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Archive for the ‘Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art’ Category

When I attended the Freda Diesing School’s year end exhibit last April, I was the first in the doors when the campus longhouse was opened. As I stepped in, a mask caught my attention from across the room. The closer I came, the more I admired it. Eventually, I checked the artist, who turned out to be Jamie Katerina Nole, whose “Pregnant Frogwoman” print I bought several years ago. I hovered waiting for Nole, and, as soon as she arrived, I bought it – and who can blame me? “Princess Luna” is a piece of carving that starts with solid foundations, and consistently makes an extra effort that produces an outstanding work.

princess-luna

“Princess Luna.”

Of course I could not have foreseen that, through a series of misadventures that were no one’s fault, I would take four months to receive the mask. However, the delay only makes me appreciate the mask all the more.

As the name suggests, “Princess Luna” is a moon mask. Moon masks are common at the school, because the moon is not a family crest, but often they are learning exercises at best. The basic design consists of a face surrounded by a ring of U-shapes or ovoids and “Princess Luna” obviously begins with that design, although it soon heads off in its own direction.

To start with, the mask is made of alder, a pale wood that through a combination of selection and sanding seems suitable for the moon. Both the painting and the copper labret are restrained, and the face itself is more realistic than that of most moon masks, with closed eyes that create a sense of serenity and mystery that is reminiscent of standing in the light of the full moon. Like the “Pregnant Frogwoman,” print, the result is a sense of emotion that is rare in northwest coast art.

Similarly, the decorations around the rim can be viewed as covering the phrases of the moon, with the blank ovoid at the top the new moon, and the full moon at ear level on both sides of the mask.

Just these basics would be enough to make the mask more than a classroom exercise, but they are just the beginning. At the bottom, the stars are indicated, with cutouts and two loose rings cut from the same piece of wood as the rest of the mask – an impressive and seldom-seen display of skill. Turn the mask over, and the phases of the moon are shown again, although few people are likely to see it.

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The back of the mask, showing the phases of the moon. Notice, too, the smooth finish on the back.

Yet the greatest extra effort is the use of luminous paint. If, like me, your eyes see some distance into the ultra-violet, this luminous paint adds to the sense of wonder in the mask by creating a sense of something that cannot quite be seen. In the twilight, the pale wood turns almost golden, and, under black light, creates an entirely different look to the mask, transforming it into a figure of power more awake that the mask appears under ordinary light.

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“Princess Luna” by black light.

Nole is still experimenting with different styles. The Northern Exposure show included another two more of her experiments, “Trickster Flow,” which places a Modernist design across a conventional portrait mask, and “Raven – Don’t Froget Me Crest,” a frontlet painted in a non-traditional style. Neither is as successful as “Princess Luna,” but, like it, they create the impression of an innovative artist who is prepared to make the extra effort to produce original work. Nole has clearly made intelligent use of her time at the Freda Diesing school, and “Princess Luna” is proof that “The Pregnant Frogwoman” was a start and not just an accidental success.  I can’t wait to see what she carves next — or what she will be carving in another twenty years.

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Sheldon Steven Dennis is a Tahltan artist who graduated from the Freda Diesing School in 2010. He’s been on my short list of artists to buy from ever since, and a few weeks ago I finally bought copies of what I consider his best work, “The Dance of the Bear Dog.”

The print honors the Tahltan bear dog, which officially became extinct about fifty years ago. Dog owners are now trying to recreate the species from crossbreeds. Whether this effort is an honest effort or a scam is a matter of dispute, but you can understand why the idea captures people’s imagination.

About half a meter high, the Tahltan bear dog was mostly black, with erect ears and a tail that has been described as a shaving brush. Double-jointed, they were able to move quickly through the forest.
Hunters carried the dogs in packs on their back, releasing them to surround the bear and distract it with their yaps and attacks until the hunters caught up. At home, they were known for the gentleness as well as their loyalty and intelligence.

Dennis’ print shows the moment when the hunters and the dogs have surrounded the bear, which is huddled in the middle of the design, its claws bristling and red, as though it has drawn blood, but its open mouth and lolling tongue suggesting that it is tiring. The human faces are set in grimaces of exertion, while the dogs are crouched low with an intentness as though they are keeping close watch on the bear and are ready to leap out of the way if attacked.

The design is striking for its limited use of red as a secondary color, which makes its uses on the mouths and the bear’s claws all the more striking. It is a darker red than is usually seen in northern designs, suggesting the blood being shed by all those involved in the hunt.

The form lines, too, are particularly interesting, with the thin lines of the hunters’ chins suggesting vulnerability in contrast to the thick, powerful lines of the bear’s body. By contrast, the strength of the dogs’ bodies is suggested by two thick ovoids, while the relative thinness of the legs suggesting agility.

