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Archive for the ‘Mouse Woman’ Category

Cody LeCoy is a young First Nations painter. Mentored by Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, he favors a surrealist style that has given him some mainstream success. However, to my eye, his painting are at their most original when he applies surrealism to First Nations tradition, as he does in “Mouse Woman, Keeper of the Neighborhood.”

Mouse Woman is a figure that has young artists today are fascinated by. The truth is, however, is that little is known about her, not even how she was depicted traditionally. What is known is that she is the helper of heroes, often meeting them on their journeys as a mouse in need of assistance, then re-appearing as a woman of high status who gives them shelter for the night and wise advice to take away with them. I think of her as the opposite of Raven, a guardian of the community against his individualism, a force for order as opposed to his chaos, and a preserver where Raven is both a creator and destroyer.

“Keeper of the Neighborhood” was hanging at a pizza parlor when I saw a picture of it in LeCoy’s mail out. I immediately arranged to meet him there, and arrived early, sitting next to the picture while I waited, as though to ward off any other potential buyers. I came home with it wrapped in garbage bags, during a break in the rain, getting it indoors again just before the rain returned again.

According to my interpretation, the painting is based on the idea that Mouse Woman continues to watch over the community of the First Nations, even when most of it is living in the city. In the upper left corner, she appears in her mouse form, looking fierce with hunger, and nervous. Her other form dominates the painting, her dual nature suggested by the difference between her right and left eye and her narrow, bony fingers, which holds a sphere up where she can view it more clearly – a sign that she is still a protector of her world.

Technically, what I admire about the painting is that it is painted on plywood. The color of the plywood is blended into the painting so well that, until I saw it up close, I had no idea that the brown of her face was actually the bare plywood. The rest of the painting is full of bristly strokes that appear layered from a distance, and add a sense of restlessness that fits into the concept of a guardian from the past uneasily continuing to carry out her responsibilities in a very different cultural setting than the one where she began – one that is perhaps potentially dangerous, and where she does not naturally belong, except that her people have moved there.

Just as in”Ridicule Mask,” the other painting by LeCoy that hangs on my wall, “Mouse Woman, Keeper of the Neighborhood” takes a traditional theme, and applies it to a modern setting, using a non-traditional style. I admit to a weakness for surrealism, but in these paintings, LeCoy produces a sense of tension and restlessness all his own. I look forward to watching where his talent takes him next.Mousewoman.JPG

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I have two great weakness when buying Northwest Coast art: I love to see artists trying out new media, and I love work that shows the lesser-known figures of mythology. With these preferences, it seems inevitable that I would have bought Morgan Green’s Mouse Woman platter.

Morgan Green is a twenty-five year old artist who seems to be in the middle of deciding what art she wants to do. She is represented in the galleries mostly by her painted leather cuffs, but she has also done fashion design, carved masks and poles, and assisted older artists with painting and metal casting. Add an art teacher and potter for a mother and master carver Henry Green for a father, and it is no wonder that she always seems to be galloping off in all directions (in fact, every time I’ve met or contacted her, she seems about to be preparing for a journey or just returned from one).

The Mouse Woman platter is one of several pieces of ceramics that Green is exhibiting at the Edzerza Gallery. Made from clay that Green recently brought back from Arizona, it is as untraditional as a Northwest Coast piece can be. Ceramics were not a part of the northern coast first nation cultures, and, unlike argillite a century ago or glass in recent decades, have never really caught on, although you can find occasional pieces – usually not very skilled and mostly for the tourist trade.

As for Mouse Woman herself, she remains a bit of a mystery. Few, if any renditions of her survive. But the stories make her a powerful, although minor character. She generally appears as a helper of a hero in a quest. In several tales, for instance, a hero helps a mouse over a log, and then, that evening, comes to a long-house where he is greeted by a noble woman who feasts him and gives him good advice. In other tales, she whispers practical advice about everyday concerns that the hero passes on to his people. In many ways, she is all that Raven is not: domestic where he is a wanderer, a maintainer and restorer of order where he is a bringer of chaos and change, and a representative of civilization where he is the eternal outsider. Where Raven is often a child, she is more often described as a grandmother, perhaps an elder.

Since no one is quite sure what Mouse Woman is supposed to look like, in depicting her, Green is free to let her imagination run wild. She chooses a simple design that goes well the rough, terra-cotta background – a combination that vaguely suggests petroglyphs, an art form that flourished several centuries before the northern formline became codified. Most of the lines are thin, except for those associated with what Green presumably intends as Mouse Woman’s distinguishing characteristics: her incisors, round eyes and ears. For these features, the lines are heavy, giving them added prominence, and elevating them to the equivalent of the orca’s fin or the eagle’s hooked beak – the features that tell you what creature is intended even if the complete shape is not depicted.

