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Archive for the ‘Gary Minaker Russ’ Category

The more I see of Gary Minaker Russ’ work, the more I consider him the leading argillite carver working today. His attention to detail, his variety of designs, and his restrained use of inlay all combine to put him in a category all by himself. So, naturally, when he was in town a few weeks ago with two mid-sized carvings, I jumped at the chance to buy. Not being able to afford both, I narrowly turned down “Raven and Frog Inside Of a Halibut,” a formal piece squared into an upright rectangle, in favor of “Thunderbird Capturing Killer Whale.”

haida-thunderbird-capturing-killer-whale

I’m pleased with my purchase, although part of me still wonders if I should have bought the other piece – or, better yet, found a way to buy both. But, having narrowly missed buying a cedar sculpture of the same subject a few weeks previously, I still half-feel that karma was urging me to the one I chose.

The thunderbird, of course, is perhaps the best-known figure from First Nations mythology – although I would be hesitant to equate the figure found in the Pacific Northwest with similar ones in the Eastern, Plains, or Southwest cultures to any degree.

In popular modern culture, the thunderbird is simply very large, and somehow creates thunder and lightning. However, among the first nations of the Pacific Northwest, the feature that makes it stand out is simply this: The thunderbird is a creature so large that it hunts whales. Considering that the killer whale is by far the largest animal seen from shore or near it – true whales being usually found further out – that makes the thunderbird a truly monstrous size.

In “Thunderbird Capturing Killer Whale,” Russ has reduced the thunderbird’s size somewhat, making it closer to that of the killer whale, and the capture less one-sided than if the thunderbird was significantly larger. The thunderbird. It fills the left side of the piece, its head upraised in what looks like a grimace, identified by its curved beak (and, yes, those are teeth, and never mind that natural birds don’t have any). It grips the killer whale by its dorsal fin and head, almost hugging it with a wing that sweeps across the center of the piece.

Otherwise, the killer whale lies passive in its grip, bent almost double by the thunderbird’s strength, so that its tail at the top right is almost at right angles to the head at the bottom center. The thunderbird may be straining, and appears buffeted by the loose tail, but the killer whale is caught and probably moments from death.

What at first glance seems an abstract clutter of body parts becomes, on closer examination, a moment of tension, with greater violence due in a matter of seconds.

The fact that the thunderbird appears almost whole– although in profile – while the killer whale takes a moment to recognize suggests the inevitable winner of the fight. So, too, does the difference in the eyes, the killer whale’s round one suggesting passiveness, compared the thunderbird’s elongated one.

Yet this is not a formline design that keeps the eye moving around the entire composition until you have understood the various shapes. Only the wing operates in that way, the eye’s movement seemingly transferred to the wing itself, creating an impression that it is beating, another of the thunderbird’s weapon and, perhaps, helping it to hang on. On the rest of the thunderbird and all of the whale, the formline is more stiff, leading nowhere and slowing the recognition of the scene – an effect that reinforces the sense that the carving is capturing a brief moment of chaotic violence.

Although you might not be able to see clearly from the photo, Russ’ carving of the scene reinforces the struggle by the depth of carving. Most of the sculpture is in low relief, the figures looking slightly squished. But the whale’s head is carved more shallowly than any other part, barely emerging from the background surface. By contrast, its still free tail is raised almost twice as high, and the thunderbird’s head and tail three or four times.

However, for me, the master touch is that the piece is entirely in low-relief – all except for the thunderbird’s claws, which are in high-relief, and rendered realistically rather than with the usual shapes of the northern form-line. This difference literally makes the claws stand out from the rest of the design, making them identifiable when the rest of the carving is still a jumble of forms to your eye. In a very real sense, the claws are what matter most in the scene: they control the killer whale and will shortly rend it.

In the end, this reinforcement of the subject with technique that swayed me to buy “Thunderbird Capturing Killer Whale.” As I often do with sculpture, I am keeping it beside my computer desk, where I can appreciate it while I begin the leisurely process of deciding its more permanent position in my townhouse.

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I’m at the point where I tremble when Gary Minaker Russ comes to town. I know that he will have at least one outstanding piece of argillite to sell, and that if I so much as glimpse it, I will be unable to resist the temptation to buy it, even if I can’t really afford to. That’s the story, really, of “Haida Shaman,” the latest piece I’ve bought from him.

When Russ first brought it to town, he sold it to the Inuit Gallery, where I admired it regularly. But no one bought it, and Russ prefers not to have his work languish for too long in a gallery. So he swopped it for his latest piece, and when we met at the Rhizome Cafe that afternoon, he hadn’t resold it.

A quick trip across the street to the bank machine, and it was mine, the balance to be paid  over the next month. One nervous Skytrain trip later, I had it beside my computer workstation.

