Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘native art’ Category

Mitch Adam’s “Dancer” is an example of how art keeps surprising me. I first picked up the piece (which fits comfortably in the palm of my hand), while having a late breakfast at the Northern Motor Inn in Terrace, and it immediately changed my mind about what an argillite piece could be.

Before seeing “Dancer,” I would have said I had firm ideas of what an argillite piece should be. It would be unpolished. It should be in a traditional style, and as detailed as possible.

Almost immediately, I saw that “Dancer” was none of these things. Yet, just as quickly, I realized that I wanted to buy it.

However, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Adams’ “Blue Moon Mask,” which is among the favorites in my collection, is an unusual piece as well. Moreover, Adams regularly produces surprises. Miniature masks in which laminated woods take the place of paint, functional carved pipes, yellow cedar sculptures with more detail than you would imagine the wood could take – through all these pieces, Adams has shown a knack for innovative designs and uses of media. I expect the unexpected but apt from him.

So why does this piece succeed against my expectations? Since I received the finished piece a week ago, it has been sitting just below my computer monitor, where I’ve been studying it at odd moments when my fingers pause on the keyboard, trying to figure out the answer.

The answer I’ve come up with is that the piece is sculpture reduced to its essential lines. The flight feathers are represented by three feathers that differ only in size and position, the feathers on the head to overlapping circles reminiscent of scale armor. Simple, unadorned ovoids join the wings to the body. Turn the sculpture around, and it is mostly unfinished, except for an ovoid with four tail feathers, each decorated by a simple T-shape.

Left to themselves, such decoration would be unexceptionable. However, they are not what the eye notices. Instead, what viewers notices is the strong lines of the piece – particularly curves – that I’ve noticed before in the best of Adams’ work. The top of each wing is matched by the curve of the beak on each side, forming strong but obvious crescents on each side. The shape of the head is an approximation in miniature of the half circle formed by the shoulders and the wings, and the bottom two wing-feathers on each side diminished echoes of the top one.

In addition, there is a strong center line. Initially established by the beak, it remains so strong that you still see where it should be in the empty space below it. Cleverly enough, that empty space forms an arrow, pointing up to the beak, and drawing the viewer’s eyes with it.

In the end, these lines and the negative spaces they create are what makes “Dancer” work. Like a successful formline, they draw the eye around the sculpture, keeping it moving. Since the polishing emphasizes them, it, too, is justified. A natural finish would de-emphasize both. Instead, by polishing, Adams has made the curves stand out, and the negative spaces look darker, to the benefit of both.

“Dancer” is a strong piece at its size. However, over the week that it has graced my townhouse, I find myself repeatedly wondering how it would work at a much larger size. My guess is that, with its lines, it would be an outstanding piece at any size.

dancer0

dancer-sideways

Read Full Post »

At First Nations art galleries in Vancouver, Mitch and Diana Adams have a reputation as an effective sales team. Being the artist, Mitch does much of the talking, but because Diana at one remove from the discussions with gallery owners, she is an astute observer of what is happening, and is actively involved in strategic planning.

Several weeks ago when I was in Terrace for the Freda Diesing School graduation ceremony, I asked her what advice she would give young artists about dealing with galleries. Diana responded in detail as we had dinner at Boston Pizza, with Mitch throwing in the occasional comment.

Diana is able to contribute because of her own lengthy experience in sales. “I grew up in a family restaurant business,” she says, “So selling comes naturally to me. As a waitress, my job was to sell the meal. My favorite situation was when people would go, ‘I don’t know. What do you recommend?’ I’d find out what don’t they want to eat, what’s their budget, what they are allergic to, and take it from there.”

Some of what she knows about sales comes from observing her father. However, Diana has been selling her own bead work for several decades. She still remembers her first effort at a Tupperware-like party, where she sold $450 worth of merchandise, confounding her parents’ expectations.

Since then, Diana and Mitch have sold regularly at music and craft festivals through northern British Columbia. For seventeen years, they have been regulars at the Terrace farmers’ market, during which time they have fine-tuned their partnership in sales.

