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Archive for the ‘Nathan Wilson’ 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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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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The Freda Diesing School’s year-end exhibit has become a fixture on my calendar. Not only is it one of the largest annual shows of First Nations artists anywhere in the province, but I enjoy seeing how the students develop over the two years of the program. Over the last three years, it has also become a place for renewing old friendships and acquaintances, and making new ones.

Held April 16-17, the 2011 incarnation of the show was no exception. It was smaller than previous exhibits, but made up for its size by the general quality of the work.

The variety was also impressive, although, when I heard that the final project for the second year students was a moon mask, I half-expected otherwise. Perhaps a lack of time prevented uniformity; when I arrived during setup on the afternoon of April 15, many of the students were yawning and taking every chance to sit, having been up late finishing their pieces for the show.

The quality of the second year students’ work was especially high, much of it equaling or surpassing the pieces seen in Vancouver galleries. Chazz Mack, who has gained a reputation for the skill seen in his two-dimensional designs in his two years at the school was forced to miss the first day of the show because of an illness that the hospital diagnosed as dehydration, but contributed “Eagle Trance,” a mask in the distinctive Nuxalk style of high head dresses, large noses and strong primary colors:

Stephanie Anderson, a winner last year of a YVR award, staggered late into setup with a striking eagle frontlet that still reeked of fixative – and was possibly the strongest piece in the show:

Another second year student, Colin Morrison, whose first mask I bought eighteen months ago, demonstrated his growing skill with two masks, “Resurrection of the Ancestors” and “Black Wolf,” a mask meant for a flat surface or stand:

Even more development was shown in the work of Carol Young Bagshaw, the winner of last years’ Mature Student Award. While last year at this time, you could tell which teachers she was working with on each of her masks, this year, she displayed her own sense of style. Her masks are less stylized than traditional northern work, looking more like portraits, and taking full advantage of the beauty of the grain and the unpainted wood:

These graduates set a high standard, but at least some of the first year students seem likely to equal them. Nathan Wilson, who has already sold professionally, produced a solid piece entitled “Moon in Human Form,” that hinted at his skill, even though it was far from his best work:

Another emerging professional in first year, Kelly Robinson, easily rivaled the second years with “Visions Within,” even though he talked of adding some finishing touches to it:

Yet another talented first year students was Paula Wesley with the fine line and unique hair of her cannibal woman “Thu-Wixia,” which she danced at the end of the opening evening:

Accompanying Wesley in the dance was Evan Aster, who won one of this years’ Honorable Mentions for the Mature Student Award. Like Wesley, Aster promises to be a strong artist when his carving equals his painting:

The same could be said of Nigel Fox, a first year student who also paints in a style reminiscent of Canadian Impressionism. Fox’s “Surface Tension” was an interesting take on colors running together in the water:

Unfortunately, though, the painting overwhelmed the carving. Fox was on much more solid ground when he created an Escher-like design out of traditional butterflies in “Butterflies #3” (which is now in my possession):

Still other first years showed a mastery of the fundamentals of traditional design that should allow them to come into their own during their second years. They included Barry Sampare, this years’ winner of the Mature Student Award:

as well as Robert Moses White, who received an Honorable Mention for the Mature Student Award:

The pick of the show moves south on May 29 to Vancouver’s Spirit Wrestler Gallery, where I predict brisk first day sales. But although Spirit Wrestler is much closer than Terrace for me, I was glad to see the complete show, especially in Waap Galts’ap, the Northwest Community College longhouse, which is a comfortable blend of traditional design and carving and modern building and safety codes.

My thanks to everyone at the college and in the Terrace First Nations art community for making my visit such a pleasant one.

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