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Archive for September, 2015

I first became aware of Nuxalk artist Latham Mack when I visited Terrace for the Freda Diesing School graduate exhibit. He had already won one YVR scholarship, and would go on to win another, and his paintings and drawings were among the best in the class – so much so that the teachers gave him the privilege in his second year of working in the Nuxalk rather than the Northern tradition. In fact, when he showed me a sketch for a painting of the Four Carpenters, I said I would buy it sight unseen. However, that painting was never done, and at the time his sculptural work was no more than competent, the best feature of his masks being the painting.

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Mack’s patience and hard work, though, mean that his story today is very different. Under the mentorship of Dempsey Bob, Mack has become one of the outstanding carvers of his generation, and the prices of his work should soon edge beyond my affordability. So when he showed me his relatively inexpensive “Grizzly Bear Spoon” outside Dempsey Bob’s “North” exhibit in 2014, I jumped at the chance to buy. I had to wait six months while the spoon was on display at the Richmond Art Gallery, but in early 2015 I finally carried home an example of his work.

My understanding is that Mack began the spoon while still at the Freda Diesing School and finished it in 2014. Certainly its quality and execution is closer to that of his current work than his student masks. If I didn’t know Mack’s connection to Bob, I might have guessed it by the minimal paint job, although Mack does use what I mentally tag “Nuxalk Blue” around the eyes and ears. The wood is soft to the touch, and the lines of the paint completely straight, both signs of a highly-finished work (and, in the case of the paint, a steady hand. What I especially like is that, with the minimal paint, the contours of the grain because as much a part of the result as the carving.

Adding to the piece are the proportions and curves of the spoon’s bowl. They are framed by the legs, with the knees marking where the bowl begins to widen, and the descent of the bowl’s curve by the calves. Further up the handle, the start of the bowl is framed by the claws.

Most of the body is simply carved, with the roundness of legs and arms emphasizing the wood’s grain. But what really catches the eye is the depth of the carving on the head. Typically, deep carving is a sign of excellence in northwest coast carving, and this spoon is no exception. The tip of the chin is at least three centimeters from the base of the neck, and the inside of the mouth slightly more. The lips are half a centimeter thick, the eye-sockets symmetrically about the same. The result is dramatic, especially when painted, and even more so in dim light.

Currently, “Grizzly Bear Spoon” sits on a tea trolley in my living room, where I pass it twenty times a day and my glance can hardly help but linger on it. I suppose it is a minor work compared to Mack’s larger pieces, but between the curves, the grain, and the depth of the carving, I consider it every bit as much an accomplishment.

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Although I am committed to feminism, some of its advocates grab hold of strange ideas. For example, in their rejection of body-shaming, some praise acceptance of being overweight, ignoring the fact that it is unhealthy (although evidently, less so than anorexia). Not too long ago, you could also find those who, with no definite evidence, believed in the existence of a prehistoric matriarchy. More recently, some claim that the taking of selfies strengthen women’s self-confidence, and to object to selfies for any reason is a sign of secret hatred for women. By contrast, I would argue that selfies encourages women in traditional stereotypes, urging them to promote self-esteem instead of grounding them in self-confidence.

Erin Tatum gives a typical argument in favor of selfies. According to her “Selfies and Misogyny: The Importance of Selfies as Self-Love,” selfies matter because women take them for no justification except their own enjoyment. Instead of acting out what the fashion industry or the men in their lives tells them to – and usually feeling inadequate — selfies are a way for women to appreciate themselves and each other. Far from being narcissistic, selfies “provide girls with the means to create their own positive image of themselves, thereby severely diluting the impact of outside opinion. If your confidence comes from within, you can’t be controlled as easily.”

An obvious flaw of this argument is that, despite jokes about young women making duck faces in selfies, selfies are not particularly associated with women. For instance, when The Oatmeal discussed selfies, the one taking them was a man, and the one objecting to them is a woman . Under this circumstance, I have trouble seeing criticisms of selfies being a displaced attack on women.

Just as importantly, when Tatum and other defenders assert that selfies are not narcissistic, their words sound narcissistic. According to Tatum, for example, selfies are about self-love (which I presume is an accidental double-entendre, since it goes against what she says), they are “all about you;” and she ends by urging women to “embrace yourself with your selfie.” Even as Tatum argues, her choice of words creates the impression that selfies really are everything she claims they are not.

Even more obviously, although Tatum asserts that selfies are a way to break away from the demands of the fashion industry, I would argue that they are nothing more than an internalization of female stereotypes. Like a model on a runway, or a fashion spread in the paper, the message of selfies is that what is real about women is their exterior. When Tatum says that taking selfies is like playing dress-up, she unconsciously expresses exactly what makes me uneasy about selfies: they are infantalization of women, a reduction of them to their exteriors. In other words, their message is precisely that of consumerism, internalized, but no less dismissive of innate self-worth.

True, selfies might be considered an improvement in that they are not primarily about the male gaze. However, a lot of selfies are taken for men or end up in men’s hands, and are commented on by men on social media. Everything considered, selfies seem more of the same in the lightest of disguises.

When Tatum suggests that girls or women with low self-esteem can feel better about themselves by taking a selfie, she encourages exactly the same superficiality she denounces. “Selfies challenge the idea that you need a justification to be seen,” she writes in bold face, that what matters is feeling good about yourself – and not what you have actually done. By posting your selfies, you are claiming a part of other people’s time solely on the basis that you are you — and what could shallower than that?

This is the message that women have always been given, and it makes the enjoyment of selfies the precise opposite of the confidence that creates a self-actualized person. Instead of grounding women in accomplishment and maturity, selfies offer a foundation that is fragile because it is exterior to them, and easily shattered by an outside opinion.

If I have misgivings about selfies, it is not because I secretly hate women, but because I want better for them than more of the same. I believe women’s rights need to be based on an internalized confidence, an understanding of themselves – and that is something no selfie can ever hope to offer.

I admit that I do not usually think of selfies this way. In fact, usually I do not think of them at all. When I do, I lump them in with activities like watching sports or becoming involved with media fandom as silly but essentially harmless activities that people use to pass the time. But when people start claiming that selfies promote feminism, I start thinking that they are seriously under-estimating the persistence of the stereotypes of women, and how easily they adapt to the latest fads.

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The arrival of new appliances later this week mean that I have to move the bookshelves on the stairs. Roused to long-overdue action I’ve been using the necessity to cull books, mostly from historical and children’s fiction. My goal is to eliminate all double rows of books on the shelves, but I’m finding it harder to condemn books than I thought.

The historical fiction will survive with only minor culls; it’s full of books by Gillian Bradshaw, Bernard Cornwell, Robert Graves,. Rosemary Sutcliff, and Henry Trease, and Patrick O’Brian. However, I won’t be keeping the Dudley Popes, which are no more than adequately written, nor the odd library remainder with a wretched-looking cover. Admittedly, I haven’t read any of the twenty or so Georgette Heyers, but I figure that anything Trish liked so well should be worth a read some time; perhaps after I’ve read them all, I’ll keep the best half dozen.

Most of my culls are from the children’s section. I’m keeping the Arthur Ransom series, figuring I’ll read them some day. However, I’ve decided that I can live without most of the Doctor DoLittles, the Green Gables, and the Mary Poppins books.

However, it’s wretched to cull any books, and harder still to cull Trish’s book and the odd volume we bought anticipating having children. But I tell myself that keeping a book I’m not going to re-read is hoarding, and denying others a chance to read is simply wrong. All the same, there’s such a clear history of my life on the shelves that I half-believe I could commit a series of murders more easily than I can discard even books I’m not going to read.

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