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Archive for the ‘Alano Edzerza’ Category

Alano Edzerza is a thirty-year-old Tahltan artist whose work ranges from architectural commissions and uniforms for the Dutch Olympic team to T-shirts and hoodies. Although he sometimes duplicates the same design in different media a little too often, on the whole, his work is a good example of how you can find something for every budget in Northwest Coast art. So long as you’re not looking for one-of-a-kind pieces, you can often find pieces of work for $200-$500 in the gallery that carries his name.

For example, one of the pieces usually available at his shop is this Chilkat belt buckle:

Edzerza has often worked with Chilkat designs, but, because they originate in weaving patterns, seeing a single element like this is startling. More often, a Chilkat design will have a number of elements, often repeated, with the result that you rarely linger over a single element. Isolated here, the design gives you the chance to study the face at length. In fact, it wasn’t until seeing this belt buckle that I realized that Chilkat designs (of which I know very little) are structurally closer to the formline designs of paintings and carvings than I had realized.

Edzerza also occasionally sells castings of other artists’ work, like this one taken from a pendant by Mark Prescott, whose prints have been available in the Edzerza Gallery:

The pendant is non-traditional, of course – if anything, the crouching figure of the shaman reminds me of some Old Norse drawings I have seen of Woden. This (presumably) accidental resemblance seems appropriate, since, like the Old Norse god, this shaman with a rattle in his right hand and a knife in his left combines elements of both the magician and the warrior.

Edzerza has also done a casting of an eagle pendant by Marcel Russ. I believe the original is in argillite:

Unfortunately, this picture suffers from the limitations of my digital camera. As a result, you will have to take my word that this casting manages to capture the strong sense of line for which Russ is famous. That is not an easy thing to do, and many casts I have seen of original works are muddied versions of the original. But here, Edzerza – who also shows a love of a good line, both in the occasional borrowing and his own original ones – has managed to give a strong suggestion of what the original must look like.

Works like these do not increase in value like exclusive works. But, at their best – as in these three pieces – such commercial works make a bit of beauty accessible to any budget.

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I’m not looking forward to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. I never watch sports, and I’m concerned about the costs, traffic, and the virtual declaration of martial law during the games. The fact that I once dreamed of being in the Olympics myself only makes me angrier at the travesty that they have become.

Still, I could almost reconcile myself to the games for the sake of all the First Nations art commissioned for them. Some of that art was on display this weekend at the Aboriginal Art Exhibition at Canada Place this weekend, and I thoroughly enjoyed it – even if the lack of organization at the event seems ominous if it is a foretaste of how the games themselves will be run.

Being appreciative of the commissioned art is something you can file under No-Brainer. I mean, what’s not to like about the art? There’re medals with Corrine Hunt designs, commemorative coins by Jody Broomfield. The snowboarding pavilion at Cypress Bowl will have a wall graced with a new work by Dean Heron. GM Place will have a new work by Alano Edzerza, Nat Bailey Stadium a new work by Aaron Nelson-Moody, and the list goes on and on.

After fumbling badly by making the symbol of the game the inukshuk – a symbol that has nothing to do with British Columbia, much less Vancouver – the games organizers have had the sense to commission locally, focusing on less established artists and on members of the Salish nation, whose territory the Vancouver venues are on. I understand that some 45 works of public art will be added to the Lower Mainland as a result of the games, and I consider that an unalloyed good.

Sadly, though, the Olympic organizers fumbled again in their first efforts to bring most of these works to the public. The display was almost completely unpublicized except for newspaper stories just before the event and some Internet transmission. Even then, it was called an exhibition, so that most people arrived unaware that most of the work on display was for sale – an oversight that bitterly disappointed the artists who had taken tables and paid the exorbitant prices charged for parking at Canada Place.

Even worse, the management of the event was haphazard. I heard artists complain that they were unable to set up for credit or debit cards, and the rumor was that the one bank machine in the exhibit hall required a substantial surcharge to use.

