Archive for December, 2011

Kelly Robinson is a new artist of mixed Nuxalk and Nu-chu-nualth ancestry. His silver jewelry is starting to become a regular feature of Vancouver galleries, and in the last year he has begun carving masks in both his traditions. However, he tells me that his first medium was painting, and, to judge from “Mother of Mischief,” it remains one that he is deeply interested in developing.

“Mother of Mischief” is done in the Nuxalk style, and is the first art in that tradition that I have bought. Geographically located between the northern nations such as the Haida and the Tsimshian and the central Kwakwaka’wakw, the Nuxalk culture has been comparatively overlooked and has had little written about it – so much so that an artist of another nation spent most of an afternoon trying to figure out how to carve the eyes of a Nuxalk mask with Robinson.

However, from what I have been able to learn from first and second hand sources, the Nuxalk tradition might be called loosely-rendered formline. By that I mean that it shares many of the individual elements of the northern formline, such as the ovoids and U shapes, but follows more informal rules about their positioning. Nor, on the whole, are Nuxalk designs as intricate as any of those in the northern tradition. Instead, Nuxalk designs have a bold simplicity that give them a strong visual appeal, especially when shown at large sizes.

Another characteristic of Nuxalk art appears to be a wider variation of colors than in the northern formline traditions. While northern formline favors black for the primary formline and red for the secondary, only occasionally reversing the color scheme or adding a third color, the Nuxalk palette seems broader, with greater use of blue and green, as in Kwakwaka’wakw work.

From this brief description, you can see why “Mother of Mischief” seems to me to be rooted firmly in the Nuxalk tradition. Centering on a Raven hen and her offspring ,at three feet by three feet, the painting has all the boldness of the best Nuxalk work, with three realms of existence – the land, water, and sky – depicted by rectangles of different blues.

Once you see realize the organization, the picture falls into place, with the middle blue strip representing the water where the salmon swim and the sun positioned both in the sky and, because of its reflection, in the water as well. On the land is a salmon or salmon roe that that the mother has found (for, contrary to common belief, ravens are not just scavengers; they can fish and hunt as well as other birds, but often carrion makes for an easier meal).

At the same time, the painting has a surprisingly modern feel to it. Parts, such as the ovoid at the top of the mother’s wing resembles the simple outlines of a sports logo, in particular, the old hockey stick logo of the Vancouver Canucks, a team that I happen to know that Robinson follows. Other parts of the design, such as the bent wing tips and the reduction of the mother’s body to a single tapering line, are reminiscent of late period Bill Reid.

Nor, do I think that a traditional design would be so strongly asymmetrical, or depict the raven fledgling as mirroring the mother’s positioning and design, with minor differences. Maybe you would have to be familiar with birds to notice, but, to me, the fledgling’s bare beginnings of a curved beak suggests immaturity.

Similarly, the lack of an oval in the eye or a visible tongue between the upper and lower beak suggests that the fledgling doesn’t share the mother’s watchfulness. Instead, it seems to be looking fixedly at the salmon on the shore, ready to waddle after it without worrying about the possibility of danger.

Robinson may be a newcomer, but”Mother of Mischief”shows that he is already an artist to reckon with. I’ve hung it over the largest couch in the living room, and, sooner or later, I expect it to be joined by either another of Robinson’s paintings, or perhaps one of his masks.

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According to English song-writer Leon Rosselson, the seventeenth century radical Abezier Coppe was arrested for blasphemy after repeatedly declaring that he didn’t believe in sin. Found guilty, he recanted, acknowledging that the sins his accusers might be prone to – “greed, tyranny, hypocrisy and pride” – really were sins after all. A neat reversal, I’ve always thought, considering the circumstances.

This week, I’m feeling about anger the same way that Abezier Coppe felt about sin. After years of carefully regulating my temper, I got angry recently. And you know what? I was right to do so.

I trace the distrust of my temper to a pickup baseball game when I was in elementary school. Another boy was cheating, and refused to admit what he was doing. He owned the bat and ball, he kept saying, so he could do what he want. Furious, I threw the ball at him, screaming he could go. I wasn’t aiming at him or anyone else, but the ball hit the girl on the catcher’s mound on the head.

She wasn’t hurt, but she left and so did the boy who owned the bat and ball. But I was so appalled at what I had done that, after half an hour of hiding, I marched over to the girl’s house and confessed to her mother what I had done. To my surprise, her mother hugged and forgave me, and nothing more came of the matter.

