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Archive for the ‘Nisga’a’ Category

Todd Stephens is one of maybe a dozen First Nations artists whose work I watch closely. A graduate of the Freda Diesing School and two-time winner of the YVR Art Foundation Scholarships, he paints in a style that is traditional, yet displays his technical skill and individuality. “Jorja and I,” a painting of Stephens and his young daughter, remains one of my favorite pieces in my collection, hanging above my workstation. So, a couple of months ago, when Stephens was selling another major painting, “Txeesim’s Escape,” (“Raven’s Escape”) I jumped at the chance to buy, also purchasing two smaller pieces, “Midiik” (“Bear”) and “Ganaa’w” (“Frog”).

To my surprise, I’ve heard another art buyer dismissed Stephen’s work as scholastic, suggesting that he hadn’t evolved a style of his own. However, that description confuses classicism with lack of originality. In a classically oriented piece in any field of art, what you look for is discipline, and originality within the tradition. By these criteria, Stephens’ work sets a high standard – in fact, it often shows a surprising amount of variation, even with the same piece.

Look, for example, at “Ganaa’w.” Even in this relatively simple piece, the formline varies from the length of the back to the thinness of the hind leg, parts of which are half, or even a quarter the thickness of the back. As you trace the formlines, you will also find variations in how they are joined, with most tapering long and dramatically in the primary black formlines, and often hardly at all in the secondary red formlines. Notice, too, how often the black formlines create a T-shape out of negative space, especially at the throat and the base of the back, reducing the overall weight of the forms. The contents of the ovoids shows a similar variation in their contents, although the feet, naturally enough, are nearly identical.

Many of the same things happen in “Midiik.” In this piece, though, the thick black formlines are used together with the ovoids and U-shapes to create a sense of the bear’s powerful legs – in fact, there is a distinct impression of musculature in the upper legs that, more than the claws or the rough outlines of the teeth, convey a sense of the bear’s strength. Another interesting aspect is that the asymmetry of the eye leaves the impression that the bear is looking out at the observer, possibly in a menacing way.

However, of these three pieces, “Txeesim’s Escape” is by far the most accomplished. The title refers, of course, to the story or raven causing himself to be born as the grandson of the chieftain who keeps the light in a chest so that he can steal it (you can see the light at the tip of his beak, and the shape of the grandson in the tail). It’s an old story, and one that I sometimes think is depicted too often at the expense of equally interesting stories, but one that can always be renewed by originality or craft, as Stephens proves.

The design of “Txeesim’s Escape” is a bold one. It makes me think of house-fronts, the decorative boards that the northern First Nations of British Columbia brought out of storage to decorate their longhouses during celebrations. Evidently, that is what Stephens had in mind as well, since the painting is not only just short of three feet by two, but also so busy that many of the details are lost at a smaller size.

The design is economical. The raven’s body is hardly shown at all, except for a thick formline. Instead, the design is dominated by the head, wing, and tail, with a single foot whose main purpose is to balance the design. These body parts are shown in a profile that would be almost impossible to hold for any bird to hold for more than a second in reality. Here, though, the position suggests startlement, as though the raven has heard or glimpsed something behind him, and is flashing a quick glance over his shoulder to check for pursuers.

But the most outstanding feature of the design is the sheer amount of variation in the ovoids, U-shapes, and other elements within the form lines. The amount of variation seems almost disorganized in the tongue and upper beak, but Stephen keeps it partly in control in the wing and tail feathers by having the design elements in the outer feathers match. As for the many faces in the ovoids – or appearance of faces – they serve as a reminder that the raven is a master shape changer, capable of assuming many forms. The overall impression is a pleasing confusion that seems not only suitable to a creature being chased, but completely appropriate to a being that is, in many ways, the embodiment of chaos.

I have no idea how conscious Stephens is about such things – some artists are very conscious of the effects they create, while others are either unaware or wary of examining the process too closely. However, these comments should be enough to show why I consider Stephens an artist skilled in working in a classic mode. He displays his work regularly on his Facebook page, and is currently selling glicée prints of the four main clan crests at a surprisingly affordable price.