And perhaps the worst thing was that, in order to fill up the hall, the organizers seem to have let anyone exhibit who cared to pay for the table. As a result, many tables displayed tourist junk that did not belong in the same exhibit as the commissioned artists.

For me, the incompetence of the organizing was summed up by the sight of two singers on the stage gamely belting out songs to rows of empty chairs, and a snack bar that had closed down at least two hours before the end of the show. Meanwhile, the exhibitors were strolling around talking to each other.

Such poor planning undermines the celebration of the artists. My impression is that the exhibition organizers couldn’t have cared less if the artists were treated with respect.

Perhaps the organizers can learn, but if this is how they put on such a relatively small event, then we should expect chaos during the games themselves. I might be lured downtown to see the aboriginal market at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, but I, for one, plan to spend the three weeks of the games bunkered down safely in Burnaby, far away from the insanity.

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Last night, I was at the reception for Tahltan artist Alano Edzerza’s new exhibit, “Gift of the Raven.” The show features Edzerza’s work of the last six months. Also on display were a number of pieces by Morgan Green, a recent recipient of the YVR Art Foundation Scholarship and (as she may be tired of hearing) the daughter of Tsimshian master carver Henry Green.

The evening started with a performance of “Raven Steals the Light” by Victor Reece’s Big Sky Multi-Media Storytelling Society. The performance was held in the courtyard of the Waterfall Building, the complex in which the Edzerza Gallery is located. It featured a dancer with suitably nervous bird-like movements and a light mask with mirrors for eyes, and ended with him climbing to an overhead walkway to conclude the performance – all in all, a successful blending of the traditional and the contemporary.

Then, the crowd squeezed inside the gallery for the viewing.

The show did not include any new traditional style work by Edzerza. Otherwise, it was a good representation of the different strains in his work. My main problem was dodging the crowd and finding gaps in it that lasted long enough to snap a picture. Combined with the fact that some paintings were hung high, the result is pictures that are less than professional quality (to say the least), but should give some idea of what was on display.

In one corner of the front of the gallery was a collection of Edzerza’s glass boxes:

alano-glass-boxes1

Elsewhere, you could see some of his experiments with color, such as this collection of closeups of traditional formline designs done in the electric colors of pop-art on a back wall:

alano-colors

The same pop-art sensibility appeared in a couple of contemporary paintings of frogs, which were inspired, I am told, by a tattoo on a woman’s back:

alano-frog3

But the major works in the exhibit were the multi-panel ones, like this one that was hung near the ceiling, facing the door:

alano-orca-multi

Another orca design, a triptych, was hung just inside the door, and a triptych featuring ravens on the back wall. The raven triptych was especially dramatic, as one of its panel shows:

alano-eagle-triptych2

All these multi-panel works shared features that are characteristic of Edzerza’s work: A three-dimensional contemporary take on traditional Northwest Coast designs, an experiment with color in mainly grayscale designs, and a dramatic sense of movement that is enhanced by the separate canvases and draws your eyes from one to the next.

Morgan Green is not as an experienced an artist as Edzerza, but, in the last year, her work has matured quickly. Previously, the work by Green that I knew best were her leather cuffs and a somewhat over-ornate wolf helmet in the gallery, but the works I saw last night shows some other sides to her work, and an interest in different media that, if anything, is even greater than Edzerza’s.

Green’s works included a wall hanging and a variety of earth-colored ceramics inspired by a recent trip to Arizona and the First Nations work she saw there. A plate depicting Mouse Woman was particularly striking:

morgan-green-mouse-woman-plate

So far as I know, no historical depictions of Mouse Woman survive. But Green’s rendering seems a reasonable one, with features like the ears, the round eyes and the incisors providing the defining features that you would expect in a traditional design. At the same time, placing the design on grainy ceramic creates a pictograph-like effect, all the more so because the formline is hinted at more than fully realized.

