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Archive for the ‘Shawn Aster’ Category

When I was in Terrace last April, I returned with two artist proofs from Jared “Citizen” Kane, a young First Nations artist who affects hip-hop clothes and attitudes. Both these works – one entitled simply “Moon” and the other “Love Birds” – interested me as examples of what computer-assisted art does easily and what it struggles with in Northwest Coast art.

Both these pieces are based on popular images. Neither image is claimed by a particular family, so artists can use them without being accused of appropriating someone else’s property. “Moon” is a successful blending of the traditional crescent of the moon with a more modern sketch of a face, while “Love Birds” combines a traditional split image with lightly concealed heart-shapes of European origin. “Moon” is striking for its simplicity, “Love Bird” for its intricacy, as well as for the placement of a central T-shape with foreshortened arms that could be interpreted as either male or female genitals, but both are identifiable at a glance as being designed on the computer.

I spend far too much time on a computer myself to see anything wrong with making art on the computer. The days are long past when people objected to pole makers rough-shaping the wood with chainsaws, and computers seem to me nothing more than another way that artists can make their work easier.

However, the idea of computer-assisted art remains far from generally accepted in Northwest Coast Art. In the case of several established artists who dislike the very idea, part of the reaction may be due to their own lack of computer literacy. However, they will add that they consider computer-assisted art lacking in warmth and individualism. But artists like Alano Edzerza have shown the possibility of bold, original works designed on the computer. And, really, the idea is no different from the manual templates used by some artists on the coast for over two centuries.

Still, computer-assisted art generally leaves its mark. Like many of the pieces created since Bill Holm in the 1960s codified the conventions of the northern formline tradition, it emphasizes geometry and symmetry in a way that traditional art did only part of the time. It is not so much that a piece like Kane’s “Moon” adds an unnecessary line to create a complete circle instead of a crescent, but that each of the ovoids, U-forms, and other shapes has a single template. Graphics software allows these templates to be scaled and rotated, or even distorted, but they remain obviously based on the same source.

In addition, because the templates are available, computer-generated designs tend to be less varied in general. In formline design, part of the craft is how the thickness of the formlilne changes according to the need of the design. Look, for example, at the work of Todd Stephens, a Terrace-based Nisga’a artist, and you will see that the broadest formline can be up to ten times that of the thinnest, which is often as thin as single brushstroke can make it. By contrast, in Kane’s “Love Bird,” the difference is may be four times.

Another place for variation in formline design is the variety of techniques for avoiding too much thickening of the line where two formlines meet. These techniques can include thinning the tips of one or both lines, or adding a T-shape or some other element in the middle of the two lines to thin out the filled space between them. Kane uses both techniques, but the thinning is minimal in both pieces, and he uses fewer varieties of techniques than many manual artists.

Although I suppose that in theory there is no reason that artists working on a computer could not make asymmetrical designs (which were a much larger part of the local traditions than is sometimes credited in these post-Holm days), or vary technique more, in practice they seldom do. The natural tendency is against both asymmetry and variation and for consistency. There is nothing wrong with this tendency, but it means that computer-assisted design is more likely to be bold rather than nuanced and varied. Even the relative intricacy of “Love Birds” looks far less detailed and more striking than a hand-drawn similar design, like Shawn Aster‘s “Raven Heart,”) another piece on display in my townhouse.

In general, though, Kane makes the computer work for him rather than against him, producing designs that almost insist on being enlarged, and, in “Love Birds,” adding more variation than many artists who have attempted to work on the computer. In the future, I’m going to keep my eye out for what he is designing – manually as well as on the computer.

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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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Every piece of art, several collectors have told me, comes with a story. Gradually, as I’ve bought art, I realized that this statement is true, so on my spreadsheet for insurance purposes, I’ve created a column where I can type the story of how the piece was acquired.

I have no trouble remembering the first piece of serious art I bought. It was a three inch copper bracelet by Tsimshian artist Henry Green. I’d wanted such a piece for years, and suddenly realized I could afford one. I still remember my breathlessness as I approached the gallery to pick it up, and my sigh of relief when it proved more awe-inspiring than I could ever have hoped.

A couple of months later, I saw that the Bill Reid Gallery was selling canvas banners from a set that had been stored in Bill Reid’s house since 1991. Trish and I bought one, realizing that it was our best chance of affording any work by Bill Reid, then quickly bought another to balance the wall where the first one hung. Soon after, we bought our first mask, a moon by Ron Telek that is both eerie and strangely modernistic.