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Ron Telek is primarily a carver and a sculptor. He has worked in everything from wood and stone to cloth and bone, but most of his work is three-dimensional. Consequently, I was curious to see what his first print would look like. I expected a sort of two-dimensional equivalent of film noir, full of shadows and vaguely glimpsed forms, but instead the print was “The Siren: The Keeper of Drowned Men’s Souls,” an intricate piece that more than one viewer has compared to a tattoo design (I envision it stretching across someone’s back).

Besides the medium, another unusual aspect of the print is that its subject and execution includes only one hint of Telek’s Nisga’a background: the design on the back fin of the smaller siren.

Instead, the piece draws on Classical Greek and Roman mythology. At first, the subject is surprising, but, on second thought, why not? Although Telek has a First Nations background, he has mentioned several times the influence of Japanese,African, and South American art on his work and such influences can sometimes be seen in his work. Nor is this the first time he has done a non-aboriginal piece. All things considered, it is not surprising that other cultures should be visible in his work, especially since the siren is not that far removed from several figures in local First Nations mythology, such as the Otter Woman.

At any rate, despite its unusual aspects, many of Telek’s characteristic elements are in “The Siren,” such as the figure in the mouth and spirits in the form of faces erupting all over the body. What is unusual, though, are the suggests of sexual aggression or predation in the breasts, each of which is made of a single spirit with teeth where the nipples should be, or the open mouth with teeth where the vagina should be. This sense is reinforced by the waves of hair, which instead of being seductive become a Medusa-like mass of writhing spirits.

Aggression is also suggested in the heavy shoulders and the reaching left hand, whose size suggests that it is reaching out to the viewer.Telek’s siren does not merely lure men to their doom, but actively preys upon them.

Then, too, the relation between the siren and men she captures is ambiguous – but menacing no matter how you interpret it. Some of the spirits seem resigned, but far more of them appear to be angry or in pain, leaving you to wonder how, exactly, the siren is keeping them. Does she only gain substance and the power to act through the drowned souls? Is the fact that she seems composed of lost souls an indication that she only exists in people’s minds? However you interpret the piece, the siren is not the supernatural beauty that you sometimes encounter in Classical mythology. Instead, she seems a supernatural dominatrix, overwhelming and perhaps luring the drowned men through sheer force of presence.

This is a remarque of the limited edition print – that is, a copy with an additional element not found in the original. Usually, a remarque consists of a quick doodle, but, Telek has added the second siren, adding almost as much detail as in the original image, and increasing the size of the print by nearly half.

The second siren reinforces the impressions hinted at by the first. Its face is more shark-like than that of the original image, evoking the figure of other powerful female figures in various First Nation mythologies, such as the Haida Shark Woman and Dogfish Woman.

In addition, the second figure gives a perspective through the drowned man still wriggling in its hand. The sirens, clearly, are huge.

The idea that the sirens gain substance from the capture of drowned men is further reinforced by the facts that the second figure’s body includes fewer spirits, and that it is somewhat smaller – perhaps a juvenile or teenage siren. Perhaps it is not even sexually mature, since it is much more slender and lacks the mass of flowing hair of the main figure.

Psychologists could go wild on the implications of these images (I know at least one who is sure that Telek was abused as a child on the evidence of his carvings). Personally, though, I prefer to simply enjoy the imaginative possibilities – and to thank Telek for this present, and for adding the remarque before giving it to me.

Thanks, Ron!

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“I’ve been doing art all my life,” Mike Dangeli, the up and coming Northwest Coast artist says. But although he identifies himself mainly as an artist, you cannot talk to him for very long before realizing that he is also many other things — a member of the Git Hayetsk Dancers, the heir to a chieftainship, and a man passionately committed to living in the culture of his Nisga’a, Tlingit, and Tsimshian ancestors within the context of modern technological society. Nor can you separate any of these things from the others, because Dangeli is at least as well known for his artistic work for ceremonies and regalia as for his commercial offerings.

Mike Dangeli

The interconnections go a long way back, although Dangeli took some time to bring them all together. He got his start in art early, making his own dance regalia when he was four or five with his grandmother, artist Louise Barton-Dangeli. He went on to learn acrylics, water colors and oils from her, as well cedar pouches, bags, and beaded necklaces.

