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Archive for the ‘Haisla’ Category

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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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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Any exhibit by Haisla artist Lyle Wilson is worth seeing. With a career spanning thirty-five years, in media varying from wood to metal and from jewelry to sculpture, Wilson is one of the major figures in Northwest Coast Art, deserving to be mentioned alongside names like Robert Davidson and Dempsey Bob. However, “Paint,” his current exhibit at the Maple Ridge Art Gallery, is more worth lingering over than most.

For one thing, paint is not a medium that is popular in Northwest Coast art. Its place has largely been taken by limited edition prints, despite the fact that many artists experiment with it. Wilson in particular is not known for it, and went so far at the reception as to say that it was a medium that he disliked. However, given that Wilson says in the program book that he has done over seventy paintings in his career – forty of which are on display in “Paint” – and has stored many unsold for decades, this professed dislike should probably be received with some skepticism.

When Wilson talks about painting, especially the superiority of wood rather than canvas or paper, his tone is calm but clearly engaged, so perhaps the lack of a market has more to do with his claim than any personal preference. Wood, as he pointed out when I talked to him, is the traditional medium for most of the painting on the coast, and he agreed that “warmth” was a suitable adjective for describing its effect compared to canvas or paper.

Which brings up another point: unlike Wilson’s “North Star” exhibit three years ago, which was mostly a display of Wilson’s versatility in different media, “Paint” is about tradition and its role in modern art as much as media. This concern is highlighted in pieces like his illuminated map of traditional Haisla territory, or in his word paintings or his designs that include the major crests of the Haisla nation.

Less obviously, it shows in his attempts to trace ovoids and other elements from the northern style of design to the anatomy of local wildlife; for instance, he suggest that ovoids originate in the eyes of the skate fish.

Tradition, shows, too, in the marine life that crowds Wilson’s work. Skate, halibut, octopi, red cod, salmon – always salmon, the mainstay of traditional life – cluster in much of his work, like “Raven and the Fisherman.”

Other designs are closeups of marine life, or designs made from their intertwined bodies. Their predators, such as the raven, eagle, and the heron also appear. More than most local First Nations artists, Wilson is always mindful that the traditional culture was one that harvested the ocean and depended upon it.

Another way to look at “Paint” is from a personal level. A miniature Tsimshian-style house front and moon reflect Wilson’s personal studies.

One or two small paintings are studies for larger works, such as “Orca Chief,” which was the model for the sculpture “Orca Chief” at the Vancouver airport.

The exhibit shows, too, how Wilson mixes contemporary life with his artistic tradition, as in his alphabet or maps – the closest, perhaps, in contemporary culture that he can come to the role of art in Haisla tradition – and in his traditional orca spouting rainbows of color.

Circle the exhibit several times, and you can also start getting a sense of his preferred palette, a muted selection of colors far less vivid than, for instance, that of Robert Davidson. In fact, much of Wilson’s strongest work is black and white, where his control of contrast is as subtle as it is effective.

“Paint” is a show that is as intellectual as it is personal. Thankfully, it is accompanied by a sixty-six page catalog that combines Wilson’s artistic statements with personal memories and the sometimes fragmentary remnants of his culture past, as well as a strong plea for a revival of interest in the Haisla language, which is quickly approaching extinction. Far from being the usual collection of glittering generalities, this is a catalog rich in personal and cultural biography that adds genuine aesthetic and intellectual appreciation to the exhibit itself.

In fact, ideally, anyone interested in Northwest Coast art should attend the exhibit, then take the catalog home and read it slowly and carefully in preparation for a second, more informed visit (which is what I hope to do myself, even though Maple Ridge is a ninety minute bus ride away). But even if you can only manage one trip, “Paint” is a major show by a major artist, and you are sure to come away with a stronger sense not just of the artist and his art, but also of the culture behind them.

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With few exceptions, the collecting of Northwest Coast Art did not begin until the 1970s. That means that pieces from those collections are just now starting to appear in estate sales – sometimes at bargain prices, if the heirs are more interested in quick cash than obtaining the full value. Consequently, when a copy of Lyle Wilson’s 1980 limited edition print “Shaman’s World “ showed up at the Inuit Gallery during the summer, I quickly snapped it up.

