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Archive for the ‘Spirit Wrestler Gallery’ Category

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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I spent the afternoon at the opening for the Northern Exposure show at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery. This is an annual show for the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art, featuring the graduating class and the pick of the work by first year students. Besides giving students some extra cash, the show also teaches students how to deal with a gallery and an exhibition. So, naturally, when I was talking to the students, a common topic was whether they should try to place more pieces in galleries or find other ways to make a living from their art.

The question, I found, is hard to answer in the abstract. Not only does the answer depend on the galleries involved, but I suspect that the details of the answer are starting to change.

On the one hand, a gallery that is enthusiastic about an artists’ work can be the best advertising that the artist can have. The gallery staff can draw visitors’ attention to the artist to increase their sales. The gallery can act as an unofficial agent, passing commissions on to the artist. I’ve heard of gallery owners advising artists about what is selling, and the prices that buyers are willing to pay. They can promote an artist in a group show – or, better yet, a solo show. Artists can’t expect a gallery to promise to buy regularly (“That would mean we were taking on responsibility for an artist earning a living,” one gallery employee remarked to me), but an unofficial agreement that an artist will give a gallery first right of refusal for new works can benefit everyone.

On the other hand, horror stories about galleries are common. I have on good – but strictly anonymous – authority that certain gallery owners regularly break verbal agreements, all the while insisting that written contracts aren’t necessary. Some, too, delay payment for months; in one case I know about, the artist had to wait ten months for over ten thousand dollars. Artists who ask about such delays have had gallery owners scream abuse at them.

However, regardless of how a gallery treats artists, all of them have one thing in common: They stand between artists and their audience. This relation has the advantage of freeing artists from having to promote themselves. But it also means that 40-60% of the total price of a piece goes to the gallery. Considering that literary agents charge 15-20% for the same services, artists may feel that the price is too high, no matter how good the services are.

Fortunately, for artists who feel that way, the Internet provides some alternatives. Websites, Facebook fan pages, and microblogs like Twitter all provide ways for artists to interact directly with their audiences, bypassing the galleries entirely, if they choose. With free software content management systems like Joomla! or Drupal, artists can even conduct online auctions, using Paypal or credit card services for payment. As for pricing, artists can charge more than the wholesale price they receive and still offer prices that are lower than a gallery would charge.

And, increasingly, artists are taking full advantage of these alternatives. One senior First Nations artist says that 80% of his sales come from the Internet. Another estimates that about one-third of his sales are online, and is trying to boost that fraction every way he can.

But artists pay a price when taking control of their sales in this way. They have to learn marketing skills, which can make them nervous and uncomfortable if they are inexperienced or introverted. They have to learn the principles of commercial design, which are very different from the art they create. They not only have to create their initial web pages or Facebook pages, but keep them constantly replenished with new content, because nothing looks less professional than a long outdated web presence. If buyers are unsatisfied, they have to deal with the problem themselves. Most important of all, they either have to spend time on business and promotion – perhaps as much as a third of their working hours, especially at first – or find a sympathetic friend or family member or maybe a consultant to do the work for them. With these demands, some artists might feel that the price for taking full control of their career is too high.

Yet another problem is that an artist can make a living promoting themselves, but, in doing so, they become invisible to the traditional art market. If that happens, then the artists may not be mentioned in art books, or approached by governments and other institutions for large commissions.

My own suspicion is that, despite the disadvantages, an increasing number of artists will start to market themselves. Most Northwest Coast artists I know are doing some online promotion, although none (so far as I know) are doing all they could. In the future, galleries will continue to exist, but they may have less control over artists than they have traditionally had, because the alternatives will be too well-known.

Whatever happens, artists today have a choice that they didn’t have fifteen years ago. However, what choices they should make depends very much on their own skills, personality, and preferences.

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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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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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As I visit Northwest Coast Galleries in Vancouver, I’m starting to notice relations between certain galleries and certain artists. Out of friendship, enthusiasm, long-term business relations, or a combination of all three, some galleries simply carry a better selection of some artists than others.
Here are the specializations I’ve been able to detect so far:

  • Coastal People’s Gallery: This gallery has a good general selection of artists, although it seems to be buying less recently, possibly because it’s overstocked. However, it is the main exhibitor in town of Henry Green, especially for his carved and increasingly colorful panels. Coastal People’s also favors Chester Patrick, a less well-known artist who has done a number of acrylic paintings notable for the complex grouping of characters, as well as panel carving. Since the summer, the gallery’s Gastown store has had space set aside for Patrick to work. I’ve heard at least one patron refer to Patrick as the store’s artist-in-residence, although I don’t know whether the arrangement is formalized.
  • Douglas Reynolds Gallery: Douglas Reynolds seems to have first right of refusal on works by Beau Dick, the Kwaguilth mask-maker and Haida artist Don Yeomans, possibly because the artists have a long friendship with the owner. At any rate, the selection of works by both Dick and Yeomans tends to be larger and more varied than at any other gallery – so much so that, in Yeoman’s case, I tended to think that he was past his creative prime based on his work in other galleries. However, based on what I’ve seen at Douglas Reynolds, that’s far from true; I just wasn’t seeing his best work. This same gallery has also started carrying a good selection of jeweler Gwaii Edenshaw.
  • Edzerza Gallery: As you might expect, this new gallery is mainly a showcase for the work of owner Alano Edzerza. However, it has also had the work of newer artists like Ian Reid and John P. Wilson.
  • Inuit Gallery: The Inuit Gallery seems to have good connection with the North, including Alaska artists like Clarissa Hudson and Norman Jackson, whom many galleries neglect – even though importing First Nations art from the United States is supposed to be duty-free. Recently, it has also had a couple of new masks from Tlingit/ Northern Tutchone artist Eugene Alfred, and a number of playful masks from Kwaguilth carver Simon Dick. Other with whom the gallery seems to have a good relation include Salish artist Jordan Seward and Nuu Chan Nulth artist Les Paul.
  • Sun Spirit Gallery: Located in West Vancouver’s Dundarave strip, this small gallery currently has a strong selection of Klatle-Bhi’s work, particularly masks. Much of this work is in Klatle-Bhi’s apparently favorite white and light-blue palette.
  • Spirit Wrestler Gallery: Robert Davidson seems to offer new works to Spirit Wrestler first, and to have an arrangement with the gallery for prints as well. The gallery also gets the pick of new works by Norman Tait, and currently has more work by Dempsey Bob than any other gallery in town. In addition, the gallery seems to cultivate some of the best of up and coming artists, such as Dean Heron and Sean Hunt, making it more adventuresome that I originally thought from my first visit.

As I was making this list, I realized that it represents my own interests as much as each gallery’s specialization. Very likely, I have left out some specializations either because I am not interested in them or haven’t got around to them yet. Still, it’s useful to know which gallery to go to if you’re interested in a particular artist, so I’ll let the list stand, even while acknowledging that it is probably incomplete.

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As part of my recently renewed interest in Northwest coast art, I’ve been making the rounds of the local galleries, trying to get a sense of their specialties and whether I want to deal with them. This afternoon, I made the rounds of the Gastown galleries, which are conveniently within a few blocks of each other.

Here are my impressions – partly for my own sake, but also for anyone else who might be interested in Northwest Coast art. I say nothing about the galleries’ Inuit collections, which I am even less qualified to judge:

  • Hill’s Native Art: Coming from the Skytrain, this was the first gallery I came to, and also the one I spent the least time in. It’s basically a high-end tourist shop, and so crowded that the main impression I took away was of art as a commodity. You could probably find some reasonably decent work if you searched, but, you would have to make an effort. Hill’s has a number of two or three meter high totem poles, but if you’re willing to spend over ten thousand, you would be better off spending a little more and buying one from a name artist elsewhere.
  • Spirit Wrestler Gallery: With over two decades of experience and a number of well-regarded shows and books behind it, Spirit Wrestler is at the opposite extreme from Hill’s, appealing to the serious collector with money to invest in art. Its selection of artists is small, but carefully chosen, and it has a varied selection of work from top artists such as Robert Davidson, Norman Tait, and Susan Point. Currently, it has more Tlingit work than any other gallery that I’ve seen, and a small but select collection of bracelets. The gallery also sells (but does not always display) pieces that have just come upon the market again, so a serious collector might want to keep in touch to hear what is available. The gallery also contains a few Maori works, which should interest many people who have a passion for Northwest Coast art, since the two cultures have a lot of similarities. It’s perhaps the premier gallery in the field in Vancouver, and deservedly so.
  • Inuit Gallery of Vancouver: This gallery has no more than a fifth of its space devoted to Northwest Coast art. It does not carry jewelry, but does include a collection of Northwest Coast masks and prints, as well as some other forms of carving mostly from the Nuu-chah-nulth and Salish nations. Although the selection of artists is comparatively small, you can find some interesting pieces without searching hard.
  • Coastal Peoples Gallery: In many ways, Coastal Peoples is the most interesting of the galleries in Vancouver. In both its Yaletown and Gastown locations, it carries everything from high-end tourist pieces to work that will appeal to museums and connoisseurs. To make things even more interesting, Coastal Peoples has by far the broadest range of artists of the four galleries mentioned here, with up-and-coming artists as well as established ones represented. The newer artists are especially interesting if you have any understanding of what you are buying, because their work is reasonably priced and some of it will undoubtedly rise rapidly in value. The jewelry on display is especially fine, especially in gold, and so is the sculpture, including everything from desktop pieces to bentwood boxes and three meter poles. The sheer variety at Coastal People’s is amazing, and is one of the reasons why the gallery is my current favorite.

There are, of course, other galleries that carry Northwest Coast art outside of Gastown in Vancouver. But they will be a subject for another day.

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