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

Which upcoming First Nation artists in the Pacific Northwest are worth having a look at? Giving an answer is not easy, because traditional art forms and contemporary variations are thriving as never before.

Still, if I had to give answer, these are the seven artists I would tell people to look for. Many post their work on Facebook, or somewhere else on the Internet:

  •  Mitch Adams (Haida): Adams has made a specialty of miniatures – everything from masks to combs and usable pipes – and of exploring different kinds of woods – including ebony and laminated blocks in which the layers substitute for paint. However, his best work so far has been in carving sculptures about thirty to forty centimeters high.
  •  Morgan Green (Tsimshian): Many Northwest Coast artists show versatility, but few can match Green. Her work includes cloth and leather design, wood carving, ceramics, and, more recently, metal work. Although in the past she seemed more interested in experimenting with new media than in developing her art, for the past couple of years, she has focused on jewelry and metal sculpture.
  •  Latham Mack (Nuxalk): Mack first attracted attention at the Freda Diesing School for his design work. However, since graduating, Mack has continued to apprentice with Dempsey Bob, and his discipline and carving is starting to reach the same standards as his designs.
  •  Kelly Robinson (Nuxalk, Nuchunulth): Robinson began as a painter, but since branched out into jewelry and carving. His work in both of his traditions has a strong sense of individuality, but in Nuchunulth style, he has the distinction of being one of the first to treat his subject as high art, rather than historical re-creation.
  • Todd Stephens (Nisga’a): As a carver, Stephens still needs practice, but few artists of any experience can match him as a designer. Study the details of his paintings, such as the different ways that the join of two formlines is thinned out, and you will soon know most of what you should be looking for.
  •  John Wilson (Haisla): Primarily a carver, Wilson is known for the speed with which he can finish high-quality masks. More recently, he has landed commissions for corporate logos and artwork. He is rapidly becoming the best Haisla artist since Lyle Wilson, but, right now, his work is extremely reasonably priced.
  •  Carol Young (Haida): The first winner of the Freda Diesing School’s Mature Student Award, Young first emerged as an artist to watch during her second year at the school, when she started doing naturalistic, unpainted masks. Since then, she has gone from strength to strength with more traditional carvings, some painted, some not. Once or twice, she has introduced female themes into her work.

Other artists who are less successful (so far) but still worth searching out include:

  •  Sean Aster (Tsimshian): Aster is one of the strongest designers who has graduated from the Freda Diesing School. Unfortunately, he does not seem to have marketed his work as well as it deserves.
  • Cody McCoy(Salishan): McCoy has won two YVR art awards, but he is marketing his work in both First Nations galleries and in mainstream shows as surrealism. The best of his work is strikingly original, with traditional forms half-hidden in the thick, restless brush strokes.
  •  Colin K. Morrison (Tsimshian): Morrison is an outstanding carver. However, he only produces a few pieces a year, so the danger is that he might eventually choose another way to earn a living.
  •  Chazz Mack (Nuxalk): Well-known for his design work, Mack seems to do much of his work for family and friends, instead of making many attempts to develop his reputation.
  •  Nathan Wilson (Haisla): Wilson’s high-standards of craft are obvious, but his design sense is sometimes no more than adequate and could use more individuality. However, sooner or later, I expect consistently strong work from him.

Neither of these lists is anything like complete. There are always promising artists whose work does not appear in Vancouver or Victoria, or in galleries anywhere, so I am sure to have missed some. If so, my apologies – chances are, my ignorance explains any omissions, not any judgment of quality.

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Six weeks ago, Haida/Tsimshian artist Mitch Adams and his wife Diana were in Vancouver on a selling expedition. We sat on the shaded porch of a Starbucks, and Mitch unwrapped the pieces he hoped to sell to one of the galleries. They included a variety of pipes (“They’ll make you look taller! Cooler!” Mitch claimed), several miniature masks carved from ebony, and a couple of sculptures I would have bought on the spot if I’d had the money. Then Mitch brought out a framed painting from the back of the car.