At the same time, he learned “everything from weaving to painting to beadwork” from his mother, Arlene Roberts, both individually and as part of the yearly programs at the Chilkoot Cultural Camp in southeast Alaska.

At the camp, he learned from its organizers, Richard and Julie Folta and Tlingit artist Austin Hammond . From an old couple he only remembers as Mr. and Mrs. King, he also learned how to make drums — “that’s everything from taking a deer skin and scraping off the fat to making your own rawhide to string the drum,” Dangeli explains. He enjoyed the process so much that he estimates that by the time he became a professional artist at the age of 27, he had made “over five hundred drums.”

Beaver Drum

Another important early experience was spending the summer travelling on the Alaska ferries with his mother and grandmother, stopping at each port to sell what they made. Dangeli recalls that they did well enough to pay for their fares and his clothes for the coming school year. Through this experience, he also learned from his guardians “how to talk to galleries, to tourist shops, and cultural centers.”

Dangeli’s first training in carving came from his uncle in Prince George. “I spent a summer with him learning basic design and carving bowls and helping him with his work,” Dangeli says. “It was a lot harder than it looked, and I was a teenybopper with a lot of different interests.”

The road to an artist’s life

As a young man, Dangeli staged his own form of rebellion by joining the American army as an Air Ranger. He explains, “I’ve heard all my life that I’m in line to take a chief’s name. When you hear something like that all your life and you have to be good because of it, you decide you’re missing out and think, ‘I’m going to do my own thing.'”

The army seemed a natural choice, because he was thinking of going into law enforcement. “I didn’t see myself as an artist and living that kind of of lifestyle.”

Dangeli spent ten years in the military, rising to Staff Sergeant, but continued carving and designing in his spare time, and visiting family members when possible. It was on these visits that he started gaining a more deliberate understanding of his nation’s Angiosk –traditional territory — and Ayaawx — customs.

Adjusting our frame of reference

When he became a reservist, he attended the University of Alaska and working with his uncle Reggie Dangeli, a historian with the Alaska State Historical Commission. Eventually, he transferred to Washington state.

Matters came to a crisis when he got into a fight with another Staff Sergeant. “He said, ‘That’s the problem with you Indians,’ and of course he said effing Indians, so I smacked him up one side of his head.” At least partly because of the experience, Dangeli decided to leave the military, a move that cost him his university funding.

Finding himself in a well-paying but dead end job, Dangeli drifted towards Robert Boxley’s Seattle dance troupe and eventually apprenticed to him. He went through “a nasty divorce” due to his change of lifestyle, and headed “home to the Nass Valley to lick my wounds.”

The trip got sidetracked in Vancouver when he was asked to finish a pole in Woodland Park.

“I didn’t want to do it,” he says. “It wasn’t a very nice chunk of wood, and I didn’t want to do someone else’s work. So I said, ‘If I do it, it won’t be mine. It will be a community project.'” Hiring ten youths, he finished the pole and celebrated its completion with a potlatch — and, in the process, discovered that he had found himself a community.

“It was such a sad little pole,” he says. “It had been stolen twice, spray painted and a chunk was taken off the side, and someone took a Louisville [baseball bat] to it. It was horrible. But I look at it in retrospect as a physical manifestation of where I was in that moment in time — just beat up and kind of sad. It ended up being something very beautiful — not necessarily the totem pole itself, although it’s still up there and humbling to look at, but because it represents a massive amount of growth. What I created was a community here in Vancouver.”

Lifting up my god-son mask

While carving the pole, Dangeli found studio space at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre at Hastings and Commercial. He remains there to his day, running a program called The House of Culture. At first, the program was a cooperative, through which artists passed like Robert Davidson, Reg Davidson, Henry Green, Simon Dick, and Lyle Campbell, as well as younger artists such as Ian Reid and Phil Gray.

More recently, The House of Culture has become a rental space, because “there were a couple of people who had abused the space because they were abusing themselves in their addiction,” as Dangeli explains the situation. Dangeli now shares the space with Woodlands artist Don McIntyre, and Mari Torizane, a Japanese master painter who works as Dangeli’s assistant. Space is also found from time to time for other artists, such as Ian Reid, whom Dangeli regards as a brother.

