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Archive for the ‘Haida art’ Category

Last summer, I contributed to Haida Raid 3: Save Our Waters, an environmentalist animation. I couldn’t resist, given the cause and the perk of a print: Jaalen Edenshaw’s “K’alt’side K’aa” (“Laughing Crow”).

Edenshaw is the brother of Gwaii Edenshaw, one of the foremost jewelers on the coast. Much of his work is on poles and other community art, with only an occasional piece making it as far south to Vancouver. So I was happy when, a few weeks after the Haida Raid fundraiser closed, I received this small sample of his work. Many people assume that Haida art has no humor, and I’m glad to have a piece that proves otherwise.

What particularly interests me about this piece is its resemblance to some of the figures on the ring I bought from Gwaii Edenshaw five years ago. I had asked Gwaii to do a ring illustrating the story about how Raven turned the crows black. Not wanting to share their salmon with Raven, the crows put crumbs in the dozing Ravens’ mouth, then try to convince him that he already eaten when he wakes up. But Raven is not deceived, and throws the crows into the fire, singeing them so that their feathers turn from white to black.

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On the ring, Gwaii depicts the crows in the middle of sprinkling Raven with crumbs of salmon, rolling them into his mouth and along his back. The crow figures resemble the ones on Jaalen’s print, and I mean to ask him which came first the next time I see him.

Meanwhile, the print is a good example of how I can enjoy a hundred dollar piece as much as a ten thousand dollar one. With a print run of 270, the print is unlikely ever to be valuable, but I admire it for its unusual posture, as well as the lines indicating movement on both sides of the figure. Compared to most prints, it is a cartoon – but that, I suspect, is exactly what was intended.

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Thanks to the Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibit, I not only have a greater appreciation of Charles Edenshaw as an individual artist, but a greater understanding of his key role on the Renaissance of First Nations Art in the Pacific Northwest. But, increasingly, I wonder about the man behind the art. What was his inner life like?

Glimpses of his life do exist. In During My Time, his daughter Florence Davidson mentions how her father used to say a prayer, then sit himself down on the low chair he preferred and work for the next twelve hours. I believe, too that Davidson tells how he once said that he was tired of art, and wouldn’t do any in his next life; a great nephew who showed no interest in art but died early is suspected to have been his reincarnation. Haida friends also tell me that a lively oral tradition about Edenshaw continues to exist on Haida Gwaii, and from his art, I infer a man with great powers of concentration and attention to detail who took pride in his work.

But such glimpses are tantalizingly few, especially for such a man and such times as he lived in. Almost immediately, the reliable information trails off into surmises. He was said to have been sickly in his youth, and even in his prime, he looks small and fragile in the pictures that have survived, and possibly not too steady on his feet. His early ill-health is often surmised to be the reason he turned to art to make a living – he simply wasn’t rugged enough to earn a living by fishing and logging, like other men of his generation.

Yet what he thought about his life is completely unknown. Did he ever feel resentful at having to live a sedentary life? Or was he quiet man, content to stay close at home and perhaps see more of his family than most of his generation of men? We simply don’t know.

Nor do we know how he felt about the great events happening around him. How did he feel about the epidemics that wiped out most of his generation among the Haida? Was he grateful to survive, or did he sometimes brood at his work bench, wondering how he survived? Was he proud of the titles he accumulated due to the gaps in the successions? Or did he see himself as a caretaker of the titles, assuming them in trust for future generations?

Similarly, I wonder why he accepted baptism in middle age. Did he hope that Christianity might preserve him and his family from other epidemics? Did he see his culture as ending, and Christianity as a way into the future? Or did he see baptism as a way of hedging his bets, an accommodation that allowed him to preserve more of his culture than opposition would? Perhaps as the leader of his people, he converted to maintain his authority over the increasingly Christian Haida clans and houses. Or perhaps he was genuinely drawn to Christianity.

But we do not know any of the reasons for what he did. We do not even know what he thought of the art that such a central feature of his art. I would give a lot to know whether he ever thought of his life’s work as anything other than a way to feed his family. Did he see himself as an individual artist, the way that those from European and American cultures do? Did he hold himself responsible for preserving parts of Haida culture that the epidemics had left abandoned, or was Haida culture just a commodity that he could sell to make a living?

I wonder, too, whether the man who was known in his lifetime as Charlie among English-speakers be proud or embarrassed to be addressed in tones of respect as Charles. I imagine that a man who had taken on so many names as his importance as a chief increased would have taken taken yet another name in his stride. Still, what would he have thought about his influence on the modern art of not only the Haida, but their hereditary enemies the Tsimshian and all the other nations up and down the coast. Did he ever imagine such a role, even for a moment when talking to Franz Boas and the other ethnographers? Or was he too busy going about his life to ever imagine that anyone else would take take such an interest in his work?

At this point, the only answer to all these questions is that at this point we will never know. Fortunately, we do not have to know, because his art is eloquent by itself. But, historically, the man himself remains laconic, and frustratingly close to mute.