More soon followed. There was a Beau Dick sketch of a mask, unusual in that, with his carver’s eye, he depicted planes, not lines. The Lyle Wilson pendant Trish won in a raffle at an exhibit – the best $5 that either of us had ever spent. The small Telek mask that I fetched from the South Terminal of the Vancouver airport by walking from the end of the bus line and back again. The Gwaii Edenshaw gold rings we bought for our anniversary. The miniature argillite transformation mask by Wayne Young that I trekked over to Victoria for after Trish’s death and repaired and remounted because it was so magnificently unique. The wall-hanging commissioned by Morgan Green to help her through goldsmith school. And so the stories accumulate, so far as I’m concerned, as innate as the aesthetics of the piece.

For instance, there’s Mitch Adam’s “Blue Moon Mask,” which I saw in 2010 at the Freda Diesing School’s year end exhibit. It was labeled NFS, bound for the Spirit Wrestler show for the school’s graduates a month later. I happened to mention to Mitch that I would have written a cheque right away had it been for sale – not hinting, just praising – and a few hours later he came back and said the piece was mine if I were still interested. I was, and immediately became the envy of half a dozen other people who also wanted to buy it, but had never had the luck to ask. One of them still talks enviously when we meet.

Then there’s Shawn Aster’s “Raven Turns the Crows Black,” a painting that we had discussed in 2009, but didn’t seem to gel in his mind. After a year, I had stopped expecting him to finish it, and took to calling him a promising artist, because he kept saying that he was still working on it. But he did complete it – making it a Chilkat design (which I had not expected), and showing a promise of a different kind.

Two other pieces were commissions in memory of Trish after her death: John Wilson’s “Needlewoman” and Mike Dangeli’s “Honoring Her Spirit.” I made “Needlewoman” a limited edition of twenty, and gave it to family members for Christmas 2010. Mike’s painting, more personal, I kept for myself, carrying it up Commercial Drive from Hastings Street on a chilly January Sunday, because cabs wouldn’t come to the Aboriginal Friendship Center where I picked it up.

Other pieces were gifts from friends: a print of “January Moon” by Mitch Adams in return for some advice on galleries I gave him; a bentwood box Mitch Adams made and John Wilson carved and painted in memory of Trish; a remarque of Ron Telek’s “Sirens” print, and an artist’s proof by John Wilson and another print by Shawn Aster, both apologies for the late delivery of other pieces.

Of course, such stories mean that I can never sell any of the pieces I buy. The associations have become too much a part of me. But since I never buy to invest, only to appreciate, that is no hardship – my appreciation is only deeper for the personal connections.

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This was only the second year that I attended the Freda Diesing School’s year end exhibition, but the show has become a must-see for me. For one thing, it is one of the largest exhibitions of Northwest Coast art in any given year. For another, I never know what I might find, either because a student is unknown, or has taken a giant leap forward in their understanding of their art.

The 2010 show was slightly smaller than the previous year’s, and emphasized carving more than design, although a few limited edition prints and drawings were available up in the loft, as well as a sampling of giclee prints by second year student Mitch Adams. But in compensation, the level of carving was higher than last year, probably because, instead of specifying that each student submit three pieces to the show, the teachers urged students to focus on producing their best work, and starting it early (even so, there were many groans about last minute all-night sessions).

Close to the door were masks by people whose work I have bought in the past. John Wilson contributed his hawk woman mask to the show, which I had seen pictures of, but was glad to see in person:

Wilson also contributed a large spoon, whose beaver handle included more detail work than I had seen before in his work:

Besides Wilson’s mask hung Colin Morrison’s second mask, whose red design made the wood look like a sun-tan, and contrasted with the white hair he used:

Moving on from Wilson’s and Morrison’s masks, I quickly discovered work from artists I remembered from 2009. Previous YVR award winner Shawn Aster, whose main interest seems to be design rather than carving, contributed a mask whose interest is largely in the painting:

Second year Metis artist Mathew Daratha was one of the more prolific contributors to the show, displaying several masks, such as this one:

Still another second year student, Latham Mack, the two-times recipient of the YVR Award, was allowed to carve in his family’s traditional Nuxalk style, producing a strikingly different Thunder Mask:

Mack also danced a similar mask after the graduation ceremony.