The print would be unusual today, but, when it first appeared, it must have seemed utterly unique. I tag it in my mind as a Northwest Coast Gothic, a kind of predecessor of Ron Telek’s work. It is also Gothic in a modern sense: monochromatic, macabre, and, quite possibly, self-consciously over the top.

The shaman’s world, apparently is actually two worlds, one the mundane world of light, and the other the dark world of the supernatural and other realms like the sky and the depths of the ocean. In the mundane world is the head of an eagle – perhaps a tutelary spirit to judge from the hand above it – while below it is a figure that may be a man terrified of the shaman, but which I suspect is a masked dancer, trying to make sense of reality through his dance. Meanwhile, in the spirit world, a man transforms into an eagle while below it swims a killer whale, another figure of power.

Neither world has much in common with the other except the shaman, who stands in the middle like a sort of ying-yang symbol, half of him in each world. Both worlds are contained in a frame of human figures (whose formline shapes suggest that they are intended as skeletons), birds and monsters that are apparently wolves. The tops and bottom of the frame are mirror images, perhaps adding the additional dimension of life and death to the cosmology contained within the print.

The shaman’s position, clearly enough, indicates that the shaman mediates between all aspects of the world, as well as their different methods of understanding. It might also be significant that the shaman is less skeletal than the human figures in the outer frame and has a differently shaped-head; perhaps the suggestion is that the shaman is the only piece truly alive.

The formlines in “Shaman’s World” are wonderfully simple, defined largely by interior elements to indicate knees and hips and chests. They flow from one shape to another, as good formline should, but so do the elements of the design. For instance, although the shaman’s arms are held in front his chest, the body of the human transforming into a bird and the first sprouting feathers look, at first, like an additional arm. Similarly, the twisted body and tail-flukes of the killer whale suggest a third leg. Together with the formlines, these flowing shapes help assure that the viewer’s eyes are never still, picking out a detail here and there, but always moving around the design.

Another obvious element is the use of blank space. Although much of the design is symmetrical, especially in the frame, the blank spaces on both sides of the shaman are highly irregular, being open and broad on the mundane side, and narrow and twisting on the spirit side. In this way, both the traditional symmetry of most Northwest Coast art and the asymmetrical preferences of modern design appear in the design – yet another set of elements that the shaman mediates between.

By restricting himself to black and white, Wilson relinquishes whatever a secondary or tertiary formline color might have brought to the print, but probably it is just as well – had he added red or blue or green, the design might have collapsed under its own weight. As things are, it is still a restless piece, full of contrasts and new elements to discover as your eye travels around it again and again.

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The Northwest Coast art in our home includes many contemporary pieces. However, I am also fascinated by traditional pieces, particularly recreations of historical masks according to modern sensibilities. That is why, when John Wilson’s “Voices of Our Ancestors” (aka “Portrait Mask”) became available, I jumped at the chance to buy it.

John Wilson, "Spirit of Our Ancestors"

“Voices of Our Ancestors” is based on two historical Haisla masks in J. C. H. King’s “Portrait Masks from the Northwest Coast of America,” a book first published in 1979. It is a mask well worth studying for its own sake, all the more so because examples of Haisla design are relatively rare. When you do see them, you have no trouble placing the Haisla geographically, because their art often seems like a combination of Kwakwaka’wakw and Tsimshian traditions. Nor is Wilson’s mask an exception.

Artists Unknown, Historic Haisla Masks

However, what especially interests me is Wilson’s reinterpretation of the historic masks. To start with, Wilson chooses a less rounded, more northern shape for the mask. This change is accompanied by some changes in proportions, such as a wider space between the lips and nose, and a higher placement of the ears. He has also decided not to include the teeth that are in the originals, and replaced the originals’ rounded eyes with more smaller, more slanted ones. In addition, the cheekbones of Wilson’s mask are far less prominent than in the originals. The result is a less human, more supernatural look – a fitting change, considering that the mask is a work of a modern man looking back on the past.