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Mitch Adam’s “Dancer” is an example of how art keeps surprising me. I first picked up the piece (which fits comfortably in the palm of my hand), while having a late breakfast at the Northern Motor Inn in Terrace, and it immediately changed my mind about what an argillite piece could be.

Before seeing “Dancer,” I would have said I had firm ideas of what an argillite piece should be. It would be unpolished. It should be in a traditional style, and as detailed as possible.

Almost immediately, I saw that “Dancer” was none of these things. Yet, just as quickly, I realized that I wanted to buy it.

However, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Adams’ “Blue Moon Mask,” which is among the favorites in my collection, is an unusual piece as well. Moreover, Adams regularly produces surprises. Miniature masks in which laminated woods take the place of paint, functional carved pipes, yellow cedar sculptures with more detail than you would imagine the wood could take – through all these pieces, Adams has shown a knack for innovative designs and uses of media. I expect the unexpected but apt from him.

So why does this piece succeed against my expectations? Since I received the finished piece a week ago, it has been sitting just below my computer monitor, where I’ve been studying it at odd moments when my fingers pause on the keyboard, trying to figure out the answer.

The answer I’ve come up with is that the piece is sculpture reduced to its essential lines. The flight feathers are represented by three feathers that differ only in size and position, the feathers on the head to overlapping circles reminiscent of scale armor. Simple, unadorned ovoids join the wings to the body. Turn the sculpture around, and it is mostly unfinished, except for an ovoid with four tail feathers, each decorated by a simple T-shape.

Left to themselves, such decoration would be unexceptionable. However, they are not what the eye notices. Instead, what viewers notices is the strong lines of the piece – particularly curves – that I’ve noticed before in the best of Adams’ work. The top of each wing is matched by the curve of the beak on each side, forming strong but obvious crescents on each side. The shape of the head is an approximation in miniature of the half circle formed by the shoulders and the wings, and the bottom two wing-feathers on each side diminished echoes of the top one.

In addition, there is a strong center line. Initially established by the beak, it remains so strong that you still see where it should be in the empty space below it. Cleverly enough, that empty space forms an arrow, pointing up to the beak, and drawing the viewer’s eyes with it.

In the end, these lines and the negative spaces they create are what makes “Dancer” work. Like a successful formline, they draw the eye around the sculpture, keeping it moving. Since the polishing emphasizes them, it, too, is justified. A natural finish would de-emphasize both. Instead, by polishing, Adams has made the curves stand out, and the negative spaces look darker, to the benefit of both.

“Dancer” is a strong piece at its size. However, over the week that it has graced my townhouse, I find myself repeatedly wondering how it would work at a much larger size. My guess is that, with its lines, it would be an outstanding piece at any size.

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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.”

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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 love argillite. Of all the media used by the First Nations artists of the Pacific Northwest, argillite has by far the most mystique and romance, as well as the greatest visual appeal.

Argillite is a black slate found only on Slatechuck Mountain on Haida Gwaii. Similar slates have been in a few other places around the world, but have slightly different chemical compositions that make them less suitable for carving (or so I’ve been told). Only members of the Haida nation are supposed to be allowed on the mountain, and families have unofficial quarries whose exact locations they try to keep secret.

Rumors persist of a logging road that makes access to the quarries easier, but, generally, artists either have to carry out the argillite they quarry on their backs down a narrow trail, or else buy what others chose to sell – usually at about five dollars a pound on Haida Gwaii, and as much as twenty dollars a pound in Vancouver. The tradition has been to keep argillite out of the hands of non-Haida, although a black market makes small amounts generally available to other artists, who generally turn it into pendants.

The history of argillite carving is equally romantic in its obscurity. The standard account is that argillite carving did not begin until 1820, and that the pipes that were among the first carvings known were never actually used. However, while European tools and interest in curios made the 19th century a Golden Age of argillite carving, it seems unlikely that such a sophisticated art form could emerge suddenly without at least a few centuries of tradition. Studies of early pipes show a residue that prove that some early pipes were definitely used, but, since heat can crack argillite, most likely it was a medium reserved for shamans and other ceremonial use before the nineteenth century.

But whatever the truth of the matter, argillite carvings became a major trade good in the 1800s. Unlike other traditional art, these carvings consisted of far more than family crests and the stories that families and title holders held the right to tell. Instead, the carvers of the time also depicted the animals, peoples, and plants of everyday life. Sometimes, they imitated the patterns of the china plates carried by American traders. Other times, they made miniatures of houses and canoes. At times, they depicted the Haida viewpoint of the European traders and immigrants, offering some of the few contemporary depictions of colonization from the perspective of the colonized.

Nineteenth century argillite was not completely naturalistic. For instance, a head is generally one-third the length of the body. However, much of it is painstakingly detailed, with muscles on arms and legs or the individual strands of a rope all clearly delineated in a way that the more traditional wood carving almost never is. During its development, argillite carving also developed its own stock poses, such as a shaman holding a rattle in his upraised right hand and a knife in his left.

