I never tried to tidy Trish’s storage areas. Anybody who has been in a long term relationship will understand why – there are some things that you just don’t do if want the relationship to stay happy.

Then, in the last couple of years as she became progressively weaker, even I had better things to do than tidy, like spending time with her.

But, one way or the other, I was so busy accommodating Trish’s preferences that I lost sight of my own. Although one of the first things I did in the months after her death, just to keep busy, was to tidy her things and give many of them to wherever they would do most good, I wasn’t sure how long the vistas of empty tables and the expanses of carpet that my efforts created would stay. Maybe, my efforts would be like weeding, and gradually I would slip into sloppier ways living by myself.

To my surprise, the tidiness has continued. It’s not that I’m obsessive about keeping the clutter down, or go to bed with discomfort gnawing at the back of my mind if something is out of place. It’s more that having worked so hard over so many weeks to make sure that every book had a place on the shelf and that drawers were free for random objects, I’d rather keep the townhouse in the same state. Besides, taking twenty seconds to put something away when I’ve finished with it is far less objectionable to me than tidying once a week or month in a massive effort that makes me feel that I’ve lost a day to drudgery.

Anyway, when you’re the only one in the house, you know that if you don’t do something, no one else will (not that Trish ever did much tidying, even when she was healthy). When the effort is up to you, you might as well act now than later.

So, apparently, I’m a tidy person after all. I might have guessed by the home directories on all my computers, which are so well organized that I almost never have to do an automated search for the files I need.

But like I said, what a strange thing to learn about myself at my age.

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I’ve been interested in Mike Dangeli’s work since I saw his ridicule mask in the Continuum show at the Bill Reid Gallery. The idea of taking a traditional form of commentary and applying it to modern relations between the First Nations and industrial culture seemed far wittier – and ultimately, more meaningful – than the other post-modern statements in the show. Later, when I heard Dangeli lecture about his efforts to live his culture in a modern context, I became even more interested. But it was only in October 2010 that I got around to commissioning a piece from him.

Whenever I commission work from an artist, I like to suggest only broad guidelines, and encourage the artist to experiment and maybe do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do. Accordingly, I told Dangeli that the painting was to be in honor of my late partner Trish Williams – the second piece I had commissioned in her memory – and could have up to four raised canvases. We discussed the primary colors, and I left him the pamphlet from her memorial service and some of the feathers I had collected over the years from our parrots. Remembering, too, Mike’s association of the north wind as a messenger between this world and the creator that might appear at a funeral, I also suggested that the north wind might be part of the design.

When I came to pick up the painting three months later, it had grown in its creation, with two side panels added to give room for Dangeli’s design.

The central panel of “Honoring Her Spirit” depicts Trish in raven form, with me represented by the red face on her wing. Around her are four ravens, for the four nanday parrots in our household during her lifetime, their bodies painted in the colors of nandays.

To the right, is a panel showing the north wind in the spirit realm. Where the central panel is made of definite lines in a more or less traditional formline design, the north wind is painted with thinner and less definite lines, its breath curling in non-traditional designs. The implication seems to be that we can only see hints of the spirit world – that nothing in it is as definite to our senses as the world around us.

On the four raised canvases, the birds sit poised between the two worlds, which suggests that they are part of both, or can move between them. The red lines on the raised canvases are roughly reminiscent of traditional northern designs, and spill over into the central panel, as the feathers do, both perhaps suggesting the interconnections between the two worlds.

However, the north wind is also blowing into the central panel, suggesting the coming of death. Trish’s transition into death is shown on the left hand panel, where her image is mirrored imperfectly, simplified and disjointed and drained of color to reflect our imperfect understanding of what happens after life.

This is a simple but powerful idea, ingeniously strengthened by the different styles in the panels. Yet what is eerie is that, although Dangeli did not know while he was painting, one of our four parrots died before he completed the paining – and only one of the birds is looking into the other world. The other three, who are still alive, are facing towards the everyday world. And if that is not enough, the feathers at the top center are from the dead parrot, although Dangeli no doubt picked them out at random. Whether these touches are serendipity or an example of the heightened perceptions of an artist, I won’t say, but they do add to the already highly personalized subject matter.

The painting now hangs in my bedroom, below two examples of Trish’s needlework. That seemed the most appropriate place for it.

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