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Archive for the ‘John Wilson’ 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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Over the last few years, I’ve received four masks and three prints from Haisla artist John Wilson, as well as a bentwood box carved and painted by him. The masks in particular are among my favorites hanging in the townhouse, and show Wilson’s increasing expertise as an artist. My latest purchase from Wilson, “Blind Shaman in a Trance,” illustrates the level he’s reached – one that makes his work stand out among the artists who have established themselves in the last five years.

“Blind Shaman” depicts a common theme in historical Northwest Coast art, and one popular among many modern artists: a shaman going about his business as the mediator between different aspects of reality. A blind shaman was thought to be compensated for his lack of sight by greater inward vision, and this one has the additional support of frogs as spirit helpers. As creatures who change form as they grow, and as adults move freely between the water and the land, frogs are especially suitable as helpers, because they embody exactly the freedom of movement between planes of existence that the shaman tries to develop. Unsurprisingly, the placement of spirit helpers like mice or frogs on the cheeks and forehead are a common feature in shamanistic masks in the northern tradition, particularly among the Tlingit.

Like much of the work that Wilson has done this year, “Blind Shaman” is more complex than the portrait masks that comprise the bulk of his work. Although his past work shows that a face alone can be interesting, “Blind Shaman adds additional figures, making for a more complex composition, even before painting. In fact, in some ways, a picture of the mask in progress that Wilson posted on Facebook is more interesting than the final version, because the lack of paint emphasizes the carving more, as well as the shadows it creates.

However, the mask has an effect when painted that it could never have when unpainted. By rising to the top of the nose, the blue triangle that covers the lower face allows an easy reversal of figure and ground. At first glance, the mask appears to be a face surrounded by frogs, all much smaller than the face. But if you focus on the mouth of the figure on the forehead, then suddenly the frogs on the cheeks look like hands, and a much larger figure is looming over the shaman’s face, consisting of mostly uncarved wood. Focus again, and the mask appears in its original form. This reversal emphasizes the fact that the shaman’s trance involves him opening up to forces larger than himself, perhaps even inviting possession.

From either perspective, “Blind Shaman in a Trance” is an arresting piece of work. I look forward to seeing what Wilson does next – and, meanwhile, this latest mask is a welcome addition to one wall of my bedroom.

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Every piece of art, several collectors have told me, comes with a story. Gradually, as I’ve bought art, I realized that this statement is true, so on my spreadsheet for insurance purposes, I’ve created a column where I can type the story of how the piece was acquired.

I have no trouble remembering the first piece of serious art I bought. It was a three inch copper bracelet by Tsimshian artist Henry Green. I’d wanted such a piece for years, and suddenly realized I could afford one. I still remember my breathlessness as I approached the gallery to pick it up, and my sigh of relief when it proved more awe-inspiring than I could ever have hoped.

A couple of months later, I saw that the Bill Reid Gallery was selling canvas banners from a set that had been stored in Bill Reid’s house since 1991. Trish and I bought one, realizing that it was our best chance of affording any work by Bill Reid, then quickly bought another to balance the wall where the first one hung. Soon after, we bought our first mask, a moon by Ron Telek that is both eerie and strangely modernistic.

More soon followed. There was a Beau Dick sketch of a mask, unusual in that, with his carver’s eye, he depicted planes, not lines. The Lyle Wilson pendant Trish won in a raffle at an exhibit – the best $5 that either of us had ever spent. The small Telek mask that I fetched from the South Terminal of the Vancouver airport by walking from the end of the bus line and back again. The Gwaii Edenshaw gold rings we bought for our anniversary. The miniature argillite transformation mask by Wayne Young that I trekked over to Victoria for after Trish’s death and repaired and remounted because it was so magnificently unique. The wall-hanging commissioned by Morgan Green to help her through goldsmith school. And so the stories accumulate, so far as I’m concerned, as innate as the aesthetics of the piece.

For instance, there’s Mitch Adam’s “Blue Moon Mask,” which I saw in 2010 at the Freda Diesing School’s year end exhibit. It was labeled NFS, bound for the Spirit Wrestler show for the school’s graduates a month later. I happened to mention to Mitch that I would have written a cheque right away had it been for sale – not hinting, just praising – and a few hours later he came back and said the piece was mine if I were still interested. I was, and immediately became the envy of half a dozen other people who also wanted to buy it, but had never had the luck to ask. One of them still talks enviously when we meet.