“Haida Shaman” is a traditional piece. I mean that description in two senses, both complimentary. First, the pose is one that has been widely used throughout the hundred and eighty years of recorded argillite carving (as opposed to the unknown amount of time – decades? centuries? millennia? — that argillite may have been carved far more rarely, before it became one of the first cultural exports for the Haida).

The proportions, with the head a third of the body height, and the stance, one arm uplifted and the other in front of the chest, can be seen in any number of pictures, if you search libraries or even the Internet for pictures of argillite. So, in one sense, Russ is working in a very set subject, in much the same way a Renaissance European painter would be when painting a Madonna and child.

What you won’t see – at least today – is this pose done in the amount of detail that Russ has lavished on “Haida Shaman.” You’ll see the basic proportion and posture, yes, but not the detail. Most modern argillite carving is closer to engraving. It is covered with embellishments of inlaid precious and semi-precious stones, with the shapes hinted at rather than fully developed.

In several  pieces, the result is so abstract that only the posture is recognizable and there is little else to indicate that a shaman is depicted. The modern argillite market does not reward taking pains, and, in too many cases, the quality of the carving has declined while the cost of the raw materials have sent the prices soaring.

By contrast, “Haida Shaman” shows the attention to detail that I associate more with nineteenth century argillite pieces. Russ himself describes it as being more in his original – and preferred – style, and not the simpler style he has moved towards in the last decade and a half in order to make a living as an artist in an increasingly obscure art form.

This is the second sense in which the piece is traditional – in the pure sense of craft that has gone into it. For a style that is only partly representational, “Haida Shaman” packs an extraordinary amount of detail. Some of it may be hard to see in a picture, but the carving is full of realistic detail like the definition of the muscles on the arms, or the braiding of the rope the shaman wears, or the mass of hair in his topknot. I joke that the sculpture is a “traditional Haida action figure,” but behind that rather flippant comment, there is nothing but respect for the care that has gone into it.

These details are enhanced by the sparing use of ivory to contrast with the darkness of the argillite. Unlike many modern argillite carvers, Russ has not produced a gaudy piece, valued largely for its inlays. Nor has he added so many inlays before starting to carve that they get in the way of the detailing. Instead, the ivory appears where it doesn’t hide or overwhelm the details. It is used sparingly, with a restraint that allows it to work with the argillite, rather than against it.

You might say that “Haida Shaman” is an artist’s piece, done to satisfy Russ’ sense of how he should be working, with little regard for what sells. I am not in the least surprised that it didn’t sell while on display because, amid the other argillite extravaganzas available in the local galleries, “Haida Shaman” is an understated piece, with an emphasis on the craft of carving.

It’s because of pieces like “Haida Shaman” that I secretly look forward to Russ’ visits to town, not knowing what wonders he will quietly unwrap to tempt me with. I only know that most of what he brings to town will be wonders, and I will be tempted to bring at least one of them home.

Now, if I only didn’t have to explain that I wasn’t buying from a drug dealer when I deposit large sums of cash in his account, I would have nothing to complain about. I am both soothed and honoured to have pieces like “Haida Shaman” in my townhouse.

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Gary Minaker Russ is probably the most imaginative argillite carver at work today. Resisting the pressure to do endless imitations of Bill Reid’s “Raven and the First Men” or to embellish his work with flashy but overdone inlays, he approaches each piece with imagination and integrity. The disadvantage of this approach is that his work is sometimes overlooked because it lacks the predictability needed for a successful brand, but the advantage is that he often produces works that are both beautiful and original, such as “Octopus Eating a Cockle Clam.”

“Octopus Eating a Cockle Clam” is an argillite rattle, with abalone eyes. The rattle itself is a clam shell with broken shell inside and surrounded by a web of red cedar made by weaver Maxine Edgar. Leather wraps the handle of a rattle, which rests in an argillite base.

Although the top of the base has a simple salmon-eye design, the rattle as a whole is a naturalistic rather than a formline design – an approach you sometimes see in historic argillite pieces, but rarely see in modern work. All eight tentacles are present, and, if you look closely, you can see the striations of muscle along the tentacles, and the lines of suckers where the underside of the tentacles are visible. The imitation of life is not total, giving way to artistic considerations in such details as the roundness of the head, the abalone eyes, and the darkness of the argillite, but in general the realism is much greater than you normally find in Haida art.

There is realism, too, in the general concept of the rattle; an octopus actually does crush clams and other shellfish in the way that the rattle depicts. Once you see it, the idea seems simple and ideally suited to the shape of a rattle – yet, so far as I have been able to find, no other artist, historic or contemporary, or in any medium has seen the analogy except Minaker Russ. The day that I bought it, he showed it to several passing Haida friends, and not one failed to exclaim about how unique the design was.

