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Archive for the ‘Beau Dick’ Category

Every piece of art, several collectors have told me, comes with a story. Gradually, as I’ve bought art, I realized that this statement is true, so on my spreadsheet for insurance purposes, I’ve created a column where I can type the story of how the piece was acquired.

I have no trouble remembering the first piece of serious art I bought. It was a three inch copper bracelet by Tsimshian artist Henry Green. I’d wanted such a piece for years, and suddenly realized I could afford one. I still remember my breathlessness as I approached the gallery to pick it up, and my sigh of relief when it proved more awe-inspiring than I could ever have hoped.

A couple of months later, I saw that the Bill Reid Gallery was selling canvas banners from a set that had been stored in Bill Reid’s house since 1991. Trish and I bought one, realizing that it was our best chance of affording any work by Bill Reid, then quickly bought another to balance the wall where the first one hung. Soon after, we bought our first mask, a moon by Ron Telek that is both eerie and strangely modernistic.

More soon followed. There was a Beau Dick sketch of a mask, unusual in that, with his carver’s eye, he depicted planes, not lines. The Lyle Wilson pendant Trish won in a raffle at an exhibit – the best $5 that either of us had ever spent. The small Telek mask that I fetched from the South Terminal of the Vancouver airport by walking from the end of the bus line and back again. The Gwaii Edenshaw gold rings we bought for our anniversary. The miniature argillite transformation mask by Wayne Young that I trekked over to Victoria for after Trish’s death and repaired and remounted because it was so magnificently unique. The wall-hanging commissioned by Morgan Green to help her through goldsmith school. And so the stories accumulate, so far as I’m concerned, as innate as the aesthetics of the piece.

For instance, there’s Mitch Adam’s “Blue Moon Mask,” which I saw in 2010 at the Freda Diesing School’s year end exhibit. It was labeled NFS, bound for the Spirit Wrestler show for the school’s graduates a month later. I happened to mention to Mitch that I would have written a cheque right away had it been for sale – not hinting, just praising – and a few hours later he came back and said the piece was mine if I were still interested. I was, and immediately became the envy of half a dozen other people who also wanted to buy it, but had never had the luck to ask. One of them still talks enviously when we meet.

Then there’s Shawn Aster’s “Raven Turns the Crows Black,” a painting that we had discussed in 2009, but didn’t seem to gel in his mind. After a year, I had stopped expecting him to finish it, and took to calling him a promising artist, because he kept saying that he was still working on it. But he did complete it – making it a Chilkat design (which I had not expected), and showing a promise of a different kind.

Two other pieces were commissions in memory of Trish after her death: John Wilson’s “Needlewoman” and Mike Dangeli’s “Honoring Her Spirit.” I made “Needlewoman” a limited edition of twenty, and gave it to family members for Christmas 2010. Mike’s painting, more personal, I kept for myself, carrying it up Commercial Drive from Hastings Street on a chilly January Sunday, because cabs wouldn’t come to the Aboriginal Friendship Center where I picked it up.

Other pieces were gifts from friends: a print of “January Moon” by Mitch Adams in return for some advice on galleries I gave him; a bentwood box Mitch Adams made and John Wilson carved and painted in memory of Trish; a remarque of Ron Telek’s “Sirens” print, and an artist’s proof by John Wilson and another print by Shawn Aster, both apologies for the late delivery of other pieces.

Of course, such stories mean that I can never sell any of the pieces I buy. The associations have become too much a part of me. But since I never buy to invest, only to appreciate, that is no hardship – my appreciation is only deeper for the personal connections.

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After six months of layaway payments, today we finally brought home our Beau Dick Bukwus mask from the Douglas Reynolds Gallery. Bukwus, the wild man of the woods, is second only to Tsonokwa among Dick’s favorite subjects, but this goblin-like rendering is by far my favorite among his treatments of the subject.

The mask is several years old, but was kept for a while by Douglas Reynolds, who put it back in the gallery only because he had limited room and other masks by Dick that were personal gifts. This bit of history alone would be an endorsement of the work, if my own taste wasn’t enough. In terms of craft, it is close to a unique piece, using a technique that Dick has used in less than half a dozen masks.

This technique is to overlay the wood with leather, using a layer of cloth to create wrinkles on the face, then moistening the leather so it dries cracked and with a broken surface. The result is a close approximation of a man who has been living rough, and whose face is pocked by cuts and sores and the lines of hard usage. In other words, it is perfect for the Bukwus.

(Whether another face is carved on the mask, hidden by the leather, I don’t know. But, suddenly, it occurs to me to wonder, although I can never know without destroying the mask).

Another unusual piece of technique is that the eye holes are drilled deep, through nearly three inches of wood, and rimmed with copper that makes them come alive when the light captures them.

Even more interestingly, the nose is a piece of copper, as though the Bukwus has ripped off his own nose, and found a crude replacement. The sinuses, which are exposed by the lack of a true nose, are stuffed with cedar shavings, just (I am told) as a corpse’s would once have been among the Kwakwaka’wakw. Is the Bukwus dead? Or has he been left for dead? Or is he simply dead to his family and past? Could he be some collector of the dead?