I remembered the painting. I’d seen it when I was in Terrace the previous April, sitting at the back of Mitch’s workshop. It was a design that he had done while a student at the Freda Diesing School. An injury had left him temporarily unable to carve, so, rather than sit idle (or more like, kibbitzing with the other students, if I know anything), he began to do designs on paper.

At the time, I asked him if he would sell it, but he was unsure of the price, and I had enough to carry back on the plane already. “Throw it in the trunk next time you come to Vancouver,” I said, but, to be honest, I’d forgot all about the piece until I saw it again. However, once I got over my surprise, I was happy to buy it.

As you might guess from the story about its origin, “Haida Box Design” is a formal exercise, but no less interesting for that. Like Celtic knotwork, abstract Northwest Coast designs fascinate me in their intricacy. When you know a bit about the artistic tradition, you can appreciate the breakdown of the figures in a series of basic shapes, each of which is varied by such details as how the thickening of the formlines where they meet is minimized, or the designs inside the U-shapes. At its best, the result is a strong sense of individualism within a detailed tradition – which is certainly the case here.

Adams’ individual touches are numerous. To start with, rather than designing primarily in black, he balances red and black almost perfectly. The design puts round shapes, rather than the more common ovoids, in the center where they can hardly be missed. Many of the lines are straight, rather than curved, as you would expect in most designs on paper, although that would make them ideal for carving. Tapering of the lines is minimal, and Adams makes wider use of thin lines than most artists would.

However, what fascinates me most about the design is how, despite being symmetrical, it manages to avoid some of the stiffness usually associated with symmetry – especially to a modern eye, trained to consider asymmetry of design the norm. Day after day as I’ve done my morning stretching exercises, I’ve watched the piece and considered the elements that undermine the potential symmetry.

First, there’s the easy interchange of figure and ground between the black and red that changes depending on what you focus on. Then there’s the mild variation of rounded shapes in the center of the design. Most of all, however, what really offsets the symmetry are the shapes positioned on an angle.

All things considered, I’m tempted to say that I’d appreciate seeing “Haida Box” design carved in yellow cedar and painted. The only thing that keeps me from doing so is the fear that, the next time we meet, Mitch will present me with exactly that, and I won’t be able to resist pulling out the cash to buy.

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In April, I flew up to Terrace for the Freda Diesing School’s graduation show. I entered from one end of the modern longhouse where the exhibit was set up, and wound my way through the display panels and cases to the opposite end. As I rounded the last panel, Kelly Robinson’s “Nuxalk Box Design: Four Carpenters” caught my eye.
Immediately, I knew two things:

First, from the amount of red and the particular shade of blue, and the looseness (or non-existence) of formline, it was a Nuxalk piece.

Second, it was such an eye-catching piece that, if I could, I was taking it home with me. At the time, I already owned Robinson’s canvas, “Mother of Mischief,” but this was a contemporary piece that was, if anything, even more striking.

As things turned out, I didn’t take the painting home with me that weekend. I bought it, but both Robinson and I were worried that the glass might not survive the flight home, and that the painting might be damaged. As things were, it was only six weeks later, when a somewhat different version of the show was displayed by the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver as Northern Exposure that I finally took delivery.

The Nuxalk, sometimes known as the Bella Coola (although not by them) are a nation about midway up the coast of British Columbia. Like the neighboring Heiltsuk and Haisla, their art shows hints of both the northern formline style and that of the Kwakwaka’wakw to the south, but with bold lines and colors that make it unique.

Unfortunately, Nuxalk art has not been extensively studied in comparison to, for instance, that of the Haida or Tsimshian. However, in the last half century of the local First Nations revival, the Nuxalk have never lacked for artists. My own familiarity with the style – such as it is – comes mainly from the Nuxalk who have graduated in the last few years from the Freda Diesing School, such as Latham Mack, Chaz Mack, and Lyle Mack, all of whom are related to Robinson.