Then there’s Shawn Aster’s “Raven Turns the Crows Black,” a painting that we had discussed in 2009, but didn’t seem to gel in his mind. After a year, I had stopped expecting him to finish it, and took to calling him a promising artist, because he kept saying that he was still working on it. But he did complete it – making it a Chilkat design (which I had not expected), and showing a promise of a different kind.

Two other pieces were commissions in memory of Trish after her death: John Wilson’s “Needlewoman” and Mike Dangeli’s “Honoring Her Spirit.” I made “Needlewoman” a limited edition of twenty, and gave it to family members for Christmas 2010. Mike’s painting, more personal, I kept for myself, carrying it up Commercial Drive from Hastings Street on a chilly January Sunday, because cabs wouldn’t come to the Aboriginal Friendship Center where I picked it up.

Other pieces were gifts from friends: a print of “January Moon” by Mitch Adams in return for some advice on galleries I gave him; a bentwood box Mitch Adams made and John Wilson carved and painted in memory of Trish; a remarque of Ron Telek’s “Sirens” print, and an artist’s proof by John Wilson and another print by Shawn Aster, both apologies for the late delivery of other pieces.

Of course, such stories mean that I can never sell any of the pieces I buy. The associations have become too much a part of me. But since I never buy to invest, only to appreciate, that is no hardship – my appreciation is only deeper for the personal connections.

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Last week when I was in the Lattimer Gallery, I received my copy of the book for the 2010 Charity Bentwood Boxes. It’s a small but well-designed book, and it reminded me that I hadn’t blogged about the box I bought in the auction.

2010 was the fourth year of the auction, with the proceeds going to Vancouver Aboriginal Health. The concept is simple: James Michels makes and donates the boxes, which are decorated by Northwest Coast artists, and the boxes are sold in a silent auction. In 2010, $10,850 was raised – more than double the amount raised the year before.

Over the last couple of years, the decorating of the boxes has become increasingly competitive as artists try to outdo each with their concepts. In 2010, for example, Landon Gunn added copper moon faces to his box, and Jing painted his in a Chilkat design. Steve Smith made his box a rattle. Even more extravagantly, Ian Reid (Nusi) crowded his with Tibetan pray flags and images of the Buddha, while Rod Smith chopped up his box and reassembled it. Perhaps the most ingenious box was Clinton Work’s “The Shop Thief,” a little man with the box for a body and the lid for a hat surrounded by the tools he had stolen – a theme that proved especially popular with the artists. If anything, the competition to be original promises to be even fiercer next year, with some artists already planning their designs for 2011.

I bid on several boxes, but, as I expected, the bidding soon got out of hand (even if it was for a charity). In the end, I was pleased to bring home “Hawk,” by Haida artist Ernest Swanson, a traditional piece that many people overlooked.

Part of the reason “Hawk” was overlooked may have been that it was on the bottom shelf of the display case, so you had to get down on your hands and knees to see it properly. But a larger reason, I suspect, was that it was a traditional piece with none of the embellishments of the more extravagant designs. When I contacted him online, even Swanson sounded like he thought he should produced something more original.

For my part, I have no complaints. Although I own a number of contemporary Northwest Coast pieces, I appreciate a traditional piece, too. Moreover, despite the fact that Swanson is relatively young, he has a reputation for traditional design, and for several years he has been on my short list of artists whose work I wanted to buy some day. I was delighted to get a sample of his work for a reasonable price – a sentiment that may sound unsuitable to a charity event, but I would be less than honest if I didn’t state it.

Much of Swanson’s work seems to be jewelry, a medium in which he is rapidly reaching the stage where his prices are soon likely to take a big jump upwards. That makes “Hawk” a bit of an exception in his work.

Nonetheless, I appreciate the boldness of the design, which has relatively little variation in line thickness. At the same time, it manages to be a busy design, perhaps because of the relative lack of red as a secondary color – a design decision that is almost a necessity, since too much secondary red would be garish and overwhelming given the bright red lit.

I appreciate, too, how the fact that centering the face on corners makes the design seem abstract from most angles, with the pattern only becoming obvious as you turn the box.