Preparing and handling anxiety

Some artists, especially established ones, can sell to the major galleries in southwest British Columbia without ever visiting Vancouver or Victoria. However, the business of First Nations arts remains very much a face-to-face proposition, and young artists in particular are more likely to make sales when they talk to a gallery’s buyer directly.

Asked how she approaches selling Mitch’s work to a gallery, Diana emphasizes a strategic approach. “I take it on as though I’m applying for a job,” she says. “I do my background homework. I’ll look at a store or a gallery that I want to deal with. I will go in, and not tell them that I’m looking to sell to them. I will observe how they treat their customers. I’ll also see the quality of what they sell. If they have a pamphlet, I will take one, or Google them on the Internet.” She does not worry much about prices, figuring that is not her concern, but she will note at the quality of what is sold, and how staff treats customers.

The point of this research is to decide whether they want Mitch’s work in that gallery. “What a lot of artists don’t understand,” she says, “is that they have an option of deciding whether this is a gallery to deal with or not. I want to know that I’ll be dealing with someone who is dependable, approachable, fair to deal with, and able to give criticism. If I offer them something they’re not interested in, I want to be able to dialog about it. As much as I might want to be a client of theirs, or leave works on consignment, I need to know that I can have a professional working relationship with them.”

Before approaching a gallery’s buyer, Diana and Mitch discuss what pieces to show, their prices – both the price they want, and a bottom-line figure that they will accept as a last resort – and what to say about each piece. This preparation, she stresses, is absolutely essential. “Gallery owners have told us that’s one of their pet peeves, when artists approach them and they don’t know the price of an item. That’s a death-sentence, right there.”

She also notes that, on an introductory visit, artists can expect a lot of questions. Galleries “want to make sure that you are the artist, and not someone else. If you’re the artist, you would know the answers right down to the details.” Forgery and theft are regular events in local First Nations art, so galleries want an indication that the seller truly is the artist.

Another reason for preparation is that it helps to reduce nervousness. “It’s always nerve-wracking. I’ve done it countless times, but there’s still that excitement and anxiety, because you want to do well. But you can’t be overly anxious or insecure, or you’re going to fall flat on your face.”

Another way to reduce anxiety is to take someone with you. However, Diana immediately adds, “Don’t take anyone who’s going to undermine you. Don’t take anyone who doesn’t know anything about your art or will second-guess you.”

Instead, the second person should be either silent, or an active partner. “There’s been times when Mitch has forgot something,” she says, “but I always give him a chance to speak first. But if he forgets something, I’ll come forward. I’ll look at him, and if I know that he’s done talking, I will say my piece.”

According to Diana, planning not only relieves anxiety, but also helps to present yourself as a professional who is easy to deal with. She suggests role-playing the presentation of your artwork, and even approaching galleries you do not plan to deal with so that you can rehearse and prepare yourself for visits to the galleries you hope to work with.

Making the visit and the first impression

“We don’t expect a sale on first visit,” Diana says. “We hope we make a sale, but the whole point is making contact.

Her emphasis is on professionalism throughout. “Dress as though approaching a job,” she advises, “as though leaving a resume. Make sure that the work is well-presented, not carried in a garbage bag. Because if we have no respect for the art, it’s going to show. We use an artist’s portfolio, because presentation is everything. Some of the people we’ve approached have been quite reserved, but we still put on a professional smile, and say what our purpose is.”

Diana also suggests that body-language is important. “Smile,” she advises. “Have good eye contact [with the buyer]. “Don’t cross your arms. Remember to breathe.”

After the introduction, the actual presentation of the pieces is left to Mitch, on the grounds that as the artist he is the one best qualified to talk about them.. “I try to be halfway through explaining the piece as I hand it to them,” he says.

He also gives some thought to the order of presentation. “What I like to do is not give them my best piece right off the bat. Instead, I lead up to it. And I think they see it, too, that the best piece is still to come. But they’ll be lining the pieces up, and hopefully they’ll be being wowed by the pieces that aren’t the best ones.”

If the discussion turns towards the price of any of the pieces, the Adams’ policy is to hold firm to their original asking price, falling back slowly to their minimum only if they strongly want the sale.