Nuxalk mythology has been neglected by academics almost as much as the art. So far as we know, we have no transcriptions of how Nuxalk stories might have been told a hundred and fifty years ago. Nor has anyone collected the stories. But, from the little I know, the Nation has some unique traditions.

Foremost among these traditions are the Four Carpenters. These are the supernatural beings charged by Atquhtam the Creator to prepare the world for the Nuxalk. Sometimes, the Four Carpenters are loosely glossed as being arch-angels, but a better analogy is probably heroes like Prometheus, who are responsible for the foundations of culture.

If I have the stories correct, the Four Carpenters created the Sun, which is often depicted as a canoe, as a vehicle for the Atquhtam. By some accounts, the Four Carpenters created the Raven specifically to steal the light, as he does in other first nation cultures. But the Four Carpenters also designed the Nuxalk language, as well as the ceremonies and dances of each of the Nuxalk clan; each of the Carpenters may also be the founder of a clan. When they left Atquhtam’s house, they descended to earth on the sun’s eyelashes.

“Nuxalk Box Design: Four Carpenters” shows the subject surrounding the sun, with the bottom two, perhaps, starting to descend to the earth. As the name suggests, Robinson’s painting is a study for a design that might be painted or carved on a box. That description sounds like a formal, academic study, the kind of rigidly traditional work that might be done by a student artist, and there are, in face, objects in the painting such as the faces that remind me of other Nuxalk work I have seen. There is also a regular layout that suggests the careful measurement that might be expected in such an exercise.

At the same time, a strong sense of style is obvious at a glance. “Bold” was the first word that came to my mind when I first saw the painting, and it remains the best description I can think of. With the thickness of the red lines, it could almost be intended for a housefront ten metres long, and not just a box. And, while the painting may be generally symmetrical, the difference in positioning between the upper two and lower two Carpenters strikes me as a touch that a modern artist would be more likely to add than a traditional one, or one just learning the style.

Still another individual or modern element is the large amount of cross-hatching in the design. So much cross-hatching might appear in metal or wood, but from my limited knowledge seems rarer in Nuxalk painting. Perhaps, like many local First Nations artists today, Robinson has been influenced by other traditions of painting, such as the Tsimshian’s, which sometimes uses cross-hatching heavily.

I rate the painting as Robinson’s best to date, and have hung it in the living room, facing “Mother of Mischief” on the opposite the wall. I suspect that, on that fast-approaching day when I have so many paintings and prints that I need to rotate them on my wall, “Nuxalk Box Design: Four Carpenters” will be one of the few than hangs permanently.

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The Nu-chu-nulth (formerly known as the Nootka and West Coast) were among the earliest First Nations to have contact with European explorers. Yet today, very few Nu-chu-nulth artists are well-known. I can think of Patrick Amos, Joe David, and Tim Paul, and have to do a web search to come up with any other names. This lack is unfortunate, because, while the Nu-chu-nulth sometimes work in the northern formline tradition, their art also includes at least one other – possibly two — schools of design that are unparallelled anywhere on the Northwest Coast.

For that reason alone, a few months ago when Kelly Robinson recently offered his “West Coast Wild Man” mask for sale, I was happy to add it to the works on the walls of my townhouse. But I was also glad to buy because the mask was not like anything I had ever seen before.

A 2012 graduate of the Freda Diesing School, Robinson has been selling his jewelry to galleries for several years. More recently, at the Northern Exposure show at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery, three of his four pieces sold within the first three hours of the show. He is also a skilled painter, and one of his canvases, “Mother of Mischief,” already hangs on my wall.

However, most of Robinson’s work is in the Nuxalk style. He has only occasionally explored the other side of his heritage and worked in the Nu-chu-nulth style, but if “West Coast Wild Man” is any indication, he could have a significant contribution to make to that tradition as well.

There are few references for Nu-chu-nulth stories, no matter what name you search under. I assume that the Nu-chu-nulth wild man has some similarities to the Bukwus of the neighboring Kwakwaka’wakw or possibly the Gagiid of the Haida. All three are often depicted with large hook noses and grimaces, and probably their symbolic taming was a feature of the midwinter dances in all three cultures.