Like other art forms, argillite carving suffered because of epidemics and Christianization. However, because it was a trade good, argillite carving never declined quite as much as more traditional forms. Probably, it helped, too, that Charles Edenshaw, one of the first great Haida carvers whose name and career we know, was a skilled argillite carver – although this aspect of his art was omitted altogether from the recent exhibit of the works of Charles and Isobel Edenshaw at the Museum of Anthropology.

Today, argillite is a niche market. Bill Reid was influenced by argillite design, but only experimented with the actual medium. Similarly, while Robert Davidson as a teenager sold model totem poles in argillite for the tourist trade, it has never been his favorite medium. The same is true of artists such as Jay Simeon, Ernest Swanson, Gwaai Edenshaw or Marcel Russ, although all of these artists can produce outstanding argillite pieces when they take the time.

The trouble seems to be that argillite is more temperamental than wood, silver, or gold. It is dirty to work with, resistant to tools, and prone to flaws that can destroy hours of work with one misplaced stroke. Because of its water content, it can shatter in the cold. Artists like Christian White or Gary Minaker Russ who have done most of their work in argillite are essentially specialists, appealing to a relatively small and expensive market. Excluding pendants and miniatures, galleries rarely have more than two or three pieces of argillite at any one time, and prices usually begin at about $8000.

Nor has the reputation of argillite been helped by the growing practice in the last decade of inlaying pieces with gold, silver, and semi-precious stones. Often, such inlays are added before carving begins, seriously interfering with the artist’s ability to add detail, and, almost always, they are added in lieu of detailed carving. Moreover, because such inlays are expensive, they add substantially to prices, which means that buyers are being asked to pay more for inferior work that increases very little in value.

Quality argillite pieces are still being carved, but to find them buyers either have to visit Haida Gwaii or at least deal with artists directly. However, the effort to find quality can be well worth the effort.

Even when left with its natural finish, argillite has a reflective finish that makes a carving rich in shadows and highlights. These shadows and highlights change with the available light, but always adds a unique impression of depth and motion. They make argillite a medium that demands to be touched, and its carving traced over and over with the fingers – in fact, many believe that frequent handling prolongs the life of a carving, because the oils from human hands replenish the moisture that was originally in the slate.

Elegant and mysterious, quality argillite carvings are an under-appreciated glory of Northwest Coast art that never fail to capture and intrigue the eye.

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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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When I travel to Terrace every April, I spend three days submerged in art. Not only is the Freda Diesing School’s graduation and year end exhibit my official excuse for the trip, but I meet other artists and view their works in progress. This year, one of those artists was Ivan Adams, a Haida carver doing some unique work in argillite.

Ivan Adams is the father of Mitch Adams, a middle-aged artist from whom I’ve bought half a dozen pieces in the last three years. Last year, I met Ivan over Sunday brunch, and several times Mitch has mentioned his father as an artist, but until this year, I had never seen any of his work.

This year, Mitch drove me up to his parent’s house, and we sat in their kitchen while his father showed what he was working on. The three or four pieces I saw were literally like nothing I had ever seen before.

They were not in the argillite style of the nineteenth century, nor were they the inlaid and embellished pieces that most modern argillite carvers favor. As Mitch said, Ivan’s work is a little reminiscent of some Inuit work, but the resemblance is mostly in the scenes of everyday life he favors, rather than the carving style.

What Ivan Adams is doing is a naturalistic, detailed style all his own. One piece is a bear with silver teeth rearing on two legs while a much small hunter attacks with a spear; the base comes apart so you can position each figure separately. Another is a legendary strong man straddling a bull sea-lion and tearing it apart with his bare hands, with the exposed muscle suggested by artfully positioned catlinite (reddish brown argillite). A smaller piece is an eagle, so ungainly that it suggests an archeopteryx. All the pieces I saw were obviously mature pieces, done by an artist with a strongly developed style of his own.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford one of Ivan Adams’ larger pieces. However, he also had a raven pendant about the size and thickness of my thumb, which I was pleased to take home with me as consolation.

I suspect the pendant was a left over piece of argillite whose shape suggested its subject. But, like Adams’ larger pieces,what makes the piece standout is the attention to detail. The shape of the beak and how the upper and lower beak fit together are absolutely accurate. Adams has even included the striations that make every raven’s beak as individual as human finger prints, and suggested the soft tissue that connects the lower beak to the body – even though that part of the carving is not seen when the pendant is hanging from a chain. Similarly, the off-white of the inlaid eyes is a close approximation of the natural color of some raven’s eyes.

Yet as if that were not enough, on the head and neck, Adams has indicated individual feathers. Most of these feathers are aligned in rows, but only roughly, with some out of alignment and skewed from the rest, and most of them not quite the same shape. On the top the head, too, the feathers grown smaller as they approach the beak. I have no idea whether Adams has observed live ravens or worked from pictures in a book or on the Internet, but the only way that the pendant does not closely reflect a living raven is that the argillite lacks the blue oil-like highlights of actual feathers.

Ivan Adams is not well-known, and you won’t find his work in any Vancouver or Victoria galleries – at least, not yet. But anyone who takes the pains he obviously does is an artist worth paying attention to. Perhaps one day I will be able to afford one of his larger pieces, but meanwhile the pendant is a very satisfactory consolation.

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