I have been meaning to buy from Haida artist Carol Young for a couple of years, but, until now my spare cash and opportunities haven’t coincided. Not only was Young the first recipient of the Mature Student Award that I fund at the Freda Diesing School, but she is also one of the strongest women carvers currently at work on the coast, with an awareness of line reminiscent of her teacher Dempsey Bob, and a realism uniquely her own. In less than five years, she has gone from an adequate beginner to a carver with a style that promises to make her one of the great originals in Northwest Coast art.
“Wind-Rider” seems an appropriate place to begin buying from Young. Before Young attended the Freda Diesing, she sold Haida dolls on the Internet, and continues to give classes in doll-making. A couple of years ago, she placed a similar figure on a mask for an all-woman show at the Steinbreuck Gallery in Seattle. With its removable hat and cedar bark hair, the figure seems to embody the entire span of her career, so much so that I suggested to her that she should use it as a logo if she ever prints business cards or sets up a web site.
One of the things that makes the carving unusual is that human forms – especially naked ones – are rare in the Northwest Coast Renaissance. Classical works and oral tales sometimes show a decided earthiness, but, by the time of the local Renaissance, Christianity had changed the standards of what was appropriate. As I write, the Bill Reid Gallery is about to host a show of native erotica, featuring younger and avant-garde artists, but in general, the current artistic tradition approaches the human form cautiously, if at all.
By contrast, “Wind-Rider” depicts a semi-realistic naked female form, with a sensuous appreciation of the curves of its spine, buttocks, and thighs. Yet, at the same time, I would hesitate to describe it as erotic, and not just because the figure suggests a young girl rather than an adult woman. This is not a figure poised for the male gaze in some impossible contortion – nor for any other gaze at all, for that matter, considering its wild array of hair. The posture suggests that the rider is absorbed with the act of balancing and holding on, while the upward tilt of the head conveys a sense of wonder, with the eyes – the only part of the sculpture that is painted – fixed on something that only the rider can see. Meanwhile, the blank expression suggests concentration and determination. Sensuousness and innocence are not usually thought of as going together, yet somehow in “Wind-Rider” they seem to co-exist without any difficulty. In fact, you might say that the figure is sensuous because she is self-absorbed. But, however you parse it, the depiction is original in a way that nudes rarely manage.
Sensibly, Young has left most of the spoon unpainted, leaving the lines of the sculpture to speak for themselves. With most of the attention focused on the rider, she has also left the spoon plain. Yet the spoon, too, is well-proportioned, with a graceful curve to the handle and a ladle that is deep enough and wide enough to serve as a visual counter weight to the rider.
One viewer on Facebook immediately thought of witches riding broomsticks (to which Young immediately replied that the Haida have no concept of Witches). Personally, though, my first thought was of Whale Rider, a film whose protagonist is a Maori girl who is determined to break with tradition and become a chief. Not only does the Maori culture resemble that of the local first nations, but, like the film, Young’s sculpture seems all about following dreams and female empowerment.
From any perspective, “Wind-Rider” is a powerful and unusual work. Examining it, I wonder why I took so long to buy from Young and I’m determined not to wait too long before I do so again.