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Archive for the ‘Raven’ Category

In the renaissance of Northwest Coast art, the story of how Raven stole the light is the equivalent of the Madonna and Child in classic European art: sooner or later, most artists produce at least one version of it. Several years ago, I bought Bill Hudson’s version of the story, which shows Raven opening a box labeled Sun Crispies as he sits down at a kitchen table. Now, in James Crawford’s “Raven Steals the Lightbulb – Unscrewed,” I have found another modern updating of the story.

If anyone knows one story from the local First Nations, it is the story of how Raven stole the light from the chieftain who held in locked in his chest. Raven turns himself into a pine-needle and has himself swallowed by the chieftain’s daughter so he can be born as her son. The chieftain dotes on his grandchild, and one day gives him the light as a toy – and Raven promptly flees with it, burning himself black as he escapes through the smokehouse of the longhouse, and scattering the sun, moon, and stars, accidentally creating the world as we know it. With variations, the story is told in many different cultures. Usually, the depiction has Raven holding a sphere of light in his beak as he flees.

Crawford gives a modern rendering of this familiar scene. It is evidently a supernatural light bulb, since it appears to be still radiating light after being unscrewed, and in the upper left is what might be the rising sun. Raven looks mischievously pleased with his theft, or perhaps with the updating of the well-known scene.

However, the print is more than a one-punch piece. Instead, it is one of Crawford’s experiments with lino block prints: images that are carved, then inked and used as a stamp. It is a seldom used technique, although Stan Bevan, one of Crawford’s instructors at the Freda Diesing School, released at least one block print of his own. The effect is totally unlike any other medium, with irregular lines, and an often blocky appearance. It reminds me of the woodcuts in books from the 16th and 17th Centuries, which used a similar technique. The result gives Crawford’s print the eerie impression of being an artifact from some alternate universe in which the local First Nations had European-style printed books.

Needless to say, block prints require tremendous care when they are printed, especially when more than one color is used. Consequently, the print is small, roughly 12 by 25 centimeters. However, the effect is so appealing to my eye that I plan to buy some of Crawford’s other block prints – and to keep an eye on his work in other media as well.

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Recently, a number of scientists signed the Cambridge Declaration, stating their conviction that animals have conscious awareness. I was pleased to see among the signatories Irene Pepperberg, a personal hero and the leading expert in parrot intelligence, and I appreciate that so many people were willing to risk accusations of anthropomorphism and sentimentality. But, otherwise, the announcement mainly gave me the satisfaction of other people saying what I have known for years.

I have been convinced since childhood that at least some animals were self-aware to one degree or another. However, at least twice, this fact has hit me with the force of revelation.

The first time was shortly after Trish and I bought Ningauble, a Nanday conure. I was lounging on a futon by the window, and he was on my chest. As the sky darkened outside, Ning began to get agitated, indicating the direction of his cage with his whole body and making anxious noises.

I knew perfectly well that he wanted to be carried over to the cage, but I didn’t feel like moving. If he really wanted, he could fly there.

But after a few minutes of expressing his desire, Ning quietened. His head began to move, first to look at my toes and the end of the futon, then down to the floor and over to a chair beside his cage. He repeated the same eye movements several times, then marched along the path I have described, ending by climbing to the top of his cage and letting out one triumphant shriek.

Ning, I realized as a thin thrill of excitement passed through me, had just planned his route and followed it. He had at least a limited sense of the future, and enough awareness of himself to imagine doing something in the future. Of course he would have had an easier time if he had flown, but parrots’ intelligence rarely exceeds that of a three or four year old human, and he had all of a toddler’s obsessive tendencies.

This was not a random incident, either. Over the decades of living with parrots, I have seen Ning and all the other birds that have been through our house making simple plans and coming to a decision more times than I remember.

I particularly remember when each bird came to a decision and reached out to preen a human for the first time. Not only was it a sign of affection, but it has always been preceded by a moment of deliberation, as though the bird was deciding whether to extend trust. It has never been as unexpected as that moment of watching Ning, but the repetition showed that his planning was more everyday than something unusual.

The second moment was in early Spring. Trish and I were at Centennial Park on Burnaby Mountain when we noticed two ravens picking at the garbage bins outside the restaurant. We immediately observed that only one raven foraged at any given time; the other would perch, a little higher, shifting slightly and looking all around.