Except this: I told myself that I would never let myself get so blindly angry ever again. And, aside from a few sharp words, I kept that promise. I cultivated an easy-going attitude, one more prone to humor and sarcasm than anger – so successfully that the few times I did snap at someone, they were surprised. As several people told me after, they hadn’t known that I was capable of anger.

Later, I found another reason for avoiding anger. I realized that I was born moderately privileged, and that anger could be a means of invoking that privilege if I wasn’t careful.

So I told myself that a mature person resists giving way to anger. When I grew annoyed, I’d go out and do some heavy exercise, or at least some strenuous chores around the house. Almost always, I sat down calmer afterwards. Just as the only sins that Abezier Coppe acknowledged were those of the privileged, the only targets I allowed for my anger were abstract social ones and the people who defended them – and even then I felt uneasy and did my best to see more than one side to everything.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I got angry for the first time in several years. I’m not going to give a play by play, but, after having someone inflict three out of the four of Abezier Coppe’s acknowledged sins on me (there was no greed that I could see), I told her what I thought of her bullying, thoroughly and in the bluntest terms I could muster.

What surprised me was that I wasn’t ashamed of my anger, and that I didn’t let it control me. Instead, I restrained it until there was no reason not to express it, and, having expressed it, felt no inclination to do anything further except mutter for a couple of days. Even more importantly, for the brief time I was angry, I felt perfectly justified.

I realize now there is a world of difference between a boy’s ability to restrain his emotions and a middle-aged man’s. Not only that, but in some circumstances, anger is the only sane response. At times, to suppress it would mean acquiescing to the unacceptable.

Does that mean that I have any right to go berserk, or to cultivate anger and keep acting on it for weeks or months? Of course not. Some limits still apply. But it does mean that a shadowy part of myself is not nearly as scary as I had long imagined, and – occasionally, at least – is justified and deserves to be expressed.

The price of this knowledge may be steep, but I suspect now that a similar incident would have come sooner or later anyway. At least in the circumstances I can say I learned something:

I’ll never be afraid of my temper ever again. Nor will I have any further doubts about my ability to control it.

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(Note: The following is a handout I used to give in composition courses to first year university students. You are welcome to reformat and distribute it under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. Basically, that means you it any way you like so long as you give me credit and let others use it under the same conditions)

A. “Chunk” (Paragraphs arranged by subject):

In the co-op, Judy is the practical one. Of the four people who share the house, she is the only one who is not visibly eccentric. She keeps regular hours, and sees that the bills are paid. If food is bought, or laundry is done, either she has done the work or bullied someone else into doing it. Periodically, she musters everyone else for a massive cleaning of the house. It is only her profession–writer–and her New Age interests that suggest how unusual she is.

By contrast, Saul, the household’s other original resident, is so eccentric that his friends think that he looks abnormal in ordinary clothes. His usual wear is either a faded red caftan or Scottish formal wear, complete with a sporran and skean dhu. Because of his light-sensitive eyes, he is usually awake while other people are asleep. He rarely leaves the house, and the ordinary business of living holds little interest for him. He never considers bills, and, although he will eat if food is available, will lives for several days at a time on nothing more than nerves and coffee. Only the area around his computer is clean; the rest of his living space has mounds that archaeologists would love to excavate. Even his hobbies are unusual: sword meditation and writing poetry in obscure languages like Gaelic and Iroquois. Unlike Judy, Saul seems incapable of functioning normally; he does not meet visitors in their world so much as invite them into his.

B. “Slice” (Paragraph arranged by Points of Comparison):

Although both Judy and Saul are old friends, they have little else in common. Saul is visibly eccentric; Judy is so ordinary that she is no more noticeable on the street than a lamp post. She is awake and starts work when their neighbors do, and she can handle such things as bills, laundry, shopping and cleaning–matters that are mysteries to Saul. She even knows how to organize the other household members. Saul, on the other hand, can barely organize himself. Except for his work station, he is surrounded by clutter. If his routine is more organized than Judy’s, the reason is only that he organizes only himself–and then only so that he can work, which is the most important thing in his life. His life is arranged to give him as much time to work as possible, so he pays no attention to ordinary matters like food. A night person, he may go for days at a time seeing nobody, never leaving the house, and surviving on coffee with the odd bit of leftovers. Even his hobbies, sword meditation and writing poetry in obscure languages like Gaelic and Iroquois, are private. He is so different from Judy that many people are surprised to learn that they have shared a house for over twenty years.

C. Analogy:

If the difference between eccentrics and ordinary people is the difference between night and day, then Judy is twilight and Saul is midnight.

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