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Archive for the ‘Terrace’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Freda Diesing School’s year-end exhibit has become a fixture on my calendar. Not only is it one of the largest annual shows of First Nations artists anywhere in the province, but I enjoy seeing how the students develop over the two years of the program. Over the last three years, it has also become a place for renewing old friendships and acquaintances, and making new ones.

Held April 16-17, the 2011 incarnation of the show was no exception. It was smaller than previous exhibits, but made up for its size by the general quality of the work.

The variety was also impressive, although, when I heard that the final project for the second year students was a moon mask, I half-expected otherwise. Perhaps a lack of time prevented uniformity; when I arrived during setup on the afternoon of April 15, many of the students were yawning and taking every chance to sit, having been up late finishing their pieces for the show.

The quality of the second year students’ work was especially high, much of it equaling or surpassing the pieces seen in Vancouver galleries. Chazz Mack, who has gained a reputation for the skill seen in his two-dimensional designs in his two years at the school was forced to miss the first day of the show because of an illness that the hospital diagnosed as dehydration, but contributed “Eagle Trance,” a mask in the distinctive Nuxalk style of high head dresses, large noses and strong primary colors:

Stephanie Anderson, a winner last year of a YVR award, staggered late into setup with a striking eagle frontlet that still reeked of fixative – and was possibly the strongest piece in the show:

Another second year student, Colin Morrison, whose first mask I bought eighteen months ago, demonstrated his growing skill with two masks, “Resurrection of the Ancestors” and “Black Wolf,” a mask meant for a flat surface or stand:

Even more development was shown in the work of Carol Young Bagshaw, the winner of last years’ Mature Student Award. While last year at this time, you could tell which teachers she was working with on each of her masks, this year, she displayed her own sense of style. Her masks are less stylized than traditional northern work, looking more like portraits, and taking full advantage of the beauty of the grain and the unpainted wood:

These graduates set a high standard, but at least some of the first year students seem likely to equal them. Nathan Wilson, who has already sold professionally, produced a solid piece entitled “Moon in Human Form,” that hinted at his skill, even though it was far from his best work:

Another emerging professional in first year, Kelly Robinson, easily rivaled the second years with “Visions Within,” even though he talked of adding some finishing touches to it:

Yet another talented first year students was Paula Wesley with the fine line and unique hair of her cannibal woman “Thu-Wixia,” which she danced at the end of the opening evening:

Accompanying Wesley in the dance was Evan Aster, who won one of this years’ Honorable Mentions for the Mature Student Award. Like Wesley, Aster promises to be a strong artist when his carving equals his painting:

The same could be said of Nigel Fox, a first year student who also paints in a style reminiscent of Canadian Impressionism. Fox’s “Surface Tension” was an interesting take on colors running together in the water:

Unfortunately, though, the painting overwhelmed the carving. Fox was on much more solid ground when he created an Escher-like design out of traditional butterflies in “Butterflies #3” (which is now in my possession):

Still other first years showed a mastery of the fundamentals of traditional design that should allow them to come into their own during their second years. They included Barry Sampare, this years’ winner of the Mature Student Award:

as well as Robert Moses White, who received an Honorable Mention for the Mature Student Award:

The pick of the show moves south on May 29 to Vancouver’s Spirit Wrestler Gallery, where I predict brisk first day sales. But although Spirit Wrestler is much closer than Terrace for me, I was glad to see the complete show, especially in Waap Galts’ap, the Northwest Community College longhouse, which is a comfortable blend of traditional design and carving and modern building and safety codes.

My thanks to everyone at the college and in the Terrace First Nations art community for making my visit such a pleasant one.

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Over the past weekend, I was in Terrace in northern British Columbia to attend the graduation ceremony and exhibition for the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art. I would have wrangled an invitation anyway that I could, because the art show is worth seeing, but fortunately I didn’t have to. I was invited to attend so that I could announce the Mature Student Award, and, just before I rose to spoke, a touching thing happened.

The award was started by me and my late partner, Patricia Louise Williams two years ago, after I noticed that many of the awards for First Nations carvers required that the recipient be under twenty-five. Knowing that older students give up even more than young ones when they return to school, and how much older students add to the class room, we decided that they deserved an award, too.

This year was the first time the award had been given out since my partner died and the award was listed as being in her honor. I knew, too, that Carol Young, last year’s winner, was going to give a eulogy for Trish – something I knew that I could not possibly do without becoming incoherent with tears. So I knew going into the graduation ceremony that my emotions would be running high.

Carol gave a brief speech that had me fighting to keep control. She spoke of Trish’s lifelong interest in Northwest Coast Art and of the crafts that she was always doing. She spoke, too, of Trish’s generosity, and how she used to cut the blossoms from her miniature roses and hand them out when we were on our weekend errands.

Then she announced that, in honor of Trish, each student would take a rose and hand it to someone in the audience.

That was it. I lost all hope of control and started crying. By the time Carol announced me, I could barely see for crying.

I walked slowly to the front, buying time to dredge up some composure. To say the least, I didn’t succeed very well.

Somehow, I managed to stand straight and talk slowly. Afterwards, people said I talked well, but I don’t know if they were being kind or not. I don’t even remember what I said.

But I got through somehow. I may have said that, because of money donated at Trish’s memorial service and raised through the sale of her craft supplies, that this year the award was being given to three students, two of whom were honorable mentions. I’m not sure, though. All I know for sure is that I announced the winners, and handed each a wrapped book, and faltered back towards my seat.

The ceremony ended soon after, and the crowd followed two drummers to Waap Galts’ap, the campus longhouse, which is a happy blend of a traditional Tsimshian and a modern building. There, we heard the students talk, and watched Nuxalk and Tsimshian/Salishan dancers moving around the flats and glass cases of the exhibition.

Occasionally, as the evening continued, I saw people in the crowd holding one of the roses. Usually, they were women, and often seniors, although once I heard a