Perhaps the most accomplished work by Green on display was a Dogfish Woman robe she had created for an elder. The design was fairly standard (that is to say, more or less a descendant of Charles Edenshaw’s sketch via Bill Reid), but the cutting of the design and the assembly of the robe made for a first rate piece of work. As Green was discussing it with some of the guests, one of them agreed to model it:

morgan-green-dogfish-woman-robe

The evening was a fund-raiser, with a quarter of all sales going to the Vancouver Foundation. How successful the evening was a fund-raiser, I didn’t ask. But from the perspective of spotlighting two promising young artists, no one could have asked for more. I came away from the evening with increased respect for both, and an even greater determination to watch and enjoy their future growth.

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Northwest Coast jewelry can easily cost thousands of dollars, especially if you are buying a gold piece. But, fortunately for those with neither the cash nor commitment to spend that sort of money, you can easily find quality designs –usually in silver — for under $300. Naturally, for that price, you don’t get an exclusive design, but you will find intriguing ones.

Here are several random examples I get from looking around the bedroom:

  • Like much of Alano Edzerza’s work in any medium, this ring of a frog head is bold and dramatic, with simple but effective lines. It is also one of the heaviest rings I’ve owned, with a band nearly three-quarters of a centimeter wide at the back. I’ve joked that I’m going to get another four, and I’ll have an effective set of brass – or silver — knuckles.

    gwaai-edenshaw-silver-frog

  • By contrast, this frog ring by Haida jeweler Gwaii Edenshaw is altogether more delicate, although suitable for either a man or a woman. This one is unusual for Edenshaw, in that it is silver, rather than the gold he usually works in (although a more expensive version has gold eyes, and an even more expensive one is cast in 18 karat gold, which is about as impure as he generally goes). It is also not particularly Haida in design, except for the ridges down the frog’s back. But it is a whimsical piece, with the frog resting its head on its front flippers and its back flippers locked together on the band on the back.
  • gwaai-edenshaw-silver-frog

  • These earrings are another commercial design by Gwaii Edenshaw, light, with the design just barely visible. They’re suggestive of worn petroglyphs, or perhaps a hand-inscribed design.
  • gwaai-edenshaw-small-earrings

  • Marcel Russ did this unusual design based on the myth of Raven stealing the light. This topic is a common one in many media in Northwest Coast art, and to pull it off, the artist really needs to come up with a different design. Russ’ approach is to show only the Raven’s head and the sun or moon in his beak. The result is a contemporary piece that retains strong roots in tradition.
  • marcel-russ-raven-steals-the-light-earrings1

All these pieces are highly affordable, and the last two are available for $100 or less. In all cases, you would be lucky to find comparable sophistication in a mainstream jewelry store. For the same price, you’d probably get an abstract design, or a mounted semi-precious stone with next to no design at all, and probably with a lower silver content besides.

Of course, Northwest Coast jewelry does have its share of what I think of as touristjunk (all one word), but for the same price as the touristjunk, without much effort you can find superior works like these ones.

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As I visit Northwest Coast Galleries in Vancouver, I’m starting to notice relations between certain galleries and certain artists. Out of friendship, enthusiasm, long-term business relations, or a combination of all three, some galleries simply carry a better selection of some artists than others.
Here are the specializations I’ve been able to detect so far:

  • Coastal People’s Gallery: This gallery has a good general selection of artists, although it seems to be buying less recently, possibly because it’s overstocked. However, it is the main exhibitor in town of Henry Green, especially for his carved and increasingly colorful panels. Coastal People’s also favors Chester Patrick, a less well-known artist who has done a number of acrylic paintings notable for the complex grouping of characters, as well as panel carving. Since the summer, the gallery’s Gastown store has had space set aside for Patrick to work. I’ve heard at least one patron refer to Patrick as the store’s artist-in-residence, although I don’t know whether the arrangement is formalized.
  • Douglas Reynolds Gallery: Douglas Reynolds seems to have first right of refusal on works by Beau Dick, the Kwaguilth mask-maker and Haida artist Don Yeomans, possibly because the artists have a long friendship with the owner. At any rate, the selection of works by both Dick and Yeomans tends to be larger and more varied than at any other gallery – so much so that, in Yeoman’s case, I tended to think that he was past his creative prime based on his work in other galleries. However, based on what I’ve seen at Douglas Reynolds, that’s far from true; I just wasn’t seeing his best work. This same gallery has also started carrying a good selection of jeweler Gwaii Edenshaw.
  • Edzerza Gallery: As you might expect, this new gallery is mainly a showcase for the work of owner Alano Edzerza. However, it has also had the work of newer artists like Ian Reid and John P. Wilson.
  • Inuit Gallery: The Inuit Gallery seems to have good connection with the North, including Alaska artists like Clarissa Hudson and Norman Jackson, whom many galleries neglect – even though importing First Nations art from the United States is supposed to be duty-free. Recently, it has also had a couple of new masks from Tlingit/ Northern Tutchone artist Eugene Alfred, and a number of playful masks from Kwaguilth carver Simon Dick. Other with whom the gallery seems to have a good relation include Salish artist Jordan Seward and Nuu Chan Nulth artist Les Paul.
  • Sun Spirit Gallery: Located in West Vancouver’s Dundarave strip, this small gallery currently has a strong selection of Klatle-Bhi’s work, particularly masks. Much of this work is in Klatle-Bhi’s apparently favorite white and light-blue palette.
  • Spirit Wrestler Gallery: Robert Davidson seems to offer new works to Spirit Wrestler first, and to have an arrangement with the gallery for prints as well. The gallery also gets the pick of new works by Norman Tait, and currently has more work by Dempsey Bob than any other gallery in town. In addition, the gallery seems to cultivate some of the best of up and coming artists, such as Dean Heron and Sean Hunt, making it more adventuresome that I originally thought from my first visit.

As I was making this list, I realized that it represents my own interests as much as each gallery’s specialization. Very likely, I have left out some specializations either because I am not interested in them or haven’t got around to them yet. Still, it’s useful to know which gallery to go to if you’re interested in a particular artist, so I’ll let the list stand, even while acknowledging that it is probably incomplete.

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One of the pleasures of buying art is the thought that you might recognize a young artist before anyone else. The pleasure is not in the fact that the piece increases in value, but in the knowledge that you recognized excellence before anyone else. Currently, buying a print in Northwest Coast art by Robert Davidson or Susan Point requires no special insight – the excellence of both has been well-established for years. By contrast, when Trish and I purchased an acrylic copy of Alano Edzerza’s “The Thief” today, we were taking a gamble.

However, it’s a gamble that we are sure will prove our foresight as Edzerza’s career continues to flourish.

Under thirty, Edzerza is an artist who is beginning to make himself known, especially in glass, graphics, and large scale installations in businesses and offices. Unlike most artists, he also knows the business side of art, and few other artists are in so many galleries, or can boast so many shows so early in their careers.

Last summer, he also became owner of the Edzerza Gallery, which showcases both his work and pieces by other up and coming actions, making him one of the only First Nations artists to run a commercial gallery. I know of several young artists who hope that he will provide a fairer deal than other galleries, and at least one who believes that he does.

I have heard one person denigrate Edzerza for producing giclee prints, as though running off prints from the computer was an abomination rather than a convenience.

More tellingly, I have seen lines in several other people’s artwork pointed out to me that Edzerza might have copied. However, if that is so, the practice is common enough among young artists. Even such an icon as Bill Reid borrowed and imitated at the start of his career, and nothing is wrong with the practice so long as an artist eventually outgrows it.

A more valid criticism is that Edzerza’s imagination is still more two-dimensional than three-dimensional, to judge by his jewelry; not that anything is wrong with his jewelry except that it is not at the same level as his graphics or glass work. Just as importantly, he is also still mastering color, tending to use only one per work.