Such experiences have left him with a strong interest in collaboration. One such result can be seen on the west side of the Friendship Centre, where Dangeli recently painted a mural with Don McIntyre.

Dangeli now works in a variety of media, including stone carving, wood carving, jewelry making, painting, and sculpture. He works twelve to fourteen hours a day and completes 10-30 pieces per month.

“I love a bit of everything,” he says. “You get lost in what you’re working in, so there is no favorite medium. It’s whatever I’m working on. but I always have five of six projects on the go in various stages. You get bored with one and you want to pick up something else. but then the clock’s ticking on a couple of pieces, and you’ve got to get going on them.”

Ceremonial, commissioned, and commercial art

“What’s become really important to me is the performance and ceremonial part of our art,” Dangeli says. “You can ask every Northwest Coast artist, and they’ll tell you that some of the best carvers and west coast artists are the ones who have an understanding of ceremony. It’s a lot different than creating something for the galleries.”

Part of the difference is that a mask intended to be danced “needs the inside to be functional. It needs to be carved to the dimensions of the face of the person who’s wearing the mask.”

Another part is the “responsibility and rights and privileges that you learn by attending ceremonies and understanding them.”

However, the largest difference, Dangeli says, is the spirituality. “In our languages, masks were naxnox— ‘beyond human power.’ These naxnox embodied the wind, they embodied the spirits, and were able to connect us to that spirit world. There’s an understanding that if you don’t treat these naxnox right, they’ll bite you.

“And I’ve seen that happen. I’ve seen a guy who played around too much with a mask and he was dancing on stage at this one event, and he fell right off the stage. It was a good five foot drop. That was part of the mask saying, ‘I didn’t appreciate that.’ I’ve seen it happen in our own dance group. I’ve even had it happen to me.”

Another consideration is the stories that are told in ceremonial and commercial art. “With a lot of our naxnox, there’s an oral history that’s owned by families that I don’t have the right to go and use. There’s even traditions that belong to my family that I would never go and openly sell. When I do art for potlatching or for individuals who ask me for things that display their clan crest, there’s always a different price. I don’t ever charge the full price in these cases, because the best payment is having one of your pieces used. It’s more of an exchange” of services or goods or artwork.

By contrast, “when I’m doing things for a gallery, there are certain stories that are universal to everybody” that can be used instead. Dangeli suggests that this is not a limitation, so much as a situation that calls upon his ingenuity as an artist. He likens the distinction to his experience of dancing, where there are some dances that are not recorded and others that are brought out for public performance.

Dangeli acknowledges that other artists do not observe the same distinctions, but seems to feel that their choices are not his business. “I find it really sad when I see artists breaking those laws [about what can be publicly displayed], but it’s up to their elders, their chiefs and their matriarchs to put them back into line, not us as artists. Although there are some things you look at and think, ‘Gosh, I can’t believe they did that.'”

These distinctions are increasingly easy for Dangeli to observe because, while he has had work in galleries, today, commissions and ceremonial work mean that he does not rely on the commercial art market to make his living. While he praises some galleries like the Eagle Spirit and the Leora Lattimer Gallery, and speaks of their owners with respect, he is concerned that meeting the galleries’ needs can be restrictive for artists.

In fact, in some cases, dealing with galleries can be “abusive,” he says. He recalls selling a drum and a mask to one gallery, and being told by the owner, “‘Now, don’t go drinking this all up in one spot.’ So I looked at him and said, ‘I don’t need this,’ and I ripped up the cheque and handed it back, and took my pieces.”

This experience was reinforced a few years ago by an incident online in which his building and launching of a canoe received condescending criticism from an academic, and others rallied around him.

“It was really wonderful having support from my own people, indigenous people, and people from museums from all over the place, and I let go of that final fear about what people think of my art. It’s none of my business. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, that’s fine. I think [this attitude] has made me a better artist, and that taking on more commissions has helped me to focus on more personal items and concentrating more on things for potlatches. It’s wonderful to have that freedom, and I would wish it for every artist.”