But perhaps the most development among the second year students was shown by Sheldon Dennis, whose carving showed a considerable advance over his work last year, as well as a strong sense of originality:

Female students continue to be a minority at the school, but those enrolled in the first year class this year made a strong showing. Cherish Alexander showed a talent for combining feminine faces with bold designs:

Carol Young, the winner of the first Mature Student Award, showed a similar interest in women’s faces, and added a traditional labret to indicate high status in one of her masks:

Another first year female student, Nina Bolton chose a more traditional shape for her mask, but gave it a strong, contrasting design when she painted it:

Some of the most striking work in the show was created by Chazz Mack, Latham Mack’s cousin. Chaz Mack include two pieces in the show: a small print, and a mask whose painted design shows a strong sense of line in its curves:

However, if the show had a single outstanding piece, it was Mitch Adams’ “Blue Moon Mask.” The piece was the despair of at least one of the school’s teachers, all of whom work in the northern style and favor masks with much less paint than “Blue Moon Mask,” but its clean lines and carefully selected palette made it a crowd favorite, with at least half a dozen people clamoring to buy it:

When Adams agreed to sell it to me, several other would-be buyers frankly expressed their jealousy, and cursed their lack of initiative; apparently, I was the only one who actually asked Adams if he was firm about the Not For Sale label.

In fact, if the show had a fault, it was that most of the best pieces were labeled as not for sale for one reason or the other. If I had had my way, I could have returned home with another three or four pieces from this years’ show.

However, that’s a selfish wish. Many of the pieces marked as not for sale were reserved for the upcoming Northern Exposure show at Vancouver’s Spirit Wrestler Gallery. For many students, the show is their first chance to display their work to a large audience, so I can hardly blame them for withholding their work from sale. All of them thoroughly deserve that chance, and I hope that I will have many chances in the future to buy their work.

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For many modern Northwest Coast artists, improving their skills means discovering their culture. Kaska/Tlingit artist Dean Heron is no different, except that he came to his art and culture later than most of his peers – and, that, in pursuit of both, last year he moved north to Terrace, instead of staying in the south where many NorthWest Coast artists now spend at least part of the year.

“I was adopted as a child,” Dean explains, “and grew up in a non-First Nations family,” mostly in Whitehorse, Kitimat, and Powell River. “I had grandparents who lived in Victoria, so we’d often go down to Victoria in the summer time. My parents always used to drag me to the Royal British Columbian Museum to look into my culture, but at that point I was six or seven, and I was more interested in riding my bike, playing street hockey – being a kid.”

Creating the Watchmen

Then, when Heron grew up, he worked as an assistant manager at a Milestones restaurant, and later in the IT department of the British Columbia Ministry of Health in Victoria.

Heron did have a general interest in art of all sorts, and he remembers a two-week survey of First Nations art when he was in Grade Seven in Kitimat. However, it was only after he met his wife Therese that his interest in his ancestral culture and art began to take shape.

“She was very inquisitive, always asking me questions about Tlingit culture,” Heron recalls. “We’d go down to the Royal BC Museum and she’d ask me all sorts of questions. And I was just blank. I didn’t really have any idea.”

Then, one Christmas in the early 1990s, when they were both students and short of money, Heron was pondering how he could give presents. “I had no idea. So Therese said, ‘Why don’t you create something?’ I think I laughed out loud, actually. I didn’t think I had an artistic bone in my body. But she went out and bought a book on First Nations art, and that was the beginning.”

Returning Sockeye

Making the artistic connections

Even then, for years art was more a hobby than anything else. Heron know no artists, but he received encouragement from Victoria gallery directors such as John Black and Elaine Monds. “I would take my early paintings down to Elaine or John Black, and get criticisms on them and come back and produce something else.”

At the time, Monds’ Alcheringa Gallery was displaying the works of master carver Dempsey Bob and his star pupils Stan Bevan and Ken McNeil, although most of them sold quickly. Heron also remembers visiting Vancouver to see the Inuit Gallery.

“But what really did it for me was a book that Dempsey Bob had produced with the Grace Gallery called Dempsey Bob Tahltan Tlingit – Carver of the Wolf Clan. It was this little catalog, way out of print now – I don’t know if you could even find it. There was a picture of a wolf forehead mask, and I had never seen anything like it. It was distinctly Dempsey Bob’s style – it was brilliant. And I just went, ‘Wow! That’s exactly what I want to be doing’ – although at that time I didn’t really know how I was going to do it.”

Moon Mask

Then, somehow, “it all just sort of fell into place for me.” A few weeks after his family moved into a house in Victoria, he met Dempsey Bob’s son and his family at a children’s birthday barbecue. A couple of weeks later, he met Bob himself, “and it changed everything.”

Bob invited Heron to Manawa – Pacific Heartbeat, an event sponsored by the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver featuring Maori and First Nations artists from British Columbia. There, Heron says, “I realized just how rich the culture was, and just how much I’d been missing.” Near the end of the event, Bob mentioned that the Freda Diesing School was about to open at the Terrace campus of Northwest Community College, and invited him to enroll and learn to carve.

Finding roots in the north

Deciding to accept Bob’s offers “was a giant leap of faith for me,” Heron recalls. His children were six and one, and both Heron and his wife had jobs in the provincial Ministry of Health. “But I never looked back. I think it was the best decision I ever made.”

Killer Whale Comb

After Victoria, life in Terrace “was a huge culture shock. We had everything in Victoria. That’s probably what I miss the most – having a good theater and good restaurants to choose from,” Heron says.
However, the adjustments in daily life soon seemed unimportant compared to what Heron was learning about his ancestral culture and art. Suddenly, Heron was being taught by Dempsey Bob, Stan Bevan, and Ken McNeil – three artists he had admired for years.

Today, Heron praises them for their commitment towards art, their professionalism and work ethic, and their dedication. “Although established artists, they are always learning and pushing themselves forward – and thus pushing the art forward,” Heron says. “As well, they share all their knowledge with their students. Dempsey always says, ‘Why wouldn’t I share it? If I did not, we could lose all that we have gained in a generation – it is why I am here.’”

In the new environment, Heron found his relationship to traditional culture and art changing.

“Back when I was working on art on my own, I didn’t know the rules completely. Working with Stan and Ken and Dempsey, the whole idea is that you learn the rules and make them your own. Then, you can star innovating. But you have to work from a base of tradition, which the school does.

“The first eight weeks of school, all we did was draw ovoids and U forms and secondary figures. And they break down the components of the design, so they do wing design one week and they do head designs another week. Then they’ll do feet designs and tail designs, and then you put the pieces together. The first year, there were only seven [students], so it was a really tight group of friends.

SmallTlingit Portrait Mask

“Another thing that Stan and Dempsey have really convinced me of is [the value of] collecting books. At the time I was working on my own, I was looking at galleries and contemporary works of artists like Robert Davidson, Joe David, and Art Thompson, and I never really gave any validity to the old works that are in museums and collections. That was my mentality – that’s a long time ago, that’s history. But I think everybody’s who’s doing the art and is a professional will look at the old art. [The old artists] are still pertinent today. Their advantage was they lived the art. The art was around them all the time. They used the spoons, they used the bowls, and they saw the regalia all the time.”

The result of this discipline and re-evaluation, according to Heron, is that “I’m starting to realize that there’s a lot more rules involved in creating pieces. You can’t just go out and create a frog headdress without getting permission from chiefs or elders. I’m starting to learn a lot more of those rules, where before I just drew and painted what I wanted without any thought of the culture itself. Now, I’m more careful with what I’m creating.”

Killer Whale Plaque

This new attitude created a crisis of faith when Heron, perhaps motivated by his new sense of traditional culture, looked for his birth family. Although his biological mother declined to contact him, Heron did learn that he was part Kaska, not completely Tlingit, as he had assumed.

“I remember the day I found out, my first thought was, ‘I can’t practice the art. I’m tied to those Kaska roots.’ But I found digging into my family history that there was more of a Tlingit side. So I paint particularly in the Tlingit style.”

Today and Onwards

Now, Heron thinks he might explore the Kaska side of his heritage. “I’m starting to think that as a person I have the right to know where I’m from,” he says. “So I’m looking more into the Kaska side.” In the summer of 2010, he hopes to take his family to Watson Lake for Kaska Days.

However, whether he will explore Kaska art remains uncertain. “It’s much different from the coastal art. A lot of it is beading, and moose antler carving, drumming and singing. I think they were a more nomadic people [than the Tlingit]. There’s not a lot of information out there.”

Meanwhile, Heron is keeping busy. In the fall of 2009, he completed a mural for the Snowboard Pavilion at Cypress Mountain for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. “I’ve had lots of people comment on it, via email and letters,” he says.

Snowboarding Mural, Cypress Mountain

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In addition, for much of the last year, he has been painting designs for a longhouse on the grounds of the Terrace campus of Northwest Community College. Stan Bevan is doing the formlines, and Heron and student Shawn Aster are doing the secondary elements. Currently, the interior screens are done, and the house front is being completed. The longhouse is scheduled to be completed in early May.

Dean Heron at work in the longhouse

When the longhouse is complete, Heron plans to continue carving his own work. In addition, “I have lots of images that I’d like to get printed.” He would also like to begin doing clothing designs, and learning jewelry-making.

Dedicating himself to art and moving into a community that was strange to him was a huge gamble, but Heron clearly feels that it has paid off for him.

“Growing up, I always felt that I was at the front door, but not right inside – always looking through the window and looking at these sculptures and not understanding the whole of them. I mean, I still don’t. And I think that’s part of the experience of being adopted and being First Nations. I’m at the point now where I’m straddling two different cultures, really. I have a non-first Nations family, so I’m getting an outsider’s point of view, but now I’m living in the community and understanding a lot more of it.”

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Someday, I am going to jot down the stories of my art acquisitions. There’s the story of how I had to trek to the South Terminal of the Vancouver Airport not knowing the distance, and the story of how a simple bank transfer assumed nightmare proportions as I returned again and again to the bank. And now, after yesterday, I have the story of stopping by the Chateau Granville to pick up Shawn Aster’s “Raven Heart” to the befuddlement and bemusement of the desk clerk and manager, who had obviously never heard of such a thing.

The situation was no one’s fault – just one of those times when the perversity of the universe seems set to stun. I had reserved the painting when I was in Terrace five weeks ago, but I didn’t have the time to get to a bank machine and return before the show closed for the day. As a result, I didn’t pay until after I returned home. We had floated various schemes for delivery, ranging from leaving the piece at the Grayhound station to picking it up at the Spirit Gallery reception yesterday. But an emergency had forced Aster to return home early, and the hotel desk was his improvised way of getting the piece to me.

Now that Aster has won a couple of scholarships at the Freda Diesing School, his work is starting to sell, and people are expecting a successful career ahead of him. As he takes his first steps, I can’t resist a bit of self-congratulation for having discovered the young Tsimshian artist’s work several months ago at the school’s mid-term show (and some mild complementary scorn for those who needed the scholarships to realize the quality of his work).

Many young artists seem to enjoy designs in which Northwest Coast designs are incorporated into the shapes of modern culture. For instance, Latham Mack, another scholarship winner at the Freda Diesing, did a group figure of traditional designs that formed the outline of a Playboy bunny on a T-shirt. In the same way, “Raven Heart” takes two traditional ravens and constrains them in a heart design.

This practice, I suppose, is the extension of the tradition of adjusting a design to fit the contours of the shape it is on – a pole, or a bowl, spoon, hat, or box. The main difference, of course, is that the possibilities for innovation and commentary open up when a modern shape informs the design. In the case of “Raven Heart,” the two ravens resemble a traditional split design, but, when put into a heart, suggest a rather unhappy relationship, the raven of mythology being associated more with promiscuity than faithfulness, and more with clever and expedient lies than the truthfulness that is generally thought to be a necessity for a successful relationship. A confirmation that the relationship is less than smooth is the constrained feathers on the wings that seem almost like bars confining the trapped figure inside the heart — which has a decidedly unhappy look on its face.

It is probably no accident, either, that the piece was first exhibited at a show shortly before Valentine’s Day this year. The piece seems to play one culture against the other, using each to comment sarcastically upon the other.

But what interests me most about “Raven Heart,” like all of Aster’s work that I have seen, is its technical skill. Its form lines do not have the most graceful curves that I have seen, but for the most part they are suitably varied in thickness, and the use of interior U-shapes to minimize the thickness of the intersections is well done. In addition, of course, the use of red as the primary color – a relatively rare practice, traditionally-speaking – is suited to the heart shape.

The design itself is made up of only a few shapes – notably the U-shapes and T-shapes – which vary in length and whose colors are sometimes inverted. The composition has an obvious horizontal symmetry, but it also includes a less noticeable vertical symmetry, made up of groups of threes and fours: three feathers on the stylized wings, three fingers on the trapped figure’s hands (or are they the claws of the ravens?), four interior shapes on the outer wings, and four tail feathers on the bottom. Each side, too, has three large ovoids filled with black. Similarly, the circles at the joints of the wings are balanced by one that might be the tail-bone, while three circles, irregularly shaped, are also at the center of the trapped figure’s design. There is an economy in the relatively few shapes used in the design, and an almost mathematical precision in the vertical symmetry that is rare in any Northwest Coast art, but especially rare in an artist over thirty.

I have talked off and on with Aster about a commission, and I still hope to see it one day. Meanwhile, “Raven Heart” is a masterful small performance that makes me believe that Aster has a future every bit as promising as everyone is saying.

aster

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Most Saturdays, noon sees me barely staggering out to the gym. But today, noon or shortly after saw us arriving in Gastown for the reception to mark the opening of the Northern Exposure 2009 show at The Spirit Wrestler Gallery. The show is an exhibit of the graduating class of the Fred Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, plus this years’ scholarship winners. It has already become a tradition in the three years that the school has existed.

With 19 carvings and no graphics, the show was a subset of the graduation show I saw in Terrace, which had some 75 pieces. One or two second year students were missing, as well as most of the first year, including some artists like Mitch Adams or John Wilson who I’d rate above some of those who were represented. Still, space was limited, so some way of reducing the numbers was probably unavoidable.

At any rate, the reduced number also had the benefit of allowing you to pay close attention to each piece – something that is impossible with four times the number. It was especially interesting to see the graduates’ work beside that of their teachers, Stan Bevan and Ken McNeil. That way, you could see the teachers’ influence, and which students were on their way to establishing their own style.

To my eye, the exhibit was somewhat weaker than last years’, which included the work of Dean Heron, who is rapidly becoming one of the major up and coming young artists in the Northwest Coast Tradition. However, the show included the paddles I had admired in Terrace by Latham Mack and Shawn Aster. Another standout was Mack’s “Northern Beauty” mask with its striking painting and individualistic detailing of the nostrils and mouth.

northern-beauty

I also appreciated two samples of Reynold Collins’ detailed, often intricate work. While I think Collins’ work would be improved by more finishing and greater attention to the grain, his work never suffers from the clumsy blank spaces found in many of the other students’ work and shows a vividness of imagination that makes me suspect it is only a matter of time until I find the right piece of his work to buy.

reynold-collins

Only a half dozen students were at the reception, and their time was in demand. However, because the event was smaller than the graduate show, it was easier to have a few words with them and find what motivated them. I talked briefly with Sophia Patricia Beaton, Darryl W. Moore, and Reynold Collins, each time finding something in the conversation to bring me back for another look at the pieces they were exhibiting.

Last years’ show, as well as the work of other recent graduates was priced somewhat high – a mistake that means that the pieces do not sell, and that the artist is tempted to try to charge prices elsewhere that their reputation cannot sustain. By contrast, this year, the students seem to have priced their own work, and, thanks to the guidance of their teachers, this year, realism prevailed. Most of the pieces were under $1400, and only one over $2000. This realism seems to have helped; as I write seven hours after the start of the reception, some six of the pieces in the show have sold, including two each by YVR award-winners Todd Stephens and Shawn Aster. Not bad for a day’s display.

Especially at realistic prices, the show cannot be much of a money-maker for Spirit Wrestler, which often sells works by Robert Davidson or glass artist Preston Singletary for tens of thousands of dollars. In fact, when the cost of publicity, reception and staff wages are taken into account, the show might even cost the gallery money. That makes the show a public-spirited effort, or at the very least, a long-term investment in the next generation of artists.

Certainly, it means a considerable amount to the artists, many of whom have limited funds and some of whom had to go to some effort to get to Vancouver. But, after several days that included the YVR ceremony, and a tour of several local galleries and a CBC interview for the award-winners, the reception was clearly the highlight of their trip. Many said as much, and their sincerity was unquestionable. The reception gives them a taste of the lives they would like to live – and, thanks to Spirit Wrestler, for some of them, those lives may now be that much closer.

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