You can take your pick among the possibilities, but all of them are potentially ominous. Add a manic grin with an under-bite, pointed ears, eyebrows that are as long as the hair on top of the head, and a red-black color that suggests a layer of filth and open sores, and the result is an intensely eerie bit of the supernatural, even if you know nothing about the Bukwus.

In fact, it is so intense that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Dick had his own manic delight in his creation and laughed as he finished it. It is close to being over the top, yet stops short of being so, creating an ambiguous figure that, the longer you stare, the less certain you are whether you should be uneasy or laughing yourself.

This ambiguity makes the mask one that should not be hung in the bed room – and definitely not where you can see it when you wake up. Instead, we hung it at the top of the stairs leading up from our front door. If we are ever woken by a scream on the stairs, we will know that somebody broke in and got their first look at Dick’s creation. It’s a magnificent piece, but not something you want to take you by surprise in the dark.
beau-dick-bukwus

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Last month, a friend phoned to ask my advice about the price of a Northwest Coast mask that he had commissioned. The price the artist had quoted seemed high to him, but he was still interested in the mask. Thanks to my frequent gallery browsing – both in person and online — I was able to reassure him that, for a piece of that size by an artist of that reputation, he was getting a reasonable price.

More recently, I saw a piece by a new artist and instantly recognized the price as too high for this moment in the artist’s career.

From these two experiences, I realized that, not only is the price of Northwest Coast masks is determined by a couple of factors – the artist’s reputation and the size and finish of the mask – but that there is a rough consensus about how those factors affect the price. This consensus exists throughout British Columbia, so, contrary to what you might expect, you are unlikely to find many bargains outside of Victoria or the Lower Mainland regions. It is undoubtedly due to the fact that galleries and artists are always comparing notes and the fact that a handful of artists are widely viewed as a guide to pricing. In particular, Beau Dick, although widely recognized as a leading carver, has never priced his works as high as he probably could, but varies his prices according to the complexity and size of his work.

As near as I can construct it, here is a list of what you can expect at each price range when you buy a Northwest Coast mask. All prices are in Canadian dollars:

  • Under $2000: The largest group in this category are masks for the tourist trade, generally by artists who have few chances of selling to upscale galleries such as Douglas Reynolds. New artistically-oriented carvers and minis (masks 7×7 inches or smaller) – also fall into this category.
  • $2000-$3000: In this category, you can find average-sized masks (roughly 12-14 inches high) by artists who are starting to gain a solid reputation, or simple or experimental masks by established artists. Most artists’ work does not stay in this price range for very long, except for some long-established carvers for tourists.
  • $3000-$6000: This category is by far the largest. Most masks in most galleries usually fall within it. Here, you find works of average size and complexity by artists who have a modest reputation for their carving. You also occasionally, large works by lesser-known artists in this range, but the restrictions on beginning or relatively unknown artists are tight enough that such works appear only rarely.
  • $6000-$10,000:This price range seems reserved for large or intricate works by artists whose work usually falls within the previous category. One of the signs of consensus is that you find relatively few artists whose prices fall consistently within this category.
  • $10,000 and above: Only large and elaborate masks or normal sized ones by master carvers fall into this category. Very few masks sell above $18,000, although I have seen a Beau Dick mask over four feet tall selling for $28,000.

These ranges are only generalities. A lesser-known carver making a bid for more recognition may temporarily or permanently raise their prices, while a more established artist may lower the price on a specific piece that they feel does not represent their best work. Similarly, a smaller or larger size may bump a specific mask from the artist’s norm. Almost always, reputation trumps size: for instance, I recently saw a mini by Dempsey Bob selling for just under $5,000, a price that reflects both his fame and the fact that these days he does little non-monumental work in wood.

I should also mention that artists do not necessarily view this consensus as fair. They argue that, especially in the lower categories, it hardly pays to take the time to finish the mask – and no doubt they are right.

However, other artists figure that selling in the lower categories is a part of their career that they simply have to endure – and they are right, to. Unless an artist is lucky enough to live on commissions or has another means of exhibiting work to the public, they have little choice except to participate in a market in which both they and their work are evaluated in detail by the market.

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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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Kwakwaka’wakw carver Beau Dick is one of the names on my short list of people from whom I would one day like to buy a mask (for the record, the others are master carver Norman Tait, Nishga’a surrealist Ron Telek, and Tlingit carver Stan Bevan). Not only does Dick have a subtle sense of color that is rare in Northwest Coast mask-makers, but he manages to find endless creative possibilities in two main figures — Bukwus, the wild man of the woods, and Tsonoqua (also called Dzunuk’wa), the wild woman – producing countless masks of both without repeating himself very much. And, like the others on my list, he is meticulous about finishing details, although he often chooses a rougher look than Tait, Telek, or Bevan. So, last month, when I came across a few sketches by Dick for about the price of a quality limited edition print, I was instantly tempted to buy.