Art and the community

Dangeli takes his role as an interpreter of his culture seriously. “There is a responsibility, because artists are our historians. They are people who are able to act as a conduit between our culture and our people to the outside world. They’re historians, they’re writers, they’re creators of things that will be used inside those ceremonies. So, yeah, there’s a lot of importance in being a leader and an artist.”

For Dangeli in particular, this responsibility and importance is augmented because he is heir to two chieftainships, one of which he grew up expecting to inherit and one which he has only recently become heir to. This situation, he says, “has affected me in wanting to convey more of my messages. And taking on that larger chieftainship means that I have more responsibilities, both financially and culturally. Financially in the way of making sure that I can get home to attend feasts and potlatches, culturally by being able to create things for my people. It has affected some of what I create and definitely the responsibility not to do anything embarrassing as well.”

Sunset

However, asked if artists help to restore pride to First Nations communities, Dangeli characterizes the idea as an outsider’s view. “I think that, as an outsider looking in, yeah, it could be construed that way. But are you being made aware of it because individual artists are opening your eyes to what’s going on inside those communities? Because, growing up and witnessing all these wonderful things happening within my community, there’s always been pride. There’s always been this sense of beauty and right and wrong and putting your best foot forward. A lot of artists, especially in the generation before mine, have all grown up with that responsibility.

“There’s a huge responsibility being an artists and growing up in that culture, which is why some artists choose not to be part of it. It is too much responsibility. Everyone always wants you to create things for some sort of giveaway or to do this or that. So there has to be a balance.” For instance, Dangeli will often repurpose a piece, or ask permission to make a print of an original painting, so that he can respond to a request without taking too much of his time. He cites Joe David and Beau Dick as two of the older artists who are models of how to find this sort of balance.

“We have a responsibility because we’re able to function in so many worlds, whether it be the white world, within the art world — and it’s not just the art world, it’s the First Nation’s art world as well — within our communities, culturally, and academically and with art historians. I’ve been able to walk in all these worlds, and been intimidated in all of them.

“I remember when Mique’l [his financee] had moved up here. I was looking through some of the readings she had to do for her Master’s in Art History, and I became worried because art historians analyze everything. And I was like, ‘Look, I was poor this month, and people will say, this is Mike Dangeli’s blue period because I didn’t have anything else but blue paint. That was part of my fear: Is what I’m doing now going to be analyzed and picked apart twenty, forty years down the line?. And that was something else I had to let go.”

But, for all the fears, the responsibilities, the obligations and the need for balance, Dangeli clearly remains committed to all that he has taken on. “I love what I do. It’s not a job, and it’s not a career –although it is both — it’s a passion. I absolutely love it. So to be able to have that opportunity to take what’s inside me, to make my thoughts tangible –”

He trails off for a second, then starts in a new direction.

“I’m able only to put out so much in thirty or forty years. That’s a short time in a person’s life. And I started this when I was a little older than most artists. I was 27 when I decided to become a professional artist. so I have a lot of catching up to do. And, at the same time, I’m grateful to be able to create art and to have people see value in it.”

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The Bill Reid Gallery kicked off a series of talks about artists from its Continuum exhibit with a slide show by Michael Dangeli, a Nisga’a artist who has started to receive recognition in the last few years. The choice was lucky or inspired, because Dangeli is more articulate about his work than most artists, and has clearly thought carefully about what he is doing.

The Continuum show is supposed to be about the conflict between traditional and contemporary influences in Northwest Coast art. And, in fact, Dangeli was introduced in terms of this conflict. However, he immediately made clear that he rejects such a dichotomy in his own work. Calling his work “traditionally contemporary,” Dangeli made clear that he considers his work a continuity of the past, both an attempt to reclaim it and to expand and to adopt it.

One reason why Dangeli is comfortable with the paradox of living with opposites is that he sees the rest of his life in such terms. Nisga’a by birth, he has lived in the United States and Vancouver, far from his nation’s territory. Deeply interested in his cultural past, he is also aware that he is a modern urbanite in his day to day life. Spiritually inclined, he is also a veteran of two tours of duty abroad in the American military. With such tensions, those between the traditional and contemporary must seem like just one more.