“Hawk” is a piece that you have to study for a while to appreciate. It stands now on my dresser, holding spare keys (because I feel that such a practical a thing as a box should be used, so long as it is used respectfully), and I find that my appreciation has grown even greater over the months of seeing and using it.

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Bentwood boxes have always fascinated me. The intricacy of their making, which requires steaming the wood until it can be coaxed into shape, has always seemed an indication of just how technologically advanced the First Nations cultures of the Pacific Northwest were. In the same way, the fact that they are both decorated and utilitarian indicates the sophistication of these cultures. I have wanted a bentwood box for years, looking longingly at the works of Richard Sumner, the leading specialist in making them, but somehow never quite finding the right one.

Then last summer, after my partner Patricia Louise Williams died, Mitch Adams and John Wilson, two Terrace-based carvers and friends, said they would make a box as a memorial for me. Adams was experimenting with making the boxes (using a giant plastic bag, apparently, to trap the steam needed to shape the wood). He had already made one for his wife Diana after one or two tries, and, after another attempt had snapped, he produced a second one, passing it to Wilson to carve and paint.

For me, an agony of waiting followed, punctuated by jokes online how it was going to be the first see-through bentwood box, or would be painted pink and lime green, or some other non-traditional color, such as purple. But John had a living to make, and was nervous about wrecking the box. He also suffered a repetitive stress injury that kept him from carving for weeks, and slowed his notoriously fast carving. All too quickly, the days of waiting turned from days into weeks and from weeks into months.

I hope I didn’t nag him too often or too insistently. And I’m reasonably sure I didn’t actually utter the death-threats that impatience sent flitting through my brain, because, the last I checked, John was still talking to me.

Still, with one thing or the other, it was only when Mitch and Diana came down to Vancouver for the Chinese New Year in February that I finally held the box in my hands. I had spent the morning while we ate dim sum, wanting to ask if the box had been carried down on the plane as promised, and not wanting to ask in case it hadn’t. So, as soon as I had removed enough bubble wrap to smell the Varathane, a big sloppy grin was slapped across my face.

If possible, my first sight of the box made my grin wider still. According to John, the red side represents Trish, and the black side me. Considering that black is the primary color in formline designs and red the secondary, these seem the appropriate colors for the living and the dead, and I’ve taken to turning the box on my dresser according to my mood, turning to the red side when I’m thinking of Trish, and to the black when my grief weighs on me less than usual. So far, it tends to have the red side outwards four days out of five.

I didn’t quite hunch over my sports bag as I took the box home on the Skytrain, but it was a near thing altogether. Had anyone tried to snatch the bag from me, they would have seen my wolverine imitation, but the trip passed uneventfully.

I have no plans to sell any of the art I’ve bought. However, if I ever did, the box would be among the last. It’s become a symbol of more things than I can quickly describe, and often it’s the last thing I look at before turning off the light at night.

Thanks, guys, for the right gift at the right time. I know that Trish would have appreciated it as much as I do.

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I think of Haisla artist John Wilson as primarily a mask carver, and certainly that is where most of his efforts have gone in the last few years. However, his prints show a certain talent for two-dimensional design as well, which is why I was pleased to pick up this abstract “Wolf.”

Most Northwest Coast Art is abstract to a greater or lesser extent, of course, in that it is highly stylized and uses a number of basic shapes not found in nature to achieve its effects. However, the sub-genre specifically referred to as abstract is less naturalistic than most. In an abstract piece, some of the distinguishing features of a subject are often missing or distorted and often only one or two remain. The figure is further distorted by the surface it is on. The end result is a figure far removed from the semi-naturalistic figures in the tradition – so much so that viewers either need the title or some familiarity with the art in order to know what is being depicted. These conditions open up possibilities for original self-expression that are often harder to find in semi-naturalistic figures.

All these generalities are true in “Wolf.” The bushy tail that is one of the defining characteristics of wolf figures (and often an opportunity for considerable ingenuity by artists) is squeezed into the rectangle of the figure below the jaw, so that at first you might mistake it for ornamentation. Only the short ears and perhaps the muzzle and teeth are left to identify the figure – and the muzzle and teeth might easily be a bear’s. Since the figure is turned sideways and presented upright, there is only one foot and a couple of claws, which increases the abstraction even further

What is left is mostly teeth and claws, creating an impression of fierceness, especially since the claws are outsized. This impression is strengthened further by the elaborateness of the eye with its tilt, as well as the red of the tail bisecting the image.

Technically, the print might be called a study in threes. Three parts of the wolf – the head, the tail, and the foot – are depicted. There are three black ovoids — the eye, foot and nostril – that frame the image, each with a slightly different shape as well as different interior decorations. In addition, three parallel lines –the tail itself, the bottom line of the heat and the top of the foot – cut across the picture. Three black lines form the foot, although only part of the two claws are parallel. In addition, the eye is made elaborate by three clusters of U-shapes, each with some variation of a T-shape inside it to thin it out. For variation, the patterns of three are sometimes broken, as in the red decorations around the eye, only two of which have a tripartite structure, but the grouping are enough to give the figure of “Wolf” a strong unity.

An especially interesting cluster of threes is the tail with its knick in the middle. It is minimalistically echoed in the thin red line beneath the claws, and in the mirror image that touches the ear on one side and the muzzle on the other.. I am not absolutely sure of Wilson’s intention, but the way that the top structure mirrors that of the tail suggests to me that it is part of the tail, so you have to imagine the tail wrapping around the wolf, stretching from the bottom of the image to the top behind the figure, where you can’t see it.

The formlines, too, are worth pointing out. For much of their lengths, they are a uniform thickness, and bend at almost the same angle. However, they are saved from being monotonous by their long, tapering ends, and surprisingly few other techniques. Instead, they create a sense of boldness that seems to fit with the ferocity of the wolf.

In fact, if I had to use one word for “Wolf,” that word would be “bold.” In a way, I regret that the print is so small, because “Wolf” is a design that almost demands to be blown up for a house-front or some other large-scale depiction.

(Note: Being a responsible blogger, I want to take this opportunity to strongly deny the rumor that the print is also available in a limited edition of one in pink and mauve. This alleged alternative version does not exist, and you should not ask the artist about it. Nor did you view it here if you are interrogated. Okay?.)


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If my late spouse Patricia Louise Williams had been an opera buff, I might have arranged a special performance in her name for charity. Had she loved walking in a particular park, I might have arranged for a bench with her name to be placed there. But, because three of her favorite things were needle art (embroidery, cross-stitch and other related techniques), our parrots,  and Northwest Coast art, I took an inspiration from Rande Cook’s “The Poet” and commissioned a limited edition of 20 prints and 5 artist proofs from Haisla artist John Wilson, one of our favorite artists.

The design process was interesting, because I had never been so heavily involved in it before. John and I chatted about what would go into the print a couple of times on Facebook before coming up with the final idea. I also talked with Mitch Adams, the artist-turned-printmaker as he was producing the prints and last minute changes were needed.

Essentially, the print is meant as a one to one transposition of her life into the cultures of the northern coast. The print shows a stylized woman (complete with labret) at a loom, which is a bit of wish fulfillment, because traditional weaving was something that Trish had dabbled in and always wanted to go more deeply into. Similarly, our four parrots become four ravens, their counterparts in the northern hemisphere, who also happen to be psychopomps – that is, conductors of the dead into the afterlife.

The print includes a number of reference and in-jokes, some public, and some private. The pattern on the loom is unfinished, reflecting the fact that Trish died relatively young, and with many things unfinished. Moreover, the pattern itself is Raven’s Tail, one of the oldest weaving patterns known on the coast, which ties in with Trish’s lifelong archaeological interests.

In the same way, the tongues of the ravens are touching, which traditionally indicates communication or the imparting of wisdom. If you have ever heard either parrots or ravens, you will know just how unlikely that sounds when applied to them.

To catch the other references, you would need to have known Trish. She was always holding needles in her mouth as she worked, which could make a kiss in passing a dangerous proposition. Also, like all needle art practitioners, she was always dropping needles – which one of us would eventually find by being stabbed in the foot. It’s all part of the gentle humor in the print which reflects Trish’s own.

I suppose some people might leap to accuse me of cultural expropriation. But if nineteenth century argillite carvers could depict Europeans in top hats, or Norman Tait could carve a mask that included a camera,  I think that “Needlewoman” is on safe grounds. People often forget the sense of humor in Northwest Coast art, and I make no apology for restoring some of it, especially when it’s appropriate to Trish.

Like all art, “Needle Woman is comforting to have – and so is sharing copies of it with those closest to Trish.

Thanks, John, for an original and moving piece of art.

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