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Archive for the ‘bentwood box’ Category

Last week when I was in the Lattimer Gallery, I received my copy of the book for the 2010 Charity Bentwood Boxes. It’s a small but well-designed book, and it reminded me that I hadn’t blogged about the box I bought in the auction.

2010 was the fourth year of the auction, with the proceeds going to Vancouver Aboriginal Health. The concept is simple: James Michels makes and donates the boxes, which are decorated by Northwest Coast artists, and the boxes are sold in a silent auction. In 2010, $10,850 was raised – more than double the amount raised the year before.

Over the last couple of years, the decorating of the boxes has become increasingly competitive as artists try to outdo each with their concepts. In 2010, for example, Landon Gunn added copper moon faces to his box, and Jing painted his in a Chilkat design. Steve Smith made his box a rattle. Even more extravagantly, Ian Reid (Nusi) crowded his with Tibetan pray flags and images of the Buddha, while Rod Smith chopped up his box and reassembled it. Perhaps the most ingenious box was Clinton Work’s “The Shop Thief,” a little man with the box for a body and the lid for a hat surrounded by the tools he had stolen – a theme that proved especially popular with the artists. If anything, the competition to be original promises to be even fiercer next year, with some artists already planning their designs for 2011.

I bid on several boxes, but, as I expected, the bidding soon got out of hand (even if it was for a charity). In the end, I was pleased to bring home “Hawk,” by Haida artist Ernest Swanson, a traditional piece that many people overlooked.

Part of the reason “Hawk” was overlooked may have been that it was on the bottom shelf of the display case, so you had to get down on your hands and knees to see it properly. But a larger reason, I suspect, was that it was a traditional piece with none of the embellishments of the more extravagant designs. When I contacted him online, even Swanson sounded like he thought he should produced something more original.

For my part, I have no complaints. Although I own a number of contemporary Northwest Coast pieces, I appreciate a traditional piece, too. Moreover, despite the fact that Swanson is relatively young, he has a reputation for traditional design, and for several years he has been on my short list of artists whose work I wanted to buy some day. I was delighted to get a sample of his work for a reasonable price – a sentiment that may sound unsuitable to a charity event, but I would be less than honest if I didn’t state it.

Much of Swanson’s work seems to be jewelry, a medium in which he is rapidly reaching the stage where his prices are soon likely to take a big jump upwards. That makes “Hawk” a bit of an exception in his work.

Nonetheless, I appreciate the boldness of the design, which has relatively little variation in line thickness. At the same time, it manages to be a busy design, perhaps because of the relative lack of red as a secondary color – a design decision that is almost a necessity, since too much secondary red would be garish and overwhelming given the bright red lit.

I appreciate, too, how the fact that centering the face on corners makes the design seem abstract from most angles, with the pattern only becoming obvious as you turn the box.

“Hawk” is a piece that you have to study for a while to appreciate. It stands now on my dresser, holding spare keys (because I feel that such a practical a thing as a box should be used, so long as it is used respectfully), and I find that my appreciation has grown even greater over the months of seeing and using it.

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Bentwood boxes have always fascinated me. The intricacy of their making, which requires steaming the wood until it can be coaxed into shape, has always seemed an indication of just how technologically advanced the First Nations cultures of the Pacific Northwest were. In the same way, the fact that they are both decorated and utilitarian indicates the sophistication of these cultures. I have wanted a bentwood box for years, looking longingly at the works of Richard Sumner, the leading specialist in making them, but somehow never quite finding the right one.

Then last summer, after my partner Patricia Louise Williams died, Mitch Adams and John Wilson, two Terrace-based carvers and friends, said they would make a box as a memorial for me. Adams was experimenting with making the boxes (using a giant plastic bag, apparently, to trap the steam needed to shape the wood). He had already made one for his wife Diana after one or two tries, and, after another attempt had snapped, he produced a second one, passing it to Wilson to carve and paint.

For me, an agony of waiting followed, punctuated by jokes online how it was going to be the first see-through bentwood box, or would be painted pink and lime green, or some other non-traditional color, such as purple. But John had a living to make, and was nervous about wrecking the box. He also suffered a repetitive stress injury that kept him from carving for weeks, and slowed his notoriously fast carving. All too quickly, the days of waiting turned from days into weeks and from weeks into months.

I hope I didn’t nag him too often or too insistently. And I’m reasonably sure I didn’t actually utter the death-threats that impatience sent flitting through my brain, because, the last I checked, John was still talking to me.

Still, with one thing or the other, it was only when Mitch and Diana came down to Vancouver for the Chinese New Year in February that I finally held the box in my hands. I had spent the morning while we ate dim sum, wanting to ask if the box had been carried down on the plane as promised, and not wanting to ask in case it hadn’t. So, as soon as I had removed enough bubble wrap to smell the Varathane, a big sloppy grin was slapped across my face.

If possible, my first sight of the box made my grin wider still. According to John, the red side represents Trish, and the black side me. Considering that black is the primary color in formline designs and red the secondary, these seem the appropriate colors for the living and the dead, and I’ve taken to turning the box on my dresser according to my mood, turning to the red side when I’m thinking of Trish, and to the black when my grief weighs on me less than usual. So far, it tends to have the red side outwards four days out of five.

I didn’t quite hunch over my sports bag as I took the box home on the Skytrain, but it was a near thing altogether. Had anyone tried to snatch the bag from me, they would have seen my wolverine imitation, but the trip passed uneventfully.

I have no plans to sell any of the art I’ve bought. However, if I ever did, the box would be among the last. It’s become a symbol of more things than I can quickly describe, and often it’s the last thing I look at before turning off the light at night.

Thanks, guys, for the right gift at the right time. I know that Trish would have appreciated it as much as I do.

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