Probably, though, the parallel is not exact. The Bukwus is a dwarf, often conceived as being dead, who tries to tempt the living into eating its ghost food so that he can carry them away. Often,  like the Gagiid, he is said to originate as a shipwrecked voyager.  The Nu-chu-nulth wild man seems to share these characteristics, since the culture often raised memorials of skulls to shipwrecked sailors, but almost certainly some of the other context is missing.

To even a casual observer, Robinson’s mask shows obvious signs of the Nu-chu-nulth style, with the inverted skull dangling below the chin, the straggling hair, and the unusually large eye sockets and relatively small eyes. Whether the hair, which resembles dreadlocks, is also traditional or Robinson’s own innovation, I am uncertain, but either way, the general influence is obvious when you compare the mask to the work of carvers like David or Paul.

However, if you continue the comparison, you will notice something else. If you search on the Internet, you will soon notice that David’s or Paul’s work has an air of historical re-creation. Both artists reach a high level of quality, but their work is little different from that done a century and a half ago in the same tradition.

There is nothing even mildly wrong with this choice, and I look forward someday to having works by both David or Paul around the house to enjoy. But, having trained with some of the leading woodworkers on the coast today at the Freda Diesing School – artists like Dempsey Bob, Stan Bevan, and Ken McNeil – Robinson is trying to do something more.

Consciously or unconsciously, Robinson is following his teachers, and thinking of his work as fine art. His use of both paint and abalone is restrained, and his wood is finished to modern standards. He also takes full advantage of the grain, shaping it to fit his carving. While obviously based on past Nu-chu-nulth tradition, the result is something that – so far as I am aware – no other Nu-chu-nulth artist has attempted. And what is even more important, Robinson succeeds, producing a work that is both contemporary and not quite like that of any other artist.

This originality – admirable in anyone, but especially so in such a comparatively young artist – is sensed almost immediately by anyone who views the mask. Robinson delivered the mask to me at the opening of the Northern Exposure show, and the first response of each of the half dozen people I showed the mask to responded was a sigh of wonder. “West Coast Wild Man” is an original work of unexpected power, and if Robinson can continue to meet the same high standards in other works, his future as a major artist on the coast seems assured.

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Once a year, I teleconference with the instructors of the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art to decide who will receive the Mature Student Award. We discuss candidate’s financial situation, and weigh their artistic skills and leadership, whittling down the list until we have this year’s recipients and – funds permitting – honorable mentions.

But this year, the discussion was short. Kelly Robinson, one of this year’s leading students, was quickly chosen as one of the honorable mentions. After a brief discussion, the second honoable mention was awarded to Stacey Calder, who was technically underage for the award, but judged someone who could make best use of it. Then, unanimously, the instructors urged Sam McKay as the main recipient, a nomination to which I quickly agreed.

In barest outlines, McKay’s story is one that sounds all too common for First Nations people of his generation. A member of the Nisga’a wolf clan, he was forced out of his culture to go to residential school. He ended up on skid row, addicted first to alcohol, and later to crack.

But unlike many versions of this story, McKay’s has an upbeat ending. After thirty years on skid row, in 1991 McKay started to turn his life around. He went to university, and started doing social work with the homeless in Victoria. Eventually, he took a job in the Terrace area, and rediscovered his culture, becoming a dancer and a carver and holding a major chieftainship.

Speaking in a soft, hesitant voice, McKay recalls that “I was well into my fifties” when he changed his life. “I remember when I was getting my driver’s license, and there were all these sixteen year olds waiting for their tests. I told my instructor, ‘All those kids must think I’m a road hazard.’”

McKay had always admired his namesake grandfather, and remembers watching him carve spoons and bowls. At various times, he had also also studied with master carvers like Henry Robertson and Tom Dawson. However, just like getting his drivers’ license, learning to carve was part of the process of the last twenty years.

“I always wanted to learn how to carve a bowl, how to carve a paddle and a totem pole,” he says, adding that he appreciates the talent of the young students in the class, and the school graduates who occasionally drop by to help with the classes.