However, what makes the design so effective is the crowded, concentric circles of action. Many northern designs, especially modern ones, are defined as much by their white space as the design, but Dennis has chosen a busy dance that reflects the chaos of the hunt. This chaos is suggested even further by the way that the outer abstract ring gives way to to the second ring of hunters and dogs, which in turn gives way to the asymmetrical design of the bear and hunters that spirals down as though descending into a drain.

Dennis’ accomplishment is to suggest a rarely seen sense of movement and action while using nothing but traditional forms – a combination that makes the description of the moment as a “dance” a precise choice of words.

Dennis is not a prolific artist. The fact that much of his work is apparently for family and ceremonial  purposes makes his works for sale even rarer. As a result, the pieces available for sale are relatively few. However, on the strength of “The Dance of the Bear Dog,” I will be watching eagerly for more to buy.

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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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Discovering a young artist near the start of their career is always exciting. Jaimie Katerina Nole came to my attention when Haisla carver John Wilson directed me to her Facebook page and “The Pregnant Frog Woman” one recent Saturday afternoon, and I knew at once that I wanted a copy. In fact, I wanted one so strongly that I settled for an ordinary limited edition – all that was left — even though I almost never buy anything except originals, artist’s proofs, or remarques.

I have only met Nole once for about five minutes, but she struck me as a young woman of determination. If I have her story straight, she was enrolled in the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art a few years ago, but withdrew when she became pregnant. She is apparently planning to return to the school this autumn, but, in the meanwhile, “The Pregnant Frog Woman” seems proof that she is making the most of her situation. When she posted the print, she quickly received over 3,800 Likes on Facebook, and decided to make a print of it.

“The Pregnant Frog Woman” is a striking piece for at least two reasons. For one thing, human forms remain uncommon in the modern revival of Northwest Coast art, female forms even rarer, and pregnant forms almost unheard of. So, although the kneeling posture is a conventional one, Nole quickly makes it her own simply by her choice of subject matter. The use of green and black is much less unusual, but enough to reinforce the impression of originality.

However, what is most striking about the print is Nole’s skill with the traditional forms. The use of ovoids for the shoulder, elbow, hip and knee joints is traditional enough, but those in the print are a variety of shapes, their contents echoing and contrasting with each other. The curve of the knee and breast parallel each other as well, and so does the knee and the buttock. Within the breast, the u-shapes also mimic the overall shape, suggesting the successive swelling of the breast during pregnancy.

Several other features of the design also emphasize the signs of pregancy. For instance, thick, black formlines frame the green uterus and fetus above and below it. Even more interestingly, the formline – which varies far more than usual in beginner’s work – is at its thickest around the breast and the bottom of the hip joint, between which the newborn will eventually pass. Not only is pregnancy the subject, but the design continually calls attentions to the symptoms of pregnancy in subtle ways.

A trace of eeriness is added by the signs of a supernatural creature, such as the long slender fingers and the hand with three digits, all differing little except in size from the visible foot. Since the head is barely sketched in, the focus is on the mysticism of pregnancy – the feeling, you can easily imagine, that the figure herself is feeling as she holds her hand over swelling stomach, perhaps to feel signs of movement.

Nole tells me that she is planning a series of prints of different aspects of motherhood, and, despite being a childless widower, at some point in the series, I would like an original. If “The Pregnant Frog Woman” is any indication, Nole not only understands the tradition in which she works, but has the unusual power of embedding emotion within its strict conventions. If her subsequent designs can match this one, Nole is an artist who seems likely to make her mark.

Jaimie-Nole

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Several years ago, Haisla carver Nathan Wilson was one of the standouts at the Freda Diesing School graduation exhibit. Unlike most of his classmates, he was already regularly selling masks to the galleries. They were well-finished, but, I thought them lacking in individuality. However, his masks also suggested that very soon he would manage that individuality – and I when I saw “ Tagwa” on Facebook, I knew immediately that he had. I immediately offered to buy it, nipping in ahead of several other buyers.

The only catch was that Wilson had done the panel for his YVR scholarship. That meant I would have to wait a year to take it home, while it hung in the Vancouver airport for a year. Then, ominously, when the year was up, Wilson said he wanted to make some adjustments to it.

Knowing something about carvers and perfectionism, I joked that the octopus would probably come back as a grizzly bear. Mercifully, on closer examination, Wilson decided to restrict himself to minor corrections, and the panel arrived at my front door fourteen months after I had reserved it.

“Tagwa” is an abstract piece, with the shape distorted to find the shape of the panel. In fact, the body of the octopus is upside down, with its beak at center left. The abstraction is heightened by the body, which – fittingly – resembles a loose sack of random shapes in which only the beak and eye are visible.

At first, only a few tentacles are visible, the others, presumably, being hidden by the octopus’ body. However, if you look closely, you start to realize that what at first appears to be the formlines for the body could actually be another two tentacles. You also realize that although four tentacle tips are visible in the right half of the panel, they twist in such a way that more tentacles may be present. Stare long enough, and the exact count becomes difficult to decide, because the tentacles seem to start twisting as you try to make sense of them.