The result is a fragile but alert-looking creature, with ovoids that suggest cheeks stuffed with food. The result is a surprisingly naturalistic figure of a mouse, that, at the same time, also suggests a tiny but alert and active grandmother. How artists of a century and a half ago might have depicted Mouse Woman remains unknown, but I’m sure that they would recognize instantly the subject of Green’s depiction.

I don’t know whether Green will continue working with ceramics. Considering her restlessness, my guess is that she won’t for the time being, although she may return to them eventually. But I suspect that her recent YVR scholarship couldn’t have come at a better time. The Mouse Woman platter is a minor piece (in scope, I mean; at twenty-five centimeters it is definitely not so in size), but it suggests to me an artist who is starting to find the themes that interest her.

morgan-green-mouse-woman-plate

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Last night, I was at the reception for Tahltan artist Alano Edzerza’s new exhibit, “Gift of the Raven.” The show features Edzerza’s work of the last six months. Also on display were a number of pieces by Morgan Green, a recent recipient of the YVR Art Foundation Scholarship and (as she may be tired of hearing) the daughter of Tsimshian master carver Henry Green.

The evening started with a performance of “Raven Steals the Light” by Victor Reece’s Big Sky Multi-Media Storytelling Society. The performance was held in the courtyard of the Waterfall Building, the complex in which the Edzerza Gallery is located. It featured a dancer with suitably nervous bird-like movements and a light mask with mirrors for eyes, and ended with him climbing to an overhead walkway to conclude the performance – all in all, a successful blending of the traditional and the contemporary.

Then, the crowd squeezed inside the gallery for the viewing.

The show did not include any new traditional style work by Edzerza. Otherwise, it was a good representation of the different strains in his work. My main problem was dodging the crowd and finding gaps in it that lasted long enough to snap a picture. Combined with the fact that some paintings were hung high, the result is pictures that are less than professional quality (to say the least), but should give some idea of what was on display.

In one corner of the front of the gallery was a collection of Edzerza’s glass boxes:

alano-glass-boxes1

Elsewhere, you could see some of his experiments with color, such as this collection of closeups of traditional formline designs done in the electric colors of pop-art on a back wall:

alano-colors

The same pop-art sensibility appeared in a couple of contemporary paintings of frogs, which were inspired, I am told, by a tattoo on a woman’s back:

alano-frog3

But the major works in the exhibit were the multi-panel ones, like this one that was hung near the ceiling, facing the door:

alano-orca-multi

Another orca design, a triptych, was hung just inside the door, and a triptych featuring ravens on the back wall. The raven triptych was especially dramatic, as one of its panel shows:

alano-eagle-triptych2

All these multi-panel works shared features that are characteristic of Edzerza’s work: A three-dimensional contemporary take on traditional Northwest Coast designs, an experiment with color in mainly grayscale designs, and a dramatic sense of movement that is enhanced by the separate canvases and draws your eyes from one to the next.

Morgan Green is not as an experienced an artist as Edzerza, but, in the last year, her work has matured quickly. Previously, the work by Green that I knew best were her leather cuffs and a somewhat over-ornate wolf helmet in the gallery, but the works I saw last night shows some other sides to her work, and an interest in different media that, if anything, is even greater than Edzerza’s.

Green’s works included a wall hanging and a variety of earth-colored ceramics inspired by a recent trip to Arizona and the First Nations work she saw there. A plate depicting Mouse Woman was particularly striking:

morgan-green-mouse-woman-plate

So far as I know, no historical depictions of Mouse Woman survive. But Green’s rendering seems a reasonable one, with features like the ears, the round eyes and the incisors providing the defining features that you would expect in a traditional design. At the same time, placing the design on grainy ceramic creates a pictograph-like effect, all the more so because the formline is hinted at more than fully realized.

Perhaps the most accomplished work by Green on display was a Dogfish Woman robe she had created for an elder. The design was fairly standard (that is to say, more or less a descendant of Charles Edenshaw’s sketch via Bill Reid), but the cutting of the design and the assembly of the robe made for a first rate piece of work. As Green was discussing it with some of the guests, one of them agreed to model it:

morgan-green-dogfish-woman-robe

The evening was a fund-raiser, with a quarter of all sales going to the Vancouver Foundation. How successful the evening was a fund-raiser, I didn’t ask. But from the perspective of spotlighting two promising young artists, no one could have asked for more. I came away from the evening with increased respect for both, and an even greater determination to watch and enjoy their future growth.

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