But, at the same time, Edzerza already shows an exceptional sense of design and a strength of line in his works. Not only are his works effective compositions, but, at least twice, he has found new pieces in closeups of existing works. He simply has an eye for design, and, with this trait, I have few doubts that his limitations will cease to exist in the next few years.

It helps that he seems to have a curiosity and memory for design. The one time I met him, he seemed very current about what other artists were doing, and the way he studied the Henry Green bracelet I was wearing when I passed it to him suggests a capacity to learn.

Just as importantly, Edzerza has an eye for drama, tending to show figures in motions rather than static ones. For instance, in depicting the over-used story of how Raven stole the light, in “Smoke Hole,” he focuses on Raven erupting from the smoke hole, charred and on fire. The result is one of the most arresting retellings of that myth that I have ever seen, because he has chosen a dramatic moment to represent.

Although I find graphics like “Smoke Hole” and “Think Like a Raven” powerful, we chose to buy the acrylic of “The Thief” because we believe that it has the potential to be a breakthrough piece for Edzerza. Even if it is not, it is still one of the most effective piece that he has done in a career that already does not lack for highlights.

“The Thief” is another depiction of the Raven engaged in stealing the light. However, unusually in Edzerza’s work, it is a still and formal piece. Almost a mask, it shows the child that the Raven has transformed himself into in order to accomplish the theft, surrounded by the body of the bird that he really is. But a hint of Edzerza’s characteristic drama rests in the enigmatic smile of the child, which – unlike the sleepy eyes — is not only decidedly not innocent, but mirrored by the raven’s beak above it. The disturbing smile suggests the theft that is about to happen or is in the process of happening.

Like much of Edzerza’s latest work, “The Thief” is in grayscale. However, there are more shades within “The Thief” than in any other of Edzerza’s works that I have seen. I strongly suspect that “The Thief” is a study in chromatic complexity, and (whether he knows it or not), one of the first steps that may eventually lead to a richer use of color in his future works.

Even if it doesn’t, grayscale is a fascinating world of its own, as anyone who has ever worked in black and white photography can tell you. In “The Thief”’s case, the color palette suggests the moon, which, depending on the version of the myth, is either what Raven steals, or else soon results from his theft. Especially in the acrylic version, the composition has something of the rich sheen of argillite – and, although argillite is generally worked by the Haida, rather than by a Tahltan like Edzerza, the resemblance suggests a carving as much as a graphic. This impression is heightened by the position of the raven’s head over the child’s forehead, an arrangement often seen with transformation figures on masks. Could Edzerza also be using grayscale and the illusion of depth it creates as an exercise to improve his three-dimensional imagination?

Whatever exactly Edzerza was intending, “The Thief” remains the best northwest coast composition I’ve seen this year. It’s a contemporary piece, while remaining firmly rooted in tradition. I am proud to be one of its custodians, and look forward to ferreting out its secrets in the coming years. And if Edzerza becomes as well known as I suspect he might, I will be just as proud to loan it for the inevitable retrospective on his career, when it is recognized as a pivotal moment in his career.
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I confess: I’m an enthusiast for Northwest Coast art, yet I have no trace whatsoever of First Nations ancestry in me. This fact doesn’t bother me particularly; I like what I like. But, as I festoon every square centimeter of wall space with art, one or two people have wondered if I’m guilty of cultural appropriation. Can someone with my background really appreciate Northwest Coast art?

My first response is flippant: If not, then a lot of talented artists will have to take day jobs.

But the response deserves a more serious answer, if only because it keeps coming up. So, in short, I think that I have no trouble whatsoever finding ties to the school of art I like best.

I should say at the beginning that the appeal that Northwest Coast art has for me has nothing to do with primitivism. I despise primitivism as condescending and labored, and want nothing to do with it. If I felt otherwise, then my interest in Northwest Coast art would probably extend to the Woodlands and Inuit schools in North America, and to the Maori of New Zealand. But I have only a mild interest in any of those. I feel that I don’t know enough to properly appreciate them.