He finds art essential to both his re-discovery of his cultural history and his personal journey, saying, “When I feel out of place, I just pick up a pencil and start sketching. I’m an artist. It’s natural.

“I always say that I’ve come full-circle. It’s funny, because when I was younger, my grandfather told me my story. It didn’t dawn on me until a few years ago. ‘Be careful,’ he said, because somewhere in your life you will run into trouble. But you are going to realize the situation and get out of it. And when you do, you’ll come full circle.’”

With all the efforts he has made, McKay is exactly the kind of person whom the Mature Student Award was meant to help. I wish him continued success when he returns next year to complete his studies.

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Kelly Robinson is a new artist of mixed Nuxalk and Nu-chu-nualth ancestry. His silver jewelry is starting to become a regular feature of Vancouver galleries, and in the last year he has begun carving masks in both his traditions. However, he tells me that his first medium was painting, and, to judge from “Mother of Mischief,” it remains one that he is deeply interested in developing.

“Mother of Mischief” is done in the Nuxalk style, and is the first art in that tradition that I have bought. Geographically located between the northern nations such as the Haida and the Tsimshian and the central Kwakwaka’wakw, the Nuxalk culture has been comparatively overlooked and has had little written about it – so much so that an artist of another nation spent most of an afternoon trying to figure out how to carve the eyes of a Nuxalk mask with Robinson.

However, from what I have been able to learn from first and second hand sources, the Nuxalk tradition might be called loosely-rendered formline. By that I mean that it shares many of the individual elements of the northern formline, such as the ovoids and U shapes, but follows more informal rules about their positioning. Nor, on the whole, are Nuxalk designs as intricate as any of those in the northern tradition. Instead, Nuxalk designs have a bold simplicity that give them a strong visual appeal, especially when shown at large sizes.

Another characteristic of Nuxalk art appears to be a wider variation of colors than in the northern formline traditions. While northern formline favors black for the primary formline and red for the secondary, only occasionally reversing the color scheme or adding a third color, the Nuxalk palette seems broader, with greater use of blue and green, as in Kwakwaka’wakw work.

From this brief description, you can see why “Mother of Mischief” seems to me to be rooted firmly in the Nuxalk tradition. Centering on a Raven hen and her offspring ,at three feet by three feet, the painting has all the boldness of the best Nuxalk work, with three realms of existence – the land, water, and sky – depicted by rectangles of different blues.

Once you see realize the organization, the picture falls into place, with the middle blue strip representing the water where the salmon swim and the sun positioned both in the sky and, because of its reflection, in the water as well. On the land is a salmon or salmon roe that that the mother has found (for, contrary to common belief, ravens are not just scavengers; they can fish and hunt as well as other birds, but often carrion makes for an easier meal).

At the same time, the painting has a surprisingly modern feel to it. Parts, such as the ovoid at the top of the mother’s wing resembles the simple outlines of a sports logo, in particular, the old hockey stick logo of the Vancouver Canucks, a team that I happen to know that Robinson follows. Other parts of the design, such as the bent wing tips and the reduction of the mother’s body to a single tapering line, are reminiscent of late period Bill Reid.

Nor, do I think that a traditional design would be so strongly asymmetrical, or depict the raven fledgling as mirroring the mother’s positioning and design, with minor differences. Maybe you would have to be familiar with birds to notice, but, to me, the fledgling’s bare beginnings of a curved beak suggests immaturity.

Similarly, the lack of an oval in the eye or a visible tongue between the upper and lower beak suggests that the fledgling doesn’t share the mother’s watchfulness. Instead, it seems to be looking fixedly at the salmon on the shore, ready to waddle after it without worrying about the possibility of danger.

Robinson may be a newcomer, but”Mother of Mischief”shows that he is already an artist to reckon with. I’ve hung it over the largest couch in the living room, and, sooner or later, I expect it to be joined by either another of Robinson’s paintings, or perhaps one of his masks.

