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Archive for the ‘northwestcoast art’ Category

As an artist, Carol Young has gone from strength to strength, so when her “Wolf Mask” became available for sale, I jumped at the chance to buy. In the not-too-distance future, I may not be able to afford her work, and I wanted – at least – a second piece of work to enjoy in my townhouse.

This premonition is based on how far and how fast Young has come as an artist. Less than five years ago, Carol Young began a new career as a carver. In her second year at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, she emerged as one of the most accomplished students in her graduate class, winning the encouragement of master carver Dempsey Bob and becoming the first recipient of the Mature Student Award. In the four years since then, she has gone on to develop a strong original style with a strong interest in the role of women and environmentalism in First Nations Culture. Recently, at sixty, she had her “Moon Matriarch” mask adapted for gold and silver Canadian coins.

“Wolf Mask” reminds me of Bill Reid’s comment that traditionally the wolf must have been a mythical creature to the Haida, because there are no wolves on Haida Gwaii. Like Reid’s own wolves, Young’s mask depicts a degree of ferocity missing from the depictions of other animals. It is a fantasy creature, with an exaggeratedly large mouth and teeth, with fangs that cannot be contained its jaws, and large, swept-back ears that suggest an aggressive alertness. The impression is rounded off – literally – by the U-shapes at the edge of the jaws and the eye sockets that creates a clenched look, as if the grimace on the mask is habitual.

This sense of ferocity is all the stronger because Young has left the mask mostly unpainted. The lack of paint makes the carving more pronounced. And when Young does add black to the wolf’s outsized pupils, they appear larger and wilder than they possibly could have if surrounded by any other paint – even another section of black.

More often than not, fur added to a NorthWest Coast mask is a step too far – a sign, usually, that the artist is uncertain about their skill and trying to hide any errors by over-embellishing. However, the fox fur that Young adds is an exception. Its untidy shagginess on the top of the mask adds to the ferocity, while its off-white color contrasts strongly with the natural color of the wood.

Unfortunately, the fur made shipping the mask to the United States impossible. But since that technicality is why I was able to buy it, I have no complaints. However I got my hands on Young’s “Wolf Mask,” I consider it one of the outstanding treasures in my art collection.

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I have been meaning to buy from Haida artist Carol Young for a couple of years, but, until now my spare cash and opportunities haven’t coincided. Not only was Young the first recipient of the Mature Student Award that I fund at the Freda Diesing School, but she is also one of the strongest women carvers currently at work on the coast, with an awareness of line reminiscent of her teacher Dempsey Bob, and a realism uniquely her own. In less than five years, she has gone from an adequate beginner to a carver with a style that promises to make her one of the great originals in Northwest Coast art.

“Wind-Rider” seems an appropriate place to begin buying from Young. Before Young attended the Freda Diesing, she sold Haida dolls on the Internet, and continues to give classes in doll-making. A couple of years ago, she placed a similar figure on a mask for an all-woman show at the Steinbreuck Gallery in Seattle. With its removable hat and cedar bark hair, the figure seems to embody the entire span of her career, so much so that I suggested to her that she should use it as a logo if she ever prints business cards or sets up a web site.

One of the things that makes the carving unusual is that human forms – especially naked ones – are rare in the Northwest Coast Renaissance. Classical works and oral tales sometimes show a decided earthiness, but, by the time of the local Renaissance, Christianity had changed the standards of what was appropriate. As I write, the Bill Reid Gallery is about to host a show of native erotica, featuring younger and avant-garde artists, but in general, the current artistic tradition approaches the human form cautiously, if at all.

By contrast, “Wind-Rider” depicts a semi-realistic naked female form, with a sensuous appreciation of the curves of its spine, buttocks, and thighs. Yet, at the same time, I would hesitate to describe it as erotic, and not just because the figure suggests a young girl rather than an adult woman. This is not a figure poised for the male gaze in some impossible contortion – nor for any other gaze at all, for that matter, considering its wild array of hair. The posture suggests that the rider is absorbed with the act of balancing and holding on, while the upward tilt of the head conveys a sense of wonder, with the eyes – the only part of the sculpture that is painted – fixed on something that only the rider can see. Meanwhile, the blank expression suggests concentration and determination. Sensuousness and innocence are not usually thought of as going together, yet somehow in “Wind-Rider” they seem to co-exist without any difficulty. In fact, you might say that the figure is sensuous because she is self-absorbed. But, however you parse it, the depiction is original in a way that nudes rarely manage.