Over about half an hour, we worked our way cautiously closer. We were about ten meters away when a restaurant worker opened the door and tossed a big black bag of garbage into the bin before turning on his heels and disappearing inside again.

The ravens took the air. One landed on the grass about five meters of us. Abruptly, it realized how close we were, and looked up.

At once, I had a sense of being evaluated. My perception was not just based on the raven’s obvious wariness, or the fact that it was cocking its head as though to get a better view of us. It was the fact that I was close enough to look the raven in the eyes.

Once at a wildlife refuge, I had been eyed in the same way by a bald eagle separated from me by a wire cage. Its eyes were so mad that I could tell that its only thought was: Food? Not food?

By contrast, the raven seemed to be doing a more complex evaluation of us. Its wings were poised to take flight, but it seem to be risking a moment or two to be curious about us – even, perhaps, curious about our curiosity. What else the bird might be thinking about us I can only imagine, but what struck me was that looking it in the eye was exactly the same as looking a human in the eye. I was watching another patch of self-awareness watching me.

After about thirty seconds, we started to ease down to our knees, by unspoken agreement hoping that we would be less threatening if we looked smaller. But, as cautious as our movements were, they were enough for the raven to take to the air, flying over us with the single click of its beak. A moment later, both ravens were flying for a high stand of trees on the other side of the park.

Both these incidents took place years ago, but both have formed an important part of my thinking ever since. You might accuse me of an over-active imagination, but all I can say is that you would have had similar perceptions if you had been in the same position.

I hope that our planet will encounter aliens in my lifetime, but, if not, I won’t be too greatly disappointed. So far as I am concerned, my own first contacts with alien intelligences has already happened.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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Northwest Coast art has a new medium. It’s called forton, and it’s a mixture of gypsum, fiberglass and plastics, and has the advantages of being non-toxic, lightweight, weather resistant, and capable of imitating anything from marble to plaster or bronze. So far, you can see the largest collection of sculptures in forton in Vancouver at the Douglas Reynolds Gallery, including one cast from James Hart’s Celebration of Bill Reid pole that was officially presented to the public on December 5.

The Celebration of Bill Reid pole is a permanent fixture at the Bill Reid Gallery in downtown Vancouver. Carved by James Hart with the help of Ernest Swanson, Tyson Brown, Carl Hart, and GwaLiga Hart, the pole is topped by a raven whose chest is a stylized version of Bill Reid’s face. Through the Douglas Reynolds Gallery, eighteen copies of the raven are being made in forton – six imitating plaster, and 12 bronze, including three artist proofs.

Hart spoke briefly at the launch, arriving after the crowd had already gathered and was well into the buffet and wine. A tall man with long gray hair, he wore a bright Guatemalan jacket and carried a string of trade beads in his hands that someone gave him as he came in the door. He walked with a stoop and a slight hesitation. As he stood halfway up the stairs in the gallery, he was surprisingly soft-spoken for a well-known artist who is also a chief.

Hart spoke briefly about the pole and its intent to honor Bill Reid. He explained that he not only learned carving from Reid, but how to survive in the city, including such details as how to use an elevator, something he had rarely encountered in his rural youth. Turning to the plaster raven in the corner, he emphasized that it was a white raven, a representation of the trickster before he stole the moon and was singed black in his effort to escape with it through the smoke hole.

Afterwards, I managed to talk briefly to him as he mingled with the crowd. He said that the project was his first effort to work in forton, and that he liked the way it could be carved and was resistant to weather. He also expressed his enthusiasm for the new medium and designs that younger artists from all the local first nations were developing the traditional art forms.

Until the new raven cast, most of the works in forton that I’ve seen were done by Don Yeoman at the Douglas Reynolds Gallery. However, Reynolds mentioned the side of a house in Whistler that recently had several dozen forton panels added to one side, and I suspect that any artists who encounter it are likely to be as interested in it as Hart seemed to be.

One look at the cast and you can understand why. Made from a mold of the cedar original, the pseudo-plaster cast picks up so much detail that you can actually see the wood grain and tool marks in it. With forton offering so many benefits and no drawbacks so far as I can discover, I strongly suspect that, just as local first nations artists adopted to argillite a century and half ago and glass in the last few decades, many are going to seize on forton as yet another medium for their work.

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