“You can’t be desperate,” Diana says, adding as a warning, “never say to anyone, ‘I’ve got bills to pay.’ Never say that because, really, it has nothing to do with the gallery owner. That’s a form of manipulation. It’s a really poor sales technique, because the person who’s being spoken to feels bad and put on the spot. It leaves a bad taste in their mouth, and makes them want to avoid you in the future.”

Some buyers, according to Diana, will claim to find flaws as a tactic for lowering the purchase price; they should be ignored and not cause you to waver in your price. Others may mention what they perceive as flaws as explanations as to why they are not buying; their criticism can be considered later. In fact, once or twice, Mitch has gained credibility by acting on such criticism and taking a piece back to the criticizer for another look.

Revisiting

Many inexperienced artists are disappointed when they fail to sell after a first visit. Many will give up and avoid that gallery. However, as Diana emphasizes repeatedly, you shouldn’t count on making a sale after a first visit.

In fact, at one gallery, the Adamses visited three times before making a sale. “But we kept going back, introducing ourselves, and reminding the purchasing agent who we were. We didn’t take [rejection] personally; we just thought they weren’t able to purchase.”

The truth is, you may never know why most sales fail. Often, the reason will have little to do with you or the artwork, or only in the most indirect way. For example, “there’s some galleries that only buy big items, and Mitch does only miniatures. We needed to keep that in mind, and not take it personally. There’s no reason to be rude, even when they’re rude; we just stay professional, and thank them for their time.”

After an initial visit, Diana and Mitch discuss the experience, and decide whether they want to continue trying to sell to a particular gallery. Sometimes, they may decide not to return, even if the buyer seemed interested in Mitch’s work, because they have decided to deal with only a limited number of galleries so that they can focus on building long-term rapport.

If they do return for another visit, they prepare for subsequent visits in much the same way as the first. The main difference, Diana says is that “we’re not so tense.”
Also, the introduction may become more personal and friendly. “I try to remember something about that person that they shared with me,” Diana says, such as the birth of a grandchild or a trip they have recently taken. But “the contact is still professional. It’s intimate, but it’s not stepping over a line.”

Trying to sell your work to a gallery can often be difficult and full of anxiety. Unsurprisingly, mistakes can be made. For instance, Diana recalls “one time when Mitch got so nervous that he put his hand over his mouth, and what he was saying came across as very muffled. All I could do was reach over and pull his hand down, and he kind of looked at me like, ‘What are you doing?’ Then he realized what he had done.”

Diana continues, “Some people beat themselves up about moments like that, but there’s nothing you can really do except laugh.” She advises other artists not to dwell on such circumstances, but to focus on being prepared and professional, focusing not just on a first sale, but on a long-term relationship that will also eventually produced a second and a third sale, and many more over their career.

That is the approach that Diana and Mitch are taking, and so far it seems to be working. Listening to their war stories, it is obvious that it hasn’t always worked exactly as they hoped. However, it has worked well enough that Mitch is well on his way to establishing himself as an artist.

Much of the credit is due to his finishing skills and original designs – but at least as much should probably go to the successful sales strategies and partnership that Diana and Mitch have developed. Watch them even once, as I have done, and you’ll know how professionals deal in the world of First Nations art.

Read Full Post »

Six weeks ago, Haida/Tsimshian artist Mitch Adams and his wife Diana were in Vancouver on a selling expedition. We sat on the shaded porch of a Starbucks, and Mitch unwrapped the pieces he hoped to sell to one of the galleries. They included a variety of pipes (“They’ll make you look taller! Cooler!” Mitch claimed), several miniature masks carved from ebony, and a couple of sculptures I would have bought on the spot if I’d had the money. Then Mitch brought out a framed painting from the back of the car.

I remembered the painting. I’d seen it when I was in Terrace the previous April, sitting at the back of Mitch’s workshop. It was a design that he had done while a student at the Freda Diesing School. An injury had left him temporarily unable to carve, so, rather than sit idle (or more like, kibbitzing with the other students, if I know anything), he began to do designs on paper.