Another reason that Dangeli can have the attitudes he does is probably the fact that he is actively involved in the cultural revival of his people – something that seems especially unusual for an urbanite. During his discussion, Dangeli talked of pieces of art being given as payment for services, and at potlatches, as well as important events such as a betrothal. He talked, too, of being groomed to take over a chieftainship, and of his hesitation about taking on an even larger chieftainship recently. He talked about his dancing, and of acquiring songs and dances and inventing new ones, and of exploring the distinctions between male and female powers and responsibility with his finacee.

Unlike many First Nations artists, Dangeli seems either fortunate enough or determined enough to have lived with a sense of tradition from an early age. Consequently, it is easier for him than many artists to see a continuity rather than an opposition.

This continuity seems to affect his art very strongly. He talked of preferring that his gallery pieces not have eyes that would make them danceable, and of his relief when he managed to buy back an early exception to this preference. He talked, too, of making one of the first stone masks for well over a century, and having it danced.

But the strongest evidence of his artistic continuity came at the end of his talked, when he uncovered three pieces of his work that are reserved for ceremonial purposes: The mask he bought back and modified with a pieced of Ainu cloth; the stone mask, and a frontlet worn by his fiancee. He explained that he generally kept them covered, and treated them as living spirits, requesting that people look them over a few at a time so as not to overwhelm them. It was unclear to me whether any power in the objects was innate or resided in the respect shown to them, but his attitude was curiously moving.

Even if you didn’t share his cultural background or beliefs, they were obviously alive for him – either never having died or after being carefully revived, or some combination of the two. Clearly, he had fought hard to make them meaningful to himself and those around him, and I believe that he has largely succeeded. At the very least, he demonstrated to the audience that his cultures were still ongoing and hadn’t stopped developing with the European conquest.

All this says nothing directly about his work, which ranges from the traditional to the modern, with a variety of color palettes and a frequent emphasis on collaborations with other artists – or “brothers,” as he called them.

I have liked what I’ve seen of Dangeli’s work in the past, and, by the time he had finished talking, I had a much clearer sense of why, and an increased interest in what he might do in the future. And, really, what more can you ask of an artist’s talk? With several dozen slides and intelligent commentary, Dangeli sets a high standard for the next speakers in the series to match.

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When I wandered into the Alcheringa Gallery in Victoria on a day off, I really wasn’t planning to buy another piece of art. My official excuse was to see the gallery’s “More Than Meets the Eye” show, which included a recent piece by John Wilson, and a twenty-five year old piece by Ron Telek. But when I saw an artist’s proof of Wayne Young’s “Wolf Clan,” a purchase was more or less inevitable.

For one thing, Wayne Young is an artist on my short list. Having learned his craft under Dempsey Bob and his uncles Robert and Norman Tait, like his cousin Ron Telek, Young displays in his work all the characteristics you would expect – imagination, a strong sense of line, and careful attention to finishing – while still managing to display a distinctive style of his own. One of his prints at the Alcheringa Gallery was one of the few renditions of Dogfish Woman that didn’t descend from Charles Edenshaw’s sketch via Bill Reid. Another print that I saw at the same time showed Raven and the First People without being dependent on Bill Reid’s monumental work; in fact, unless I miss my guess, it shows a mussel or a chiton rather than a clam shell.

Just as importantly, something that always fascinates me about Northwest Coast art is how the design is rearranged and constrained by the surface it is on. A flat design can be wrapped around the handle of a ladle, for instance, or rearranged to fit into a round panel. The challenge to the eye is to pick out the details of the design and identify it while enjoying the intricacy.

In the case of “Wolf Clan,” the shape of the design is reminiscent of an argillite pipe. The compressed space contains three wolves, two full sized and one small one, perhaps a cub. Of the small one, only the head can be identified for sure, although perhaps its body and legs are to the right of it or to the left across the two central S-curves. Possibly, it is a killer whale, representing a clan related to the wolves. The wolves on the end show few clear signs of their bodies, with most of the space given to their heads and tails, and, on the left, a single paw.