Another noticeable difference is in the selection of colors. This difference is not just a matter of what was available; one of the older masks actually has a brighter red than the one that Wilson uses. By contrast, even allowing for aging, the historical piece has a more subdued blue than Wilson uses. Wilson also accents the red by drawing thicker formlines, and using it in places where the historical piece uses blue.

Wilson has followed the general designs of the original, including the stylized mustache and goatee, but almost always he has put his own interpretation on them. For instance, he has taken the rows of parallel lines just visible on the colored original, and added them as a design element below the nose, replacing the rather uninspired blobs of cross-hatching, and perhaps suggesting mustache stubble.

However, the largest difference between Wilson’s mask and its inspiration is in the form lines. Although formline influence is obvious in the originals, Wilson’s formlines are more disciplined, with more variation in thickness and more balance. For instance, where the formlines on the forehead in the original meets above the left eye, Wilson’s meet between the eyes. Similarly, where the original has formlines meet on on the cheeks, Wilson’s meet at the nostril.

Probably the most obvious difference in the design is on the cheeks, where the formline helps to replace the cross-hatching, and the blue u-shapes are greatly reduced in size. Even more importantly, the red formline that follows the line of the cheek curves upwards rather than downwards as in the original, doing more than any single element to make the modern mask less human and more arresting than the originals.

“Spirit of Our Ancestors” is obviously influenced by the sources that Wilson acknowledges, but clearly it is more than imitation, or an unthinking copying of a classical piece. Wilson’s mask is more balanced piece of work than either of the originals, with a stronger northern influence as well. Although somewhat of a new direction for Wilson, it more than succeeds on its own terms. Wilson has not simply copied, but repeatedly improved as well.

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One of the pleasures of buying work from beginning artists is watching them fulfill their potential. Last January, I saw enough promise in John Wilson’s work to buy one of his masks. Now, in masks like “Shaman and His Helpers,” his work has reached its first maturity.

Compared to most of Wilson’s earlier works, “Shaman and His Helpers” is a busy piece, both in subject and execution. It benefits, too, from Wilson’s study of traditional masks through pictures, the most obvious benefit being the use of eye holes instead of painted irises and pupils.

The mask depicts a shaman and his spirit helpers. One of the spirit helpers sits in the shaman’s mouth, as though resting after a long climb up his esophagus. The other sits in the middle of his forehead like a frontlet. Both these positions suggest that the helpers are indicators of the shaman’s true nature.

The helpers look more or less human, but the one in the mouth is in a vaguely frog-like position, while the one on the forehead is round enough to be a moon. While the shaman’s eyes are narrowed as though he is entering a trance, both helpers have closed eyes, as if asleep or focusing inwardly.

One way or the other, you sense, the shaman’s and the helpers’ eyes are going to be in the same state shortly: Either the shaman is about to enter their world of perception or else the spirits will come into his. No matter which happens, the result is a mask of a half-realized transition.

Interestingly, too, the spirit on the forehead is painted similarly to the shaman, while the spirit at the mouth is left unpainted. That may be an artistic decision made because any paint would be overwhelmed by the red of the shaman’s lips. But the effect is to suggest that the spirits are in some ways opposite.
Are the spirits different aspects of the shaman’s nature? Or perhaps the helper in the mouth is unrevealed, a creature of the dark, and the moon-like one on the forehead is a creature of light? At the point portrayed in the mask, they do not seem at odds, so perhaps they are opposites needed for balance and insight. Whatever the case, a moment of magic and transition is depicted.

The awe of the moment is heightened by the design of the mask. Tall, thin masks are common in the northern tradition, but in this case, the physical dimensions suggest a lean asceticism that seems fitting for a shaman. This asceticism is heightened by the high cheekbones and the deepness of the eye sockets near the nose, which suggest that the shaman might have been fasting. The black eyebrows reinforce this sense of gauntness, especially in a bright light that emphasizes the cheekbones and eye sockets.