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As a general rule, I never buy Northwest Coast Art depicting butterflies. But when I was in Terrace last April, I made an exception for Nigel Fox’s “Butterflies #3.”

The reason for my rule is that butterflies (and hummingbirds, for that matter) are among the most popular designs for tourist pieces. You rarely see them depicted in more serious artistic works. I believe that there used to be a Butterfly family crest among the Haida, and there are still Hummingbird crests among several of the northern First Nations, but today, these designs are often trite and blatantly designed to appeal to tourists. Often, they show a degree of cuteness unlike any other designs.

I’ve joked that these designs are the Hello Kitty of Northwest Coast Art. But the northern First Nations, as I understand things, are even more scathing: satirically, they call butterflies and hummingbirds the white people’s crests.

However, Nigel Fox, a student now in his second year at the Freda Diesing School, has a different take on butterflies. In his blog, he writes about “Butterflies #3,” the third in a series of paintings featuring butterflies, “The piece is about teamwork and is part of a series that I am exploring on the theme of respect, especially among peers, even among “outsiders” or butterflies. Within many northwest coast native cultures, there are crests that are usually animals, that represent families or bloodlines. The butterfly crest is reserved for people who are not part of a nation by blood.”

Fox goes on to explain that his work is about harmony and teamwork.

I’m not sure if he is missing the satiric intent, but it is hard to argue with his results. Fox has a separate career as a painter mostly in the Canadian Impressionist style, and in his butterfly studies, he has combined traditional designs with patterns inspired by the surrealism of M. C. Escher.

Like Escher’s work, “Butterflies #3” has a constant shifting of figure and ground. At the same time, the shape of the butterflies’ wings, with their ovoids and elongated T-shapes continually suggest other shapes, such as the beaks of ravens. By combining his interests in mainstream and Northwest Coast Art, Fox has created a series of paintings unlike anything anyone else is doing, and I look forward to seeing how his work matures in the next few years.

Meanwhile, his butterfly series is a promising start.

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Shawn Patrick Aster’s “Raven Turns the Crows Black” has a longer history than most of the art in my townhouse. Aster took over two years to deliver it, but I consider it well worth the wait.

Aster’s work was brought to my attention by another artist in late 2008, as someone whose work was admired even by master carver Dempsey Bob. I immediately commissioned a piece from him, wanting an early piece from an already skilled artist who seemed sure to make a name for himself.

A few months later in April 2009, when I attended my first year end exhibition for the Freda Diesing School, I was amused to see that others gave Aster’s work no special attention – until he won two awards. Moments later, all his work in the show had sold.

But the commission had progressed little. Aster seemed nervous (I believe it was his first commission outside his family and friends) and couldn’t satisfy himself with the design. A month later, I bought “Raven Heart” from him, but I was still waiting for the commission.

By the next year end exhibition, Aster was looking distinctly apologetic when he saw me. Jokingly, I started referring to him as “the most promising artist” I knew, since he had promised the piece for over sixteen months – although I made clear that I was more than willing to wait. Secretly, though, I had decided he was unlikely ever to deliver. I was disappointed, although I bought other pieces from him.

Then, last March, Aster told me on Facebook that he had finally completed the design. It had apparently changed since he first started designing it, but I was happy to see it. I paid indirectly at the 2011 year end exhibition, and it was delivered by Aster’s fellow Freda Diesing graduate Todd Stephens at the YVR Art Foundation’s reception in May – a good deal of which I spent showing the piece to others and worrying that food might be spilled on it.

“Raven Turns the Crows Black” depicts an episode from the Haida epic “Raven Traveling,” a work that  many now consider the common heritage property of all First Nations people on the northwest coast. In the story, Raven the Trickster sees crows roasting a salmon on the beach. They agree to share the food, and Raven falls asleep while he waits for it to cook.

Unwilling to share, the crows devour the salmon. Belatedly worried at what Raven’s reaction is going to be, they put crumbs of the salmon meat on his clothes and between his teeth. When he wakes, they try to convince him that he ate before he slept, but Raven in his anger throw them into the fire, from which the survivors emerge forever singed and black.