Sensibly, Young has left most of the spoon unpainted, leaving the lines of the sculpture to speak for themselves. With most of the attention focused on the rider, she has also left the spoon plain. Yet the spoon, too, is well-proportioned, with a graceful curve to the handle and a ladle that is deep enough and wide enough to serve as a visual counter weight to the rider.

One viewer on Facebook immediately thought of witches riding broomsticks (to which Young immediately replied that the Haida have no concept of Witches). Personally, though, my first thought was of Whale Rider, a film whose protagonist is a Maori girl who is determined to break with tradition and become a chief. Not only does the Maori culture resemble that of the local first nations, but, like the film, Young’s sculpture seems all about following dreams and female empowerment.

From any perspective, “Wind-Rider” is a powerful and unusual work. Examining it, I wonder why I took so long to buy from Young and I’m determined not to wait too long before I do so again.

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Last weekend, I flew north to Terrace to give out the Mature Student Award at the Freda Diesing School graduation. This was the fourth year I have sponsored the award, and the third in which one main recipient and two honorable mentions were named. The award honors students twenty-five and older, recognizing that returning students face challenges in returning to school that younger students don’t, yet often contribute grreatly to a class.

The main recipient was Steven Wesley, a member of the Eagle side of the Haida Nation. Wesley fished for many years, then returned to school in 1997 to earn his high school diploma. “I wanted to be a role model for my daughters,” he said. “I wanted to show them that even their Dad could get his Grade Twelve.

Wesley went on to become a bus driver and trucker. However, he relates that, in 2002, “A friend handed me a knife and a block of wood and asked if I wanted to carve. And ever since I kept pursuing my dream of becoming an artist,” he says.

Although mostly self-taught and learning by observing others, Wesley was accepted at the K’san School in 2004. However, he had to turn down the position due to lack of funding. When he applied to the Freda Diesing School in 2008, he was luckier in finding support.”I just wanted to learn everything,” he says. “I taught myself how to do the ovoids and U shapes but I wasn’t sure they were the way they should be. So, coming back, I wanted to learn from the beginning again. “

However, for Wesley, the most satisfying part of his first year was learning about negative space in carving: “how deep, how high, how wide. I knew the forms, but I didn’t know how to use negative space in my designs.”

He plans to return for his second year in September, and to carve and paint over the summer. “The more you carve, the less you forget,” he says.

One of the two honorable mentions was given to Roberta Quock, a Tahltan from Telegraph Creek who grew up in Merritt and Kamloops. Long interested in painting and beadwork, she says, “I’ve always wanted to go to this school to study more and to learn carving and study more of the culture.”

Besides beginning to learn how to carve, Quock found the first year class a friendly place to learn. “We really bonded together, and we helped each other out,” she says. “We looked out for each other like a family.”

Quock also plans to return for her second year, studying beside her brother Lyle.

The other honorable mention went to Lorretta Quock Sort, a Tahltan of the Crow Clan. An experienced textile artist, for some time Sort has been making fire bags (ammunition pouches) that the president of the Tahltan nation has been distributing as gifts.

Sort’s first ventures into carving will all be given away to her parents and three children. She explains, “My Mom always told me that when you do something for the first time you should give it away. You’re not supposed to keep it or sell it. But, coming from such a large family, it was hard to decide who got what.”
Like the other winners, Sort plans to keep busy over the summer. She has already set herself the task of doing a mask and bowl over the summer, as well commissions for two button blankets and more fire bags, which these days are popular as women’s purses.

Wesley, Quock, and Sort were all among the more accomplished students in this year’s exhibition. I look forward to seeing them develop in their second year, and I’m pleased to have played a small role in their development as artists.

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When I travel to Terrace every April, I spend three days submerged in art. Not only is the Freda Diesing School’s graduation and year end exhibit my official excuse for the trip, but I meet other artists and view their works in progress. This year, one of those artists was Ivan Adams, a Haida carver doing some unique work in argillite.

Ivan Adams is the father of Mitch Adams, a middle-aged artist from whom I’ve bought half a dozen pieces in the last three years. Last year, I met Ivan over Sunday brunch, and several times Mitch has mentioned his father as an artist, but until this year, I had never seen any of his work.