At the same time, the mask carries a hint of menace or pain. Especially from a distance, the hands of the spirit in the mouth suggest fangs. Similarly, the unusually bright red used in the mask leave a half-unconscious impression of blood, as though the shaman’s trance is accompanied by a nosebleed and his biting of his own lip. Or perhaps the redness of the lips suggests that the shaman is giving a sort of birth to the spirit clinging to his lips. The suggestions are understated – there are no blatant riverlets of blood trickling from the nostrils or down the chin – but they are only more effective for being subtle.

And always the grain, which Wilson has carefully matched to the contours of the face, stands out, suggesting a movement or fluidity just below the skin. Influenced by his teachers at the Fred Diesing School, Wilson has always shown an awareness of the grain as a finishing detail, but here that awareness is not just a reflection of technical skill, but also an addition to the design.

When this mask first went on the market, I missed the chance to buy it, and cursed my slowness to make a decision. Luckily for me, the first owner changed their mind, and I was able to buy it after all. The more I study “Shaman and His Helpers,” the more I think it is Wilson’s best mask to date. At the same time, knowing that he is a constant carver and likely to have decades to continue his learning of his craft, I can’t wait to see what levels he will reach next.

shaman-and-helpers

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With no Northwest Coast art on layaway and no must-haves in the galleries or on the web, we didn’t expect to buy any new pieces this month. But luck struck unexpectedly, and early this month we were told that Trish’s ticket had won the pendant being raffled as part of Lyle Wilson’s North Star exhibit at the West Vancouver Museum.

Five centimeters in diameter and made of engraved silver, the pendant is a miniature version of the aluminum piece that was the logo for the show. Wilson’s aluminum sculptures are much more finely cut than most large scale Northwest Coast installations in the same metal, and, mounted some distance from the wall, cast shadows that quite literally give them another dimension. However, Wilson is known primarily for his jewelry, so the pendant is perhaps more representative of him.

lyle-wilson-aluminium

Like much of Wilson’s work, the pendant is a mixture of European and Haisla tradition. The pendant is a compass rose, with the four cardinal points marked by arrows, and the figure of what I believe is a bear in the middle. The pendant differs from the aluminum logo in that the cardinal points do not extend beyond the circumference of the design, and the image of the bear is slightly smaller in diameter.

What the pendant has that the logo lacks is a variety of different hatching techniques. At the outer rim, the hatching is a series of finely etched vertical lines, each extremely fine but distinct. A band of unadorned metal separates the uttermost hatching from a smaller band that continues the vertical lines. The fourth ring of hatching is an equally fine stippled effect that extends into the compass points. The inner figure is separated by yet another fine ring of vertical lines, and is itself a small show piece of diagonal lines, with the face, the lower left and the upper right slanted to the right, and the upper left and lower right to the right. Most design teachers would advise students not to mix so many hatching styles in such a small space, but it speaks volumes about Wilson’s virtuosity that he is able to ignore such standard advice and produce such an intricate design.

The bear design, of course, is appropriate because the north star is in the constellation of Ursa Minor, the little bear. Perhaps, the pendant is the north star itself, with the outer vertical lines the rays of light radiating from it. Or, if you consider the design for a while, you might conclude that Wilson is playing with the idea of the bear being both a constellation and an earth-bound creature. To my eye, at any rate, the outer rim of vertical lines could suggest either the rays of the sun, or perhaps the northern lights, while the heavy stippling suggests the earth. These two realms are bridged by the points of the compass, which are identifiable by taking a bearing (if you pardon the pun), on the north star.

At the same time, you could take the contrast between sky and earth as a reflection of the two cultures that Wilson is caught between. With the emphasis on the compass in the pendant’s design, the sky could be interpreted as modern scientific culture, and the earth as Wilson’s first nation roots. Alternatively, you could reverse the interpretation, and see the bear in the sky as the mythologizing that informs the first nation cultures, the earth the mundane reality of the city in which Wilson lives. The interpretation works either way, because what matters is the contrast.

However, such readings are not my first reaction to the pendant. My first reaction is respect for Wilson’s attention to detail. Looking at the pendant, I am never in any doubt that I am looking at a piece by a master carver, and it is appreciation of his skill that makes me grateful that we have the right to house it.

lyle-wilson-pendant

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