At the time, I asked him if he would sell it, but he was unsure of the price, and I had enough to carry back on the plane already. “Throw it in the trunk next time you come to Vancouver,” I said, but, to be honest, I’d forgot all about the piece until I saw it again. However, once I got over my surprise, I was happy to buy it.

As you might guess from the story about its origin, “Haida Box Design” is a formal exercise, but no less interesting for that. Like Celtic knotwork, abstract Northwest Coast designs fascinate me in their intricacy. When you know a bit about the artistic tradition, you can appreciate the breakdown of the figures in a series of basic shapes, each of which is varied by such details as how the thickening of the formlines where they meet is minimized, or the designs inside the U-shapes. At its best, the result is a strong sense of individualism within a detailed tradition – which is certainly the case here.

Adams’ individual touches are numerous. To start with, rather than designing primarily in black, he balances red and black almost perfectly. The design puts round shapes, rather than the more common ovoids, in the center where they can hardly be missed. Many of the lines are straight, rather than curved, as you would expect in most designs on paper, although that would make them ideal for carving. Tapering of the lines is minimal, and Adams makes wider use of thin lines than most artists would.

However, what fascinates me most about the design is how, despite being symmetrical, it manages to avoid some of the stiffness usually associated with symmetry – especially to a modern eye, trained to consider asymmetry of design the norm. Day after day as I’ve done my morning stretching exercises, I’ve watched the piece and considered the elements that undermine the potential symmetry.

First, there’s the easy interchange of figure and ground between the black and red that changes depending on what you focus on. Then there’s the mild variation of rounded shapes in the center of the design. Most of all, however, what really offsets the symmetry are the shapes positioned on an angle.

All things considered, I’m tempted to say that I’d appreciate seeing “Haida Box” design carved in yellow cedar and painted. The only thing that keeps me from doing so is the fear that, the next time we meet, Mitch will present me with exactly that, and I won’t be able to resist pulling out the cash to buy.

Read Full Post »

Haida/Tsimshian artist Mitch Adams seems to be making a career out of smaller pieces. Not that he avoids larger pieces; his “Blue Moon Mask” is one of my favorite pieces on the walls of my townhouse. However, in the last year or so, he has done masks from laminated blocks of wood about the height of my finger, a brass magnifier, a couple of combs, and, most recently, a briarwood pipe, filling a niche shared by few other artists. With a length of ten centimeters, his “Raven Rattle” is another of his miniatures – and one of my favorites among his work.

Contrary to what you might think, rattles of this size are not a recent development. Although modern tools makes carving at smaller sizes much easier, rattles the size of this one appear in artifacts of a century and a half ago. Some might have been used, concealed, in the magic and theatrics of the winter ceremonies. More likely (since the sound doesn’t carry far), small rattles might have been used by shamans, working up close with sick patients.

Aside from the obviously modern paint, Adam’s main innovation is his material – boxwood. The stand is a piece of driftwood, or (as I like to think of it), two-thirds the price of a Special Platter at The Afghan Horseman, where I last had dinner with Mitch and his wife Diana and took the rattle home with me. Unpainted, the base provides a contrast with the largely painted rattle. The rattle can be left on the base, in a position in which it resembles a rocket, or else lifted free and used, in which case it gives a delicate, half-hissing sound.

Like the size, the subject and composition is also traditional. The rattle depicts Raven the trickster, the face in his belly representing the light that he has stolen from the chief who hoarded it. On his back is a red human figure facing a raven’s head, their tongues intertwining to suggest communication, and a reminder of Raven’s ability to change from human to bird shape. You might also take the quasi-sexual posture of the two figures, as well as the round belly containing the face in the light of some of the details of the story: Raven has impregnated the chief’s daughter with himself to be reborn as the chief’s grandson, so he might have a chance to get close to the light.

As for the composition, it, too, has a long tradition. For instance, just before writing this entry, I came across a picture of this two centuries-old Haida piece in the McCord Museum in Montreal:

The subject is different, but the composition similar, although Adam’s piece was never meant to rest on its bottom, and has a more streamlined look. With a few minutes’ research, I could easily turn up another two of three similarly arranged rattles.

