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Archive for the ‘Kelly Robinson’ Category

Kelly Robinson is one of my favorite First Nations artists. I live with two of his paintings and three of his masks, all of which are strikingly different. Partly, his versatility is explained by the fact he works in both the Nuxalk and Nuu-chah-nulth traditions, but, whatever the reason, he is always trying something new. “Shamed Spirit” is no exception, although I have put off writing about it for several months, waiting for him to tell me more.

Until the other week, the mask didn’t even have a name. Robinson himself seems reluctant to talk about it, suggesting it is highly personal.

I recognized, of course, that it is a ridicule mask. Ridicule masks are a tradition on the Northwest Coast, a public display reproof of someone’s behavior through the destruction of artwork. This gesture is, perhaps, comparable to the breaking of a copper, as Beau Dick did a few years ago on the grounds of the British Columbia legislature and later at the Canadian Parliament Buildings – a gesture of contempt emphasized by the destruction of something personal and beautiful.

Modern ridicule masks generally feature the marring of half a mask. Often, they make a similar statement to Dick’s breaking of a copper; I remember Mike Dangeli, for example, contributing a ridicule mask that was an overt comment about the treatment of the First Nations to the opening show at the Bill Reid Gallery.

However, I still don’t know whether Robinson intends a similar comment. From a couple of hints, it might be a comment about sexual abuse, although how personal or how political it might be, I am no means sure.

Still, no matter what the target of the mask might be, it remains a powerful symbol. From the right side of the mask, you can see that the design is a mature display of skill, simple yet striking and well-finished. The left side, which Robinson tells me actually spent some time in a fire (and still smells like it did) is both a tragedy for lovers of art, and an expression of strong emotion. After all, who destroys such a piece of art without a strong motivation?

The whole idea of a ridicule mask seems the ultimate example of passive-aggressiveness, a gesture whose sincerity is undeniable, yet comes at a tremendous cost, both personally and aesthetically. I can only hope that one day I get to hear the story behind “Shamed Spirit,” because as a statement, it seems important – even to my limited understanding. But, then, who says that art is supposed to be easy?

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Most of the Northwest Coast art in my townhouse is in the formline style favored by the Northern First Nations in British Columbia. However, I am always willing to learn more about other coastal traditions, and slowly that’s what I’m doing. The only trouble is, relatively little is written about these other traditions, so most of my knowledge comes from looking at what working artists like Kelly Robinson are doing.

Robinson is a young artist of mixed Nuxalk and Nu-chah-nulth descent who is exploring both sides of his ancestry. In the last year or so, much of his wood carving (he is also an accomplished jeweler) has explored Nu-chah-nulth forms. In particular, he has built on the work of artists like Joe David and Art Thompson who revived the tradition and elevating it into fine art based on his time at the Freda Diesing School.

Fortunately for me, “Ancestor of Today” became available when I had just cashed a few cheques from editors. I first saw the mask in Cathedral Close, the garden outside the Bill Reid Gallery in downtown Vancouver, and, a couple of hours later, I was taking it home on the Skytrain in a bag I was clutching in a death-grip.

The inhabitants of the west of Vancouver Island, the Nu-chah-nulth (formerly called the Nootka and the West Coast) were in a position to be influenced by both the Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuxalk, and Heiltsuk to the east, and the Haida to the north. In fact, unlike most first nations around them, by 1900, Nu-chah-nulth had at least two different styles, a newer one based on formline, and the older, original style. There also seems to have been a third style reserved for the curtains used in the ceremonial mysteries, although I am not altogether certain.

At any rate, these mixed influences may explain the mixture found on “Ancestor of Today.” On the one hand, the mask includes elements that are universal in the coastal traditions, including the U-shapes and the labret that indicates high status. The hair, too, is arranged in a buzz-cut that I have seen in works from every nation.

On the other hand, the facial features all seem to me to be typically Nu-chah-nulth origin, from the raised eyebrows to the high forehead and the nose that swells around the nostril. One of the strongest distinguishing features are the outsized, shallow eye sockets. Unlike in the northern style, the eyes themselves are barely distinguished from the sockets. Here, they are no more than crescents indicate a closed eye, although they would probably not be much more detailed if the eyes were open. The eye sockets join the high cheekbones – another distinguishing feature – not in a plane, as in a northern style, but in a single line.

The painting, too, differs strongly from the northern style. The traditional red and black are the primary colors, but, they cover most of the mask, rather than being used only to highlight features like the lips, nostrils, and brows. Moreover, instead of the designs being painted across the face without much regard for the carving, the way they would be in the north, the designs on the bottom of the cheeks are on their own planes. Between the lips and the nostrils, a different approach is taken, with the inverted U-shape merging into the top list, and the unpainted border on each side of it into the nostrils.