What is mildly unusual for Northwest Coast art is that it is asymmetrical, with all three heads both facing the same way, and the right side of the share by two of the heads. The two S-shaped areas in the middle – at least one of which is a tail, and possibly both – also create the optical illusion that one side is shorter than the other. However, which one seems shorter depends on which S-shaped area you focus on, and measurement proves that the two halves are about the same length.

Notice, too, the variation of repeated elements, such as the eyes and pupils of the heads, and the secondary elements that surround the head and eye. Even the teeth vary, with the wolf on the left sporting an incisor and the one on the right none. The small head, by contrast, actually seems to have incisors that curl up In much the same way, the stripes on the tail vary as well. Since contemporary design is asymmetrical, the overall impression is of a modern sensibility, even though all the elements, taken one at a time, are traditional.

Even more unusual is the extraordinary variation in the thickness of the formline, ranging from the thick lines of the wolf snouts and heads to the pen-thickness of the outline of the tail in the middle, and the extreme tapering of some of the secondary elements where they join another line. This variation gives “Wolf Clan” a certain angularity, despite the roundness and the sweeping curves throughout the design. The variety also makes a sense of constrained motion in the design, moving the eye along one line until it catches the next one.

“Wolf Clan” is a small piece but it shows all the strengths of Wayne Young’s work. I have noticed recently that we have a disproportionate amount of Nisga’a works among our purchases, probably because of the bold simplicity that features in that nation’s traditional designs. To that tradition, “Wolf Clan” adds an intricacy that I’m sure will intrigue me for years to come.

wolf-clan-lo-res

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Earlier this week, we received “Master Shaman on His Throne of Power,” the latest sculpture by Ron Telek. We had been waiting for it since last December, so I consider it an act of supreme will power that we did not scream with frustration as we unwrapped the layers of paper, towels, cardboard and duct tape protecting it.

But the result was worth the wait, and then some. We had some photos of the work in progress courtesy of John Wilson, and were impressed enough then, but the finished piece goes beyond anything we could have expected.

The unfinished sculpture

The unfinished sculpture

“Master Shaman” is a carving in African wonderstone, with a black finish that makes it resemble argillite. In fact, Telek told me that he consulted an argillite carver about how to apply the finish. Back in December, I had no idea how he would finish it, but, recently we have started to look more closely at argillite, so his decision was a bit of serendipity so far as I was concerned.

The finished sculpture

The finished sculpture

The subject of the sculpture is self-explanatory: it depicts a shaman on a throne imbued with the spirits he controls transforming into a raven. You can see the spirits in the seat on the supports for the chair’s arms, while on the back, one of the shaman’s enslaved spirits presides over four confined spirits.

The sculpture depicts the shaman in mid-transformation. The spirit of the raven is erupting from his chest and the back of his head has started to sprout feathers while his feet and hands are half-turned into claws. His nose is hooked, suggesting that it is becoming a beak.

As always with the transformations that Telek depicts, you cannot say whether changing shape is an ecstatic or agonizing effort (I tend to think both). However, it is unquestionably intense. The shaman and most of the spirits seem to be screaming, and the shaman’s fist is clenched and his eyes bulging. His erect posture seems more an act of will, as though he would be doubled over in pain if he let himself relax.

Even more ominously, the shaman seems on the verge of losing control. Although the spirit on top of his head seems serene, screaming spirits seem to be erupting from his arms, in contrast to the close-mouthed on his rigidly-positioned knees. Meanwhile, his left hand has been replaced by another spirit that, considering the half-transformed shape of his feet and other hand, might well be an intruder. The overall impression is that the shaman is at best only partially in control of the process he has begun, and that, if he relaxes or allows himself to be distracted, he will lose control entirely.

telek-back

Turn the sculpture around, and you get another dimension – not only literally, but figuratively as well. The face on the shaman’s forehead has a more or less neutral expression, suggesting at most the shaman’s disciplined state of mind. However, the back of his head is hollowed out and contains a figure ripping its abdomen open in direct reflection of the raven spirit erupting from his chest. This figure grimaces in pain, revealing the true state of emotion beneath the shaman’s efforts to remain calm. It also raises the question of whether the transformation is real, or only happening in the shaman’s mind, a question that some of Telek’s other works, such as “Transformation Make: Human to Eagle” also raise.