Aster’s rendering of the story makes for a unusual design in what is already a tradition apart. Shared by several northwest coast nations but possibly Tsimshian in origin, the Chilkat style is based on weaving patterns. The style is constrained by the limits of weaving, so it tends to consist of discrete blocks of design, rather than the flowing formline found in painting and carving. This tendency makes it both geometric and highly abstract.

Aster’s design shows Raven in the center, his teeth bared (and if you ask why Raven has teeth, I can only reply, why does the parrot in Aladdin? Although, probably, Raven was in human form in the story, shape-changing being his most common power). I interpret the design as showing Raven in two states: in the middle, hungry and asleep, with his wings folded, and at the top center, angry and awake with his wings outstretched.

On the left are the white crows, on the right the black; like the raven, their wings and other features are abstracted into blocks of forms. The designs on each side are not quite symmetrical, with only the outlines of the heads to suggest the transformation in the story.

The background includes the characteristic Chilkat blue and yellow. However, to suggest the fire – and, perhaps, the salmon meat and Raven’s anger – Aster adds red to his design. Although I am far from an expert in Chilkat design, I have never seen any other Chilkat design use red. However, Aster’s innovation succeeds, largely because the red is relatively dark and sparingly used.

The result is one of the most bold-looking pieces of art in my collection. And while I admit that I grew impatient while waiting, I’d gladly wait another twenty-eight months for another work that is equally striking.

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The Freda Diesing School’s year-end exhibit has become a fixture on my calendar. Not only is it one of the largest annual shows of First Nations artists anywhere in the province, but I enjoy seeing how the students develop over the two years of the program. Over the last three years, it has also become a place for renewing old friendships and acquaintances, and making new ones.

Held April 16-17, the 2011 incarnation of the show was no exception. It was smaller than previous exhibits, but made up for its size by the general quality of the work.

The variety was also impressive, although, when I heard that the final project for the second year students was a moon mask, I half-expected otherwise. Perhaps a lack of time prevented uniformity; when I arrived during setup on the afternoon of April 15, many of the students were yawning and taking every chance to sit, having been up late finishing their pieces for the show.

The quality of the second year students’ work was especially high, much of it equaling or surpassing the pieces seen in Vancouver galleries. Chazz Mack, who has gained a reputation for the skill seen in his two-dimensional designs in his two years at the school was forced to miss the first day of the show because of an illness that the hospital diagnosed as dehydration, but contributed “Eagle Trance,” a mask in the distinctive Nuxalk style of high head dresses, large noses and strong primary colors:

Stephanie Anderson, a winner last year of a YVR award, staggered late into setup with a striking eagle frontlet that still reeked of fixative – and was possibly the strongest piece in the show:

Another second year student, Colin Morrison, whose first mask I bought eighteen months ago, demonstrated his growing skill with two masks, “Resurrection of the Ancestors” and “Black Wolf,” a mask meant for a flat surface or stand:

Even more development was shown in the work of Carol Young Bagshaw, the winner of last years’ Mature Student Award. While last year at this time, you could tell which teachers she was working with on each of her masks, this year, she displayed her own sense of style. Her masks are less stylized than traditional northern work, looking more like portraits, and taking full advantage of the beauty of the grain and the unpainted wood:

These graduates set a high standard, but at least some of the first year students seem likely to equal them. Nathan Wilson, who has already sold professionally, produced a solid piece entitled “Moon in Human Form,” that hinted at his skill, even though it was far from his best work:

Another emerging professional in first year, Kelly Robinson, easily rivaled the second years with “Visions Within,” even though he talked of adding some finishing touches to it:

Yet another talented first year students was Paula Wesley with the fine line and unique hair of her cannibal woman “Thu-Wixia,” which she danced at the end of the opening evening:

Accompanying Wesley in the dance was Evan Aster, who won one of this years’ Honorable Mentions for the Mature Student Award. Like Wesley, Aster promises to be a strong artist when his carving equals his painting:

The same could be said of Nigel Fox, a first year student who also paints in a style reminiscent of Canadian Impressionism. Fox’s “Surface Tension” was an interesting take on colors running together in the water:

Unfortunately, though, the painting overwhelmed the carving. Fox was on much more solid ground when he created an Escher-like design out of traditional butterflies in “Butterflies #3” (which is now in my possession):

Still other first years showed a mastery of the fundamentals of traditional design that should allow them to come into their own during their second years. They included Barry Sampare, this years’ winner of the Mature Student Award:

as well as Robert Moses White, who received an Honorable Mention for the Mature Student Award:

The pick of the show moves south on May 29 to Vancouver’s Spirit Wrestler Gallery, where I predict brisk first day sales. But although Spirit Wrestler is much closer than Terrace for me, I was glad to see the complete show, especially in Waap Galts’ap, the Northwest Community College longhouse, which is a comfortable blend of traditional design and carving and modern building and safety codes.

My thanks to everyone at the college and in the Terrace First Nations art community for making my visit such a pleasant one.

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Over the past weekend, I was in Terrace in northern British Columbia to attend the graduation ceremony and exhibition for the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art. I would have wrangled an invitation anyway that I could, because the art show is worth seeing, but fortunately I didn’t have to. I was invited to attend so that I could announce the Mature Student Award, and, just before I rose to spoke, a touching thing happened.

The award was started by me and my late partner, Patricia Louise Williams two years ago, after I noticed that many of the awards for First Nations carvers required that the recipient be under twenty-five. Knowing that older students give up even more than young ones when they return to school, and how much older students add to the class room, we decided that they deserved an award, too.

This year was the first time the award had been given out since my partner died and the award was listed as being in her honor. I knew, too, that Carol Young, last year’s winner, was going to give a eulogy for Trish – something I knew that I could not possibly do without becoming incoherent with tears. So I knew going into the graduation ceremony that my emotions would be running high.

Carol gave a brief speech that had me fighting to keep control. She spoke of Trish’s lifelong interest in Northwest Coast Art and of the crafts that she was always doing. She spoke, too, of Trish’s generosity, and how she used to cut the blossoms from her miniature roses and hand them out when we were on our weekend errands.

Then she announced that, in honor of Trish, each student would take a rose and hand it to someone in the audience.

That was it. I lost all hope of control and started crying. By the time Carol announced me, I could barely see for crying.

I walked slowly to the front, buying time to dredge up some composure. To say the least, I didn’t succeed very well.

Somehow, I managed to stand straight and talk slowly. Afterwards, people said I talked well, but I don’t know if they were being kind or not. I don’t even remember what I said.

But I got through somehow. I may have said that, because of money donated at Trish’s memorial service and raised through the sale of her craft supplies, that this year the award was being given to three students, two of whom were honorable mentions. I’m not sure, though. All I know for sure is that I announced the winners, and handed each a wrapped book, and faltered back towards my seat.

The ceremony ended soon after, and the crowd followed two drummers to Waap Galts’ap, the campus longhouse, which is a happy blend of a traditional Tsimshian and a modern building. There, we heard the students talk, and watched Nuxalk and Tsimshian/Salishan dancers moving around the flats and glass cases of the exhibition.

Occasionally, as the evening continued, I saw people in the crowd holding one of the roses. Usually, they were women, and often seniors, although once I heard a lover give a male student a rose, on the grounds that men rarely receive roses. That seemed especially fitting, since Trish had said something similar to me on my twenty-first birthday.

But no matter who held the rose, the sight never failed to leave a catch in my breath and tears in my eyes. Later that night, as I stared up into the dark in my hotel room, I reflected how strange it was that a gesture carried out by people who had never known Trish should be so much more moving that the memorial service held a few weeks after her death. I was not the least ashamed of crying, because I knew that Trish would have sobbed to see it, and I knew I had to cry in her place. I drifted off in melancholy satisfaction, and slept well I awoke, grateful for the gesture and wondering if it might be repeated next year.

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