Another important aspect of “Octopus Eating a Cockle Clam” is the fact that it is mixed media. Viewing Northwest Coast Art, it is easy to forget that what you see would have been historically a part of everyday life. However, the fact that this piece is not only a functional rattle but also includes a staple seafood and the work of another artist firmly embeds it in the culture that it comes from.

The connection is all the stronger because, according to Minaker Russ, the clam shell was picked up on North Beach near Masset on Haida Gwaii, which is traditionally the place where Raven discovered the first people in a shell. Historically, the shell was not a clam until Bill Reid depicted it as one, nor did Reid depict a cockle shell; yet, all the same, to a modern audience, the clam shell emphasizes the cultural connection.

I admit to a certain guilt at buying a functional rattle that I will only shake gently from time to time, for fear of breaking the shell. But, aesthetically and culturally, “Octopus Eating a Cockle Clam” is a piece I feel privileged to see every day. It naturally draws the eye, so I’ve given in to the inevitable and positioned it on the focal point of the living room, where it belongs.



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I never buy art unless it catches the eye or intrigues me in some other way. However, some purchases loom larger than others , and Gary Minaker Russ’ “Haida Sharkwoman” is one of them. I am not talking about price (although “Haida Sharkwoman” is one of the more expensive pieces that I’ve bought), nor size (although at fifty-three pounds, it is one of the heaviest), but about artistic integrity and excellence, both of which the piece has to spare.

Minaker is best-known as an argillite carver. Working with hand tools and preferring natural finishes, he has a tendency to go his his own way that some gallery owners think has hurt his career, but that keeps his work original. In the last few years, he has been resisting the pressure to carve for the market and produce copies of Bill Reid’s “Raven and First Men” or endless variations on Raven stealing the light. He has also been chafing at the growing tendency for inlays of precious and semi-precious stones and metals on argillite, which drives up the prices while rarely improving the actual lines of carvings.

Consequently, he has been branching out and trying to create a new market in Brazilian soapstone in the hopes of finding greater artistic freedom. He has had mixed success, he tells me: private collectors have no trouble accepting his new direction, but many galleries do. Still, he perseveres, partly because it is easier to find large pieces of soapstone than of argillite to produce such pieces as “Haida Sharkwoman.”

Forty-five centimeters long and thirty-five wide, “Haida Sharkwoman” is carved on one side and flat on the back. The asymmetrical curve on the right, Minaker says, was in the raw block, and only required refining.

Sharkwoman (not to be confused with Dogfish Woman, whom Charles Edenshaw and Bill Reid made famous) is a subject that Minaker has returned to many times in his work, just as Beau Dick keeps returning to the Bukwis and Tsonoqua. He suggests, only half-jokingly, that the subject reflects the difficulties he has had with the women in his life, adding that he tries to restrict himself to no more than one return to the subject each year.

The sculpture shows a woman half-way through a transformation into a shark. In modern northwest coast art, such a transformation is often depicted as a twisting of a person’s existing limbs, rather like the werewolf transformations seen in modern computer-generated special effects. That approach is unquestionably dramatic, but Minaker has chosen to depict the new shape as a blanket draped over the figure, as in the old stories. Here, you have the shark’s fins falling over the woman’s head like a hood, as her face, still showing her labret, is slowly transformed by the gills and flat snout of the shark.

The sculpture is dominated by the abstract carving style of the face and the fins. However, at the bottom right is a more realistic set of fingers half-covered by hair. This contrast emphasizes the transformation; it is only when your glance falls on the realistic hand that you realize that the transformation is taking place.

Notice, too, that the position of the hand suggests that the woman is propping herself up on her stomach against a rock, waiting for the transformation to complete so that she can begin to breathe the water.

The carving is further enhanced by one of the most sinuous and three-dimensional formlines that I have ever seen, beginning at the lower right of the fin, and twisting up to the eyebrows. From there, it continues around the face and jawbone to rejoin the right fin again, keeping the viewers’ eye in constant motion. And, should you detour down the nose or around the lip, the gills are on both cheeks to force your gaze back to the main formline. As a result, you soon tend to attribute the movement of your own eyes to the sculpture itself, and start imagining that its eyes are moving to watch you – not necessarily in a menacing way, but definitely an alert one.

I say “necessarily,” because the impression that “Haida Sharkwoman” makes can vary wildly. The combination of the formline and the reflective quality of the soapstone makes the sculpture look dramatically different in various lights. I have seen it a pale beige in bright sunlight, looking serene; golden in the reflected light of a flash, looking otherworldly, and dark in the shadows, looking sinister. The piece is so varied that I can get a different perspective on it simply by moving it to a different location.

One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that it tends to dominate a room, no matter where it’s put. After several experiments, I’ve given in and placed it on top of the TV cabinet, which most of the living room centers on anyway. As a major piece of art, it seems to belong there.

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