The first Dick sketches I saw were at the Inuit Gallery in Gastown. One was a colored pencil sketch of a mask with a quick gradient background, one was a mask done in charcoal, and the third was a colored sketch of a dancer. At first I thought them unique, but a week later at the Latimer Gallery, I saw some similar works, as well as some colored pencil sketches of dancers that I suspected were done from photos. The Latimer Gallery pieces were dated about four years later than the Inuit Gallery mask sketch, and were about two-thirds the price, although I judged them not quite so interesting.

From what I was told at the Latimer Gallery, the mask sketches were the result of a period in which Dick had sketched his designs before carving them. He had tried this experiment at least twice, once in 1999 and again in 2003. I don’t know, but I surmise that he either was not especially satisfied with the results, or found the exercise not useful for his carving since (so far as I know), he only tried the experiment a few times with masks. I hope one day to learn more.

Meanwhile, I was disappointed to find that the sketches weren’t as unique as I had imagined. Instead of coming down the next week to buy the mask sketch at the Inuit Gallery, I went to other galleries instead.

But, last Saturday, Trish was well enough to take a brief tour of some of the downtown galleries. When we reached the Inuit Gallery, she was as intrigued by the sketch as I had been, and we bought it on the spot, bearing it home in a mailing tube sealed with tape at both ends to keep out the rain and wrapped in a plastic bag. Tomorrow, it goes to the framer.

What interests me in the sketch is partly the subject matter. If you have ever been in the northern rainforest alone, especially near nightfall, you have no trouble understanding how Tsonoqua entered the local myths; she’s the sense of something terrifying moving just behind the trees.

But, just as importantly, the sketch is interesting for the way it is rendered. If you examine the lines of the face, you’ll see that they are not lines so much as surfaces. Even a single line, like the ones on either site of the mouth are not so much lines as areas, and their shadows are likewise. In other words, Dick is sketching with a carver’s eye.

The only exception to this approach is the hair of both the head and the shaggy eyebrows (although even the individual hairs tend to be thick). The mixture of the two different approaches only adds to the oddness of the face. So does the red patch on just one of the cheeks.

The sketch is rough, but not so rough that Dick didn’t give it a bit of a finishing touch with the gradient background. I suppose that some people would consider the roughness a fault, but, really, what else do you expect in a sketch?

Anyway, a calculated roughness is a common characteristic in a lot of Dick’s work, and seems to suit a character that has been living rough.

One day, I might be lucky enough to find the mask that matches the sketch. But, for now, the sketch is a small and slightly curious addition to our small art collection.

B

Tsonoqua Mask by Beau Dick

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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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This weekend, I scouted the Northwest Coast galleries around the south end of the Granville Bridge. Here are my impressions:

  • Eagle Spirit Gallery: Located on the edge of Granville Island, this gallery is one of the pleasanter viewing areas that I’ve seen, with lots of natural light and indirect sun. It seems aimed at the corporate or public buyer rather than the individual, with many larger-than-life plaques, masks, and sculptures. Its selection includes some of Robert Davidson’s recent sculptures (which you don’t see much of), as well as works by Lyle Campbell, but, for me, Francis Horne, Sr.’s “Spirit Raven” was the only really exceptional piece. Even browsing casually, I saw a surprising lack of finishing detail on some pieces, including some by artists whose work is usually more polished. In general, the selection seemed a little too safe for my taste.
  • Edzerza Gallery: I discovered this gallery by accident, occupying the space that used to be occupied by the Bentbox Gallery, a block from Granville Island. Owned by the young artist Alano Edzerza, it displays mostly his prints and jewelry, but includes selected pieces from up and coming artists. For a young artist, running your own gallery seems a daring move, but, I’m proof that it pays off, since it means that I noticed Edzerza’s work for the first time, and he’s now on my list of artists whose work I want to buy. While I was there, I also met another artist whose work I admire. The selection is relatively small, but I am sure that I’ll be coming back, both to support the venture and to buy.
  • Latimer Gallery: A block from the Edzerza Gallery, the Latimer features moderately priced limited edition prints, masks, and jewelry I remember this gallery as being more touristy than it was today, so either my memory is faulty or else its stock has gone upscale a little. I had no trouble finding some small treasures, including some old Bill Reid prints, and some very affordable crayon sketches by Beau Dick. I don’t think I’ll be a frequent visitor at the Latimer Gallery, but I will be dropping by now and then to check what they have.
  • Douglas Reynolds Gallery: Located in gallery row a block up from the south end of the bridge, this shop is aimed at the high end of the market. Besides the inevitable Robert Davidson and Susan Point prints, it includes a number of masks by Beau Dick, and at least two striking wall plaques by Don Yeomans. It also includes a selection of gold and silver bracelets, rings, and earrings, including a few small pieces by Gwaai Edenshaw. The stock seemed a little safe to me, but was adventurous enough here and there to make me want to return occasionally.
  • There are still Northwest Coast galleries I haven’t visited in Vancouver, but these four, together with the ones I visited last week in Gastown, are some of the better known ones. Besides finding which galleries seemed right for my own art buying, visiting a number of them has helped me to understand the market a bit better, including such as who are the established and upcoming artists, and what are the going prices for each artists’ work. This knowledge makes my visits well worth the effort, especially since you can easily see a number of galleries in an afternoon without doing much travelling.

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