Besides, I don’t believe in the noble savage myth, and wouldn’t apply it to the Northwest Coast cultures if I did. They are far too complex and sophisticated.

In fact, Northwest Coast art today is not an isolated, entirely self-referential art form at all. Northwest Coast art as we have known it in the last sixty years or so is – for all its historical roots – a thoroughly modern art form. If it draws on the myths and cultures of the coastal peoples for inspiration and design, it relies just as much on European art for technique and reference. Not only are artists experimenting with new forms such as glass, but often they are working with a full awareness of not only the local school of art but also other schools from around the world.

For example, when the young artist Alano Edzerza can do a print called “Think Like a Raven” that he describes as a Northwest Coast version of Rodin’s Thinker, you know that he and his peers are not working in an isolated tradition. For all their local roots, they are also thoroughly internationalist. In this sense, it seems perfectly appropriate that the central figure in the Northwest Coast renaissance should be Bill Reid, a man who was not only of mixed European and Haida descent, but who also studied the latest jewelry techniques in Europe and applied them to the local school of art. When a school is so internationalist, then few people should have any trouble finding a connection to it.

Even were that not so, I could still appreciate Northwest Coast works for their sense of craft. By this, I do not just mean the finishing details on a Norman Tait mask or the sense of line in a Susan Point graphic design. Nor do I just mean that Northwest Coast artists today can choose between the classicism of working with traditional forms and the romanticism of innovation, although this situation means that Northwest Coast art is one of the most varied and flexible schools of modern art.

I am also referring to the whole geometric basis of the art, with the repetition of simple forms adding up to the creation of more complex ones. This structure seems to straddle the line between representational and semi-abstract art, falling to one side or the other according to the preferences or the whims of the artist. How each artist goes about creating complex shapes from the simple ones is an inexhaustible study, and one that exists at least to some extent outside the specific tradition. In many ways, it is a matter of pure technique.

However, the greatest appeal of Northwest Coast art for me is very simple. I am sure that I would appreciate the school even more if I were Haida or Tsimshian or Salish. Then, perhaps, I would have the cultural resonances and perhaps familial familiarity to understand more completely what I am seeing when I look at a piece of Northwest Coast art.

However, I do count myself lucky that I have the next best thing. My family may have been on the northwest coast for less than a hundred years, but I have lived all my life here. If my knowledge of the cultural references is learned from books, the natural references are second nature to me.

True, I live in a urban area, but that area is Vancouver, where modern industrial life and the wilds are so close together that you can go from downtown into wilderness in less than an hour unless it happens to be rush hour. Being in such proximity, the wild is always intruding on the city, and you don’t need to be a hiker or cross-country skier to find it.

Even though my day job is at a computer in my house, I have still confronted a raven eye to eye and knowing that another sentient being was watching me. From that experience, I have no trouble understanding why the raven is a trickster in local mythology. I have been deep enough into the northern rainforest that I have felt the disquieting silence that explains the stories about the Dzunuk’wa. I have seen orcas in the water, and my sense of spring is partly involved with the seals going upriver chasing the eulachon, just as the end of summer is marked by the salmon runs (or, increasingly these days, their failure). The landscape that the art talks about is the one that I live in, and, while as a city-dweller I see far less of it than the people living here three centuries ago did, enough remains for me to identify with it to a degree.

By contrast, I can feel far less for the art of the Celtic and Germanic peoples that likely make up my actual ancestry. I don’t live in the land that produces it.

No doubt for some people, these connections are still not enough to give me the right to appreciate Northwest Coast art. They might even say that I appreciate it for the wrong reasons. Yet, with six hundred years dividing me from the Italian renaissance, the same might be said of my appreciation of Michelangelo or Raphael. Art speaks to its viewers in many ways, and, in the end, what matters is that it speaks at all – not what dialect it uses.

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