This year, Mitch drove me up to his parent’s house, and we sat in their kitchen while his father showed what he was working on. The three or four pieces I saw were literally like nothing I had ever seen before.

They were not in the argillite style of the nineteenth century, nor were they the inlaid and embellished pieces that most modern argillite carvers favor. As Mitch said, Ivan’s work is a little reminiscent of some Inuit work, but the resemblance is mostly in the scenes of everyday life he favors, rather than the carving style.

What Ivan Adams is doing is a naturalistic, detailed style all his own. One piece is a bear with silver teeth rearing on two legs while a much small hunter attacks with a spear; the base comes apart so you can position each figure separately. Another is a legendary strong man straddling a bull sea-lion and tearing it apart with his bare hands, with the exposed muscle suggested by artfully positioned catlinite (reddish brown argillite). A smaller piece is an eagle, so ungainly that it suggests an archeopteryx. All the pieces I saw were obviously mature pieces, done by an artist with a strongly developed style of his own.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford one of Ivan Adams’ larger pieces. However, he also had a raven pendant about the size and thickness of my thumb, which I was pleased to take home with me as consolation.

I suspect the pendant was a left over piece of argillite whose shape suggested its subject. But, like Adams’ larger pieces,what makes the piece standout is the attention to detail. The shape of the beak and how the upper and lower beak fit together are absolutely accurate. Adams has even included the striations that make every raven’s beak as individual as human finger prints, and suggested the soft tissue that connects the lower beak to the body – even though that part of the carving is not seen when the pendant is hanging from a chain. Similarly, the off-white of the inlaid eyes is a close approximation of the natural color of some raven’s eyes.

Yet as if that were not enough, on the head and neck, Adams has indicated individual feathers. Most of these feathers are aligned in rows, but only roughly, with some out of alignment and skewed from the rest, and most of them not quite the same shape. On the top the head, too, the feathers grown smaller as they approach the beak. I have no idea whether Adams has observed live ravens or worked from pictures in a book or on the Internet, but the only way that the pendant does not closely reflect a living raven is that the argillite lacks the blue oil-like highlights of actual feathers.

Ivan Adams is not well-known, and you won’t find his work in any Vancouver or Victoria galleries – at least, not yet. But anyone who takes the pains he obviously does is an artist worth paying attention to. Perhaps one day I will be able to afford one of his larger pieces, but meanwhile the pendant is a very satisfactory consolation.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As a general rule, I never buy Northwest Coast Art depicting butterflies. But when I was in Terrace last April, I made an exception for Nigel Fox’s “Butterflies #3.”

The reason for my rule is that butterflies (and hummingbirds, for that matter) are among the most popular designs for tourist pieces. You rarely see them depicted in more serious artistic works. I believe that there used to be a Butterfly family crest among the Haida, and there are still Hummingbird crests among several of the northern First Nations, but today, these designs are often trite and blatantly designed to appeal to tourists. Often, they show a degree of cuteness unlike any other designs.

I’ve joked that these designs are the Hello Kitty of Northwest Coast Art. But the northern First Nations, as I understand things, are even more scathing: satirically, they call butterflies and hummingbirds the white people’s crests.

However, Nigel Fox, a student now in his second year at the Freda Diesing School, has a different take on butterflies. In his blog, he writes about “Butterflies #3,” the third in a series of paintings featuring butterflies, “The piece is about teamwork and is part of a series that I am exploring on the theme of respect, especially among peers, even among “outsiders” or butterflies. Within many northwest coast native cultures, there are crests that are usually animals, that represent families or bloodlines. The butterfly crest is reserved for people who are not part of a nation by blood.”

Fox goes on to explain that his work is about harmony and teamwork.

I’m not sure if he is missing the satiric intent, but it is hard to argue with his results. Fox has a separate career as a painter mostly in the Canadian Impressionist style, and in his butterfly studies, he has combined traditional designs with patterns inspired by the surrealism of M. C. Escher.

Like Escher’s work, “Butterflies #3” has a constant shifting of figure and ground. At the same time, the shape of the butterflies’ wings, with their ovoids and elongated T-shapes continually suggest other shapes, such as the beaks of ravens. By combining his interests in mainstream and Northwest Coast Art, Fox has created a series of paintings unlike anything anyone else is doing, and I look forward to seeing how his work matures in the next few years.

Meanwhile, his butterfly series is a promising start.

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