All these aspects are enhanced by Telek’s usual attention to details. For example, although you cannot see from the pictures, the shaman’s back is separate from the back of the chair far more deeply than strictly necessary, while the feathers sprouting on his head are each individually carved. Similarly, the abalone on the sides of the seat are carefully matched, and both include dark lines in their pattern that complement the black finish of the rest of the sculpture.

telek-right-side

In some ways, “Master Shaman” is a typical Telek piece, balanced uniquely between traditional design and modern sensibilities. A seated figure is reasonably common in traditional argillite carvings, and so are transformation themes, but who other than Telek would add such a modern sense of ambiguity or such a psychological edge? It also has the three-dimensionality and amount of detail that I have come to expect from his work.

However, I know of no other piece by Telek that carries these tendencies to such an extreme as “Master Shaman.” The piece has a Gothic quality that combines traditional roots with the sensibility of the best dark fantasy novels; in fact, I would love to see a graphic novel or piece of animation done in the same style (although I wonder if it would be possible to depict more of the world than the sculpture does).

Phoning to tell me that the piece was ready, Telek commented that he thought the piece was his best yet. Maybe that was just an artist high on having finished a major work, but I’m not about to argue.

“Master Shaman” is an intense, unique work, and I haven’t tired of looking at it after three days of living with it. It sits a meter away from me as I type, and my eyes keep straying to it, even when I’m not writing about it.

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In January, we missed by hours buying a dragonfly frontlet that Nisga’a master carver Norman Tait and his carving partner Lucinda Turner sold through the Inuit Gallery. The gallery told us that its staff would ask the team to do another frontlet, but we had heard nothing for a couple of months and were just concluding that a second one would not be available when we received email notice that it had arrived.

Did we snap it up quickly? somebody asked me via chat. Put it this way: We received the notice at 3:10. I replied that we would buy it at 3:12 – despite the fact that we prefer not to buy sight unseen, and are saving to pay our taxes. Some opportunities you just have to take when they arise, and, having missed the first frontlet, we were determined not to miss this one.

You see, Norman Tait is one of the four artists we most wanted a carving from (the others were Beau Dick, Stan Bevan, and Tait’s nephew Ron Telek). Tait is one of the most acclaimed Northwest Coast artists alive – and rightfully so, given his attention to detail and his careful finishing. In the last two decades, these distinguishing features have been supplemented by Lucinda Turner, who brings the same qualities to carving.

The only problem is, Tait’s acclaim means that their masks start at about $12,000. While this price is more than deserved, it means that their work is largely out of our price range unless we do some extremely careful financial planning over a year or more. By contrast, the frontlet is more within our price range.

More importantly, the frontlet is a miniature masterpiece in its own right. While in many ways the frontlet’s depiction of a beaver is traditional, it is full of small finishing details — the flare of the nostrils, the roundness of the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, the roundness of the tail, the prominence of the front teeth and the curled lip – that lift it out of the mundane.

I like, too, the contrast between the heavy lines and planes of the figure and the lightly inscribed shapes along the border, to say nothing of how the beaver’s ears are incorporated in the border so as not to interrupt the line of the head. All the elements in the border are traditional, yet they are so lightly carved that they almost look like the letters of some unknown alphabet.

In short, everything about the frontlet indicates that it is the work of someone who is as comfortable with carving tools as I am with a keyboard or pen. Although it is undeniably a minor work, it displays Tait’s skill so completely that you can easily extrapolate from it what his poles and larger sculptures are like. As a friend said, having the frontlet in our home is bit like having a cartoon from Picasso.

We hung the frontlet near a similarly-sized piece by Ron Telek. That position gave us the additional pleasure of comparing the work of the master and his former apprentice. We could see that the same attention to detail and finishing was present in both works, but there was nothing you could call imitative in Telek’s work. He had learned the craft from Tait, but each carver has an imagination and style all his own.

Norman Tait: Beaver Frontlet

Norman Tait and Lucinda Turner: Beaver Frontlet

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