None of these comments are meant to suggest in any way that Adams lacks originality. Rather, I’ve made them to point out that the rattle is a piece within a tradition. Its shape and intricate painting of details are more than enough to establish Adam’s ability – and to make me curious about what he will do next.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Shawn Patrick Aster’s “Raven Turns the Crows Black” has a longer history than most of the art in my townhouse. Aster took over two years to deliver it, but I consider it well worth the wait.

Aster’s work was brought to my attention by another artist in late 2008, as someone whose work was admired even by master carver Dempsey Bob. I immediately commissioned a piece from him, wanting an early piece from an already skilled artist who seemed sure to make a name for himself.

A few months later in April 2009, when I attended my first year end exhibition for the Freda Diesing School, I was amused to see that others gave Aster’s work no special attention – until he won two awards. Moments later, all his work in the show had sold.

But the commission had progressed little. Aster seemed nervous (I believe it was his first commission outside his family and friends) and couldn’t satisfy himself with the design. A month later, I bought “Raven Heart” from him, but I was still waiting for the commission.

By the next year end exhibition, Aster was looking distinctly apologetic when he saw me. Jokingly, I started referring to him as “the most promising artist” I knew, since he had promised the piece for over sixteen months – although I made clear that I was more than willing to wait. Secretly, though, I had decided he was unlikely ever to deliver. I was disappointed, although I bought other pieces from him.

Then, last March, Aster told me on Facebook that he had finally completed the design. It had apparently changed since he first started designing it, but I was happy to see it. I paid indirectly at the 2011 year end exhibition, and it was delivered by Aster’s fellow Freda Diesing graduate Todd Stephens at the YVR Art Foundation’s reception in May – a good deal of which I spent showing the piece to others and worrying that food might be spilled on it.

“Raven Turns the Crows Black” depicts an episode from the Haida epic “Raven Traveling,” a work that  many now consider the common heritage property of all First Nations people on the northwest coast. In the story, Raven the Trickster sees crows roasting a salmon on the beach. They agree to share the food, and Raven falls asleep while he waits for it to cook.

Unwilling to share, the crows devour the salmon. Belatedly worried at what Raven’s reaction is going to be, they put crumbs of the salmon meat on his clothes and between his teeth. When he wakes, they try to convince him that he ate before he slept, but Raven in his anger throw them into the fire, from which the survivors emerge forever singed and black.

Aster’s rendering of the story makes for a unusual design in what is already a tradition apart. Shared by several northwest coast nations but possibly Tsimshian in origin, the Chilkat style is based on weaving patterns. The style is constrained by the limits of weaving, so it tends to consist of discrete blocks of design, rather than the flowing formline found in painting and carving. This tendency makes it both geometric and highly abstract.

Aster’s design shows Raven in the center, his teeth bared (and if you ask why Raven has teeth, I can only reply, why does the parrot in Aladdin? Although, probably, Raven was in human form in the story, shape-changing being his most common power). I interpret the design as showing Raven in two states: in the middle, hungry and asleep, with his wings folded, and at the top center, angry and awake with his wings outstretched.

On the left are the white crows, on the right the black; like the raven, their wings and other features are abstracted into blocks of forms. The designs on each side are not quite symmetrical, with only the outlines of the heads to suggest the transformation in the story.

The background includes the characteristic Chilkat blue and yellow. However, to suggest the fire – and, perhaps, the salmon meat and Raven’s anger – Aster adds red to his design. Although I am far from an expert in Chilkat design, I have never seen any other Chilkat design use red. However, Aster’s innovation succeeds, largely because the red is relatively dark and sparingly used.

The result is one of the most bold-looking pieces of art in my collection. And while I admit that I grew impatient while waiting, I’d gladly wait another twenty-eight months for another work that is equally striking.

Read Full Post »

I’m at the point where I tremble when Gary Minaker Russ comes to town. I know that he will have at least one outstanding piece of argillite to sell, and that if I so much as glimpse it, I will be unable to resist the temptation to buy it, even if I can’t really afford to. That’s the story, really, of “Haida Shaman,” the latest piece I’ve bought from him.