The tentacles, they contrast with the body by having a contemporary design. Instead of the ovoids that many artists would have used to indicate the tentacle’s suckers, Wilson contents himself with plain ovals. Instead of a formline design, the tentacles themselves form the center of interest, twining and showing their two sides, one painted red and the other left unpainted cedar. If you look closely at the picture, you can see that the wood mimics the rubbery texture of an octopus’ skin.

This contrast between the two sides of the panel is heightened by its colors. The body reverses the traditional formline colors, making red the primary color and black the secondary one. In addition, as often happens in Haisla works, blue is added as a background color.

The result is a piece that immediately catches the eyes. It now hangs prominently in the center of one wall of my living room, where it catches my eye several times a day, and where in the last nine months it has become one of my favorites pieces. Wilson himself, I am happy to say, has continued to show his own sense of style in his more recent works, consistently proving himself the artist I always suspected he was.
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On April 25, I flew to Terrace for the sixth time to attend the graduation exhibit at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Carving. As usual, the graduation was also a gathering of alumni, and the longhouse where the show is held was so heavy with the smell of varathane as students worked to the last minute to finish their pieces that leaning into one of the display cases could leave you dazed and dizzy.

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This year’s show was stronger than last year’s on two accounts. To start with, the first year class included at least two promsing artists. Kyle Tallio exhibited a hawk mask, whose elongated shape and and striking painting made it a standout:

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Another first-year standout was Reuben Mack, who continue the tradition of his extended family (including Latham, Kyle, and Lyle) with a portrait mask that showed both a steady hand on the paint brush and an attention to detail that should serve him well if he chooses an artistic career:

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Yet another promising first-year was Kirsten McKay, this year’s winner of the Mature Student Award, who placed a Chilkat weaving design on a spoon with pleasing results:

kirsten-mckay-chilkat-spoon

Even more importantly, the work of several second year students demonstrated that they had put the last year to good use. Cyril Bennett-Nabess showed a notable improvement in both his painting and carving, displaying several masks, including this traditionally-shaped bear mask:

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Similarly, Roberta Quock showed the same high standards that made her an Honorable Mention for the Mature Student Award in 2013:

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The work of two students in particular stood out form. Lyle Quock, who stood out in his first year, showed an originality of design and color selection in the masks he displayed this year:

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But if I had to choose a single artist as a standout, it would be Loretta Quock-Sort, an Honorable Mention for the 2013 Mature Student Award. Quock-Sort’s female portrait mask was one of the more original pieces in the show:

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But it was her work in fabric that stood out, including a leather robe with mask in their own display case, and the black and red robe that she wore for the graduation itself.

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The show opens at The Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver at the end of May, possibly with a few works that were not ready in April. If you want to see what the next generation of First Nations artists are doing, you won’t find a better place to satisfy your curiosity and aesthetic senses.

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As an artist, Carol Young has gone from strength to strength, so when her “Wolf Mask” became available for sale, I jumped at the chance to buy. In the not-too-distance future, I may not be able to afford her work, and I wanted – at least – a second piece of work to enjoy in my townhouse.

This premonition is based on how far and how fast Young has come as an artist. Less than five years ago, Carol Young began a new career as a carver. In her second year at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, she emerged as one of the most accomplished students in her graduate class, winning the encouragement of master carver Dempsey Bob and becoming the first recipient of the Mature Student Award. In the four years since then, she has gone on to develop a strong original style with a strong interest in the role of women and environmentalism in First Nations Culture. Recently, at sixty, she had her “Moon Matriarch” mask adapted for gold and silver Canadian coins.

“Wolf Mask” reminds me of Bill Reid’s comment that traditionally the wolf must have been a mythical creature to the Haida, because there are no wolves on Haida Gwaii. Like Reid’s own wolves, Young’s mask depicts a degree of ferocity missing from the depictions of other animals. It is a fantasy creature, with an exaggeratedly large mouth and teeth, with fangs that cannot be contained its jaws, and large, swept-back ears that suggest an aggressive alertness. The impression is rounded off – literally – by the U-shapes at the edge of the jaws and the eye sockets that creates a clenched look, as if the grimace on the mask is habitual.

This sense of ferocity is all the stronger because Young has left the mask mostly unpainted. The lack of paint makes the carving more pronounced. And when Young does add black to the wolf’s outsized pupils, they appear larger and wilder than they possibly could have if surrounded by any other paint – even another section of black.

More often than not, fur added to a NorthWest Coast mask is a step too far – a sign, usually, that the artist is uncertain about their skill and trying to hide any errors by over-embellishing. However, the fox fur that Young adds is an exception. Its untidy shagginess on the top of the mask adds to the ferocity, while its off-white color contrasts strongly with the natural color of the wood.

Unfortunately, the fur made shipping the mask to the United States impossible. But since that technicality is why I was able to buy it, I have no complaints. However I got my hands on Young’s “Wolf Mask,” I consider it one of the outstanding treasures in my art collection.

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