(The mask’s use of gray and the unpainted wood as additional colors is also untypical of the northern style, although they may be Robinson’s innovations rather than indicating any particular tradition; I’ll have to ask him next time we’re in touch.)

The overall impression is of a simpler, bolder style than would be likely to come out of the north. It is enhanced by the slightly rough knife-finish – Robinson’s first effort at this technique, he tells me. To my modern eye, the closed eyes give it Buddha-like sense of calm dignity in keeping with the mask’s name, which asserts a claim that the tradition is still alive and evolving today.

I admire Robinson’s Nuxalk style work, especially the “Four Carpenters” and “Mother of Mischief” paintings, which hang in my living room. However, his Nu-chah-nulth work has its own fascination, especially since he is one of the few artists in the tradition who is trying to evolve the tradition. With “Ancestor of Today,” he manages the difficult trick of re-introducing the tradition while adding first-rate finishing and the steady hand on the paint brush that modern buyers expect. I’m looking forward to what he does next in this style.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Last week, I flew into Terrace to attend the end exhibit at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art.

Of the four year end exhibits I’ve attended, this years’ was the weakest, with the fewest number of pieces on display and the lowest quality, but there were compensations. The show was partly a reunion of alumni, with former students such as Mitch Adams, Latham Mack, John Wilson, and Carol Young in attendance. And, as always, Waap Galts’ap, the longhouse on the campuse of Northwest Community College in Terrace, made for a setting that was both aesthetic and relaxing.

Nor was the show entirely lacking in pieces worth lingering over.

Larry Darrick displayed an abstract panel design that was all the more striking for being in black and white:

Darrick’s “Boogie Mask- Myth of Hairy Man, Bigfoot & Boogie Mask” was also worth a second look for its use of woven cedar for its mess of hair, although its copper nostrils and eyebrows seemed more elaborate than the simplicity of the carving would justify:

Among the spoons and bowls, the painting and lines of Lyle Mack’s “Transformation Spoon” was noticeable, so much so that I found myself wishing he had finished a mask or a painting for the show:

I was especially pleased to see that some of the high-quality work was done by last years’ winners of the Mature Student Award, which I sponsor. Barry Sampare, last years’ winner, showed more attention to detail and finish than most students:

Similarly, Evan Aster, who last year received an Honorable Mention for the Mature Student Award, displayed the same attention to the painted design as in last year’s exhibit to produce a mask of mildly eerie paleness:

Last year’s other Honorable Mention, Moses White, produced the strongest work of his that I’ve seen to date in “Oil Stained Warrior – Blood will spill before oil.” White’s mask had one side slightly higher than the other, but managed to be eye-catching just the same.

One of the standouts of the show was Nathan Wilson, who has already had some commercial success in the galleries. His “Defend the Village: Warrior Mask” seemed to show traces of the influence of John Wilson, with whom he worked privately in the past, but the boldness of design, as well as the mixture of materials (alder, horse hair, abalone, cedar bark, acrylic) was a a rare example of embellishments not overwhelming the design:

My only regret was that Wilson was not displaying more in the show.

First year student Jared “Citizen” Kane was another standout, with prints that were somewhat lacking in detail, but intricate enough that I bought both of them:

Still another standout was Paula Wesley, who plans to continue her art studies at Emily Carr next September. Although Wesley’s carvings looked a little rushed, and were not her best work, her two-dimensional pieces showed a pleasing discipline of line and a complexity of design, as in her “Releasing the Light”:

Wesley also created one of the strongest pieces in the show, a family box design that, had it been for sale, I would happily have bought:

However, pride of place in the show literally went to Kelly Robinson. Already a professional jeweler and painter, Robinson showed that he is equally promising as a carver. The central area of the exhibit was dominated by a display case with a spoon by Robinson, while two of his masks hung facing each other on either side:

In addition, Robinson’s painting, “Box Design (The 4 Carpenters)” hung at the main entrance of the longhouse, and was the most accomplished piece of the entire show:

The title refers to what might be called the celestial contractors in Nuxalk mythology who were charged with making the sun and other aspects of the world. The painting has a boldness and a mixture of traditional and contemporary that many visitors to the show admired, and I am proud to say that it will soon be on my living room wall.

With such artists as Kane, Robinson, Wilson and Wesley, the show was still worth seeing, and, as in past years, both the students and instructors couldn’t have been more welcoming. I look forward to seeing what the grads do next (and maybe buying more of their work), and how the first year students improve after another year of instruction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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