When Russ first brought it to town, he sold it to the Inuit Gallery, where I admired it regularly. But no one bought it, and Russ prefers not to have his work languish for too long in a gallery. So he swopped it for his latest piece, and when we met at the Rhizome Cafe that afternoon, he hadn’t resold it.

A quick trip across the street to the bank machine, and it was mine, the balance to be paid  over the next month. One nervous Skytrain trip later, I had it beside my computer workstation.

“Haida Shaman” is a traditional piece. I mean that description in two senses, both complimentary. First, the pose is one that has been widely used throughout the hundred and eighty years of recorded argillite carving (as opposed to the unknown amount of time – decades? centuries? millennia? — that argillite may have been carved far more rarely, before it became one of the first cultural exports for the Haida).

The proportions, with the head a third of the body height, and the stance, one arm uplifted and the other in front of the chest, can be seen in any number of pictures, if you search libraries or even the Internet for pictures of argillite. So, in one sense, Russ is working in a very set subject, in much the same way a Renaissance European painter would be when painting a Madonna and child.

What you won’t see – at least today – is this pose done in the amount of detail that Russ has lavished on “Haida Shaman.” You’ll see the basic proportion and posture, yes, but not the detail. Most modern argillite carving is closer to engraving. It is covered with embellishments of inlaid precious and semi-precious stones, with the shapes hinted at rather than fully developed.

In several  pieces, the result is so abstract that only the posture is recognizable and there is little else to indicate that a shaman is depicted. The modern argillite market does not reward taking pains, and, in too many cases, the quality of the carving has declined while the cost of the raw materials have sent the prices soaring.

By contrast, “Haida Shaman” shows the attention to detail that I associate more with nineteenth century argillite pieces. Russ himself describes it as being more in his original – and preferred – style, and not the simpler style he has moved towards in the last decade and a half in order to make a living as an artist in an increasingly obscure art form.

This is the second sense in which the piece is traditional – in the pure sense of craft that has gone into it. For a style that is only partly representational, “Haida Shaman” packs an extraordinary amount of detail. Some of it may be hard to see in a picture, but the carving is full of realistic detail like the definition of the muscles on the arms, or the braiding of the rope the shaman wears, or the mass of hair in his topknot. I joke that the sculpture is a “traditional Haida action figure,” but behind that rather flippant comment, there is nothing but respect for the care that has gone into it.

These details are enhanced by the sparing use of ivory to contrast with the darkness of the argillite. Unlike many modern argillite carvers, Russ has not produced a gaudy piece, valued largely for its inlays. Nor has he added so many inlays before starting to carve that they get in the way of the detailing. Instead, the ivory appears where it doesn’t hide or overwhelm the details. It is used sparingly, with a restraint that allows it to work with the argillite, rather than against it.

You might say that “Haida Shaman” is an artist’s piece, done to satisfy Russ’ sense of how he should be working, with little regard for what sells. I am not in the least surprised that it didn’t sell while on display because, amid the other argillite extravaganzas available in the local galleries, “Haida Shaman” is an understated piece, with an emphasis on the craft of carving.

It’s because of pieces like “Haida Shaman” that I secretly look forward to Russ’ visits to town, not knowing what wonders he will quietly unwrap to tempt me with. I only know that most of what he brings to town will be wonders, and I will be tempted to bring at least one of them home.

Now, if I only didn’t have to explain that I wasn’t buying from a drug dealer when I deposit large sums of cash in his account, I would have nothing to complain about. I am both soothed and honoured to have pieces like “Haida Shaman” in my townhouse.

Read Full Post »

In the fall of 2010, Tshimshian artist Morgan Green set out to raise the money for her tuition in goldsmithing. In return for my donation, she agreed to do a small wall-hanging. Near the end of April, 2011, she delivered “Raven and the Grouse” to me downtown, considerably brightening up an otherwise dismal evening for me.

The story is one of the lesser-known Tsimshian stories of Raven – or Txamsem, as he was known to the Tsimshian. In fact, Green had never heard the story, despite the fact that she probably has a stronger background in traditional culture than most First Nations artists in their mid to late twenties. My only source for it is the two-volume reprint of Tsimshian Narratives by Marius Barbeau, William Beynon, John J. Cove, and George F. Macdonald. There, it is listed as “Raven and the Grouse Prince,” and as being told to Beynon by Emma Wright of the village of Gitlaxdamks in 1954.

One of the things I like about the story (apart from the fact that is not the worn story of Raven stealing the light) is the glimpse of traditional life that it gives:

Txamsem was very hungry and could not catch any more salmon as these had all left with the salmon women. He left his little canoe and went into the forest to see if he could get any game. As he went into the woods he saw a large house ahead of him. He went to it and looking in saw that there was a man and his wife with many small children. He saw there was food in the house and he was very hungry.

Seeing three ravens in a tree he immediately called them, “One of you will pretend to be my wife and the other two will be our children.” He transformed these ravens to human form. They approached the house of the Prince of Grouse. When they were near the house, the Grouse Prince saw the man and woman with their two children approaching, so he called to them, “Come my friends, come and rest in my house.” Leading the way he led Txamsem and his raven wife and children to the rear of the house. “Bring food for my guests who are tired,” he called to his servants. Then he made a place for his guests to rest and sleep.

The Grouse Prince began to make a great many arrows which he piled by his sleeping place. He arose very early and was not gone for long when he returned with the carcasses of many mountain goat. Txamsem still pretended he was very tired and was resting all the time. He go up when the Grouse Prince went out with all his arrows and followed behind him.

After traveling some distance into the woods the prince came to a high steep bare rock mountain. It was impossible to climb this, so the prince took his arrows and shot three from his bow. When he had shot all his arrows, he called out, “Come great Supernatural One, come to the aid of the arrows you gave me.” Almost immediately a man appeared and waved his spear up at the mountain and at once a great many mountain goat came falling off the steep sides of the high cliff. These the prince took down to his house.

Txamsem had seen all this and had returned to the house. He asked the prince, “Do you go every day to hunt?” “No,” the prince replied, “tomorrow I shall rest and prepare all the meat I have got.” Txamsem said, “I will go tomorrow as I feel rested now.” He made a large number of arrows and next day he set off early to go to the cliff where he had followed the Grouse Prince.

When he got there, he shot off the arrows as he had seen the prince do and these went into the high precipice and then he called out, “Help my arrows O supernatural One.” As he said this a man stepped in front of him. “Whose arrows do you shoot?” Txamsem was at a loss and did not know the right answer. So he replied, “These are my arrows, Supernatural One.”

With that the walls of the precipice fell down and Txamsem became buried under them. His raven wife flew away as did the two raven children. Txamsem nearly died and was ill for a long while. He finally recovered and went down to where the grouse Prince’s house stood, but behold! It was gone. Then he went to where he had left his little canoe and being very hungry he set out traveling on down the river, in search of food.
(Note: I have changed the paragraphing for easier reading)

Green’s design is based on a picture of a historical house front. She has used that starting point to show Raven about to buried beneath the falling rock of the precipice. Inside Raven’s body, some of the goats are shown. The gray in the background, perhaps, might be taken as the silhouette of the Grouse Prince’s house in the distance.

What the photo cannot show is the care with which the applique has been sown on to the heavy background fabric. The stitches must number in the tens of thousands – reason enough for Green to take six months to complete the hanging, even if she wasn’t going to school and creating other pieces at the same time.

Green is a multi-talented artist, who restlessly explores different media, as the ceramic Mouse Woman platter shows that we bought a couple of years ago. But her first and most accomplished work, I’ve always felt, lies in fabric, which is one reason why I requested “Raven and the Grouse.”

I’ve hung the finished piece above my headboard, where it hides a wallpaper mural from the 1970s that one of these days has got to go. With the curtain drawn, the hanging has a somber impressiveness, with the buttons catching whatever lights I have on. During the day, with the indirect light from the window, the red outline of Raven becomes more noticeable, but the effect is no less impressive.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

One of the dangers of knowing artists (pity me!) is that, when they’re in town, they usually have pieces for sale. That is what happened a few weeks ago when Mitch and Diana Adams were in Vancouver a few weeks ago for the Chinese New Year celebrations. After dim sum, Mitch took my back to his mother-in-law’s apartment to show me what he had brought with him – and, inevitably I bought two: A Gagiid mask and a Killer Whale Comb.

The Gagiid features in the dances of Haida secret societies. The Gagiid is a castaway who, as he wanders the shoreline by himself, grows so crazed that in his endless foraging he devours sea urchins without removing the quills, which embed themselves around his mouth. Cryptozoologists often take the story as evidence for the existence of the Sasquatch, but this identification requires a giant leap of illogic, since the Gagiid is originally a normal man, and in the dances (if what I have heard is correct), the point is to reintegrate him into society. Today, at least, the Gagiid is frequently green, a depiction that often encourages Incredible Hulk jokes – a comparison that is actually closer than you might at first think, since the story of the Hulk is also about reintegrating him into society.

Mitch Adam’s Gagiid caught my attention because of the attention to details. His mask’s blue eyes are not an anomaly, and most likely not an effort to connect the Gagiid with Europeans; blue-eyed Haida were apparently noted by the first Europeans to reach Haida Gwaii in the eighteenth century. However, like a shaman, this Gagiid has eyes with pupils that roll upward, suggesting he is in an altered state of consciousness.

Other details follow naturally from the story. The Gagiid’s face is long and thin, as though he is half-starved. The gaps between his teeth suggest that some are missing, while those that remain are irregularly shaped and sized, as though they have been chipped, either through eating hard food or perhaps after too many falls on the rocks that line the shore. Moreover, not only are the lips swollen, but the the lower face is out of proportion, as though it has swelled, too. Similarly, the blood drawn by the sea-urchin quills (on the mask depicted as porcupine quills) is fresh and running on some, as though the wounds were fresh, and simply a ring of red on others, as though the wounds were made some time ago and the blood has dried.

What makes this detailing all the more impressive is the size of the mask: approximately sixteen by ten centimeters. I have seen masks twice or three times the size with less attention to detail (several with woolly eyebrows that give the Gagiid the appearance of Groucho Marx, an effect that Adams has avoided, I’m glad to say).

The same attention to detail is found in Adam’s Killer Whale comb, which is about the same height as the mask. Combs of this design, he tells me, were not for tidying a head of hair, as most people assume, but for untangling the warp of wool on a loom. Perhaps this knowledge of the shape’s purpose encouraged him – unlike the designers of many combs in Northwest art – to carve a comb that is actually functional, with flat sizes and tapering ends, and not just an approximation of the shape.

Made of yew, Adam’s comb benefits from the beauty of the tight and highly visible grain. However, the grain probably caused him trouble, too, since it runs vertically while the design is horizontal. On one side, the pupil of the eye looks as though it might been a knot, and, if you look closely, you can see several other places, such as the outer curves of the mouth or the shape of the nostrils, in which the two sides are not perfect mirror images. At any rate, even were identical sides possible, differences would remain, because the grain is much darker on one side than the other.

Ironically, the most regular part of the carving is the front design – probably the part least likely to be observed. Yet it is an indication of Adam’s determination and skill that the irregularities are minimized and unnoticeable to the casual eye. Having set himself a difficult task, he proves his skill by doing it extremely well.

Notice, too, how the design conforms to the shape of the comb. Only one design feature positively identifies the carving as a killer whale – the fin depicted on both sides of the handle.

Like “Peaceful Warrior,” the laminate mask I bought several months ago, these two pieces show Adams’ ability to work in miniature. He is perfectly capable of a stunning work at larger sizes, as his “Blue Moon Mask” demonstrates, but Adam’s attention to detail makes his smaller works consistently stand out from similarly-sized pieces from other artists.

My only reservation about buying these pieces is that, when I did, Adams lost the opportunity to show these work to the galleries while he was in town, and extend his reputation. I am sure that both would have sold. But, despite the danger of visiting an artist, I feel privileged to have had first chance at them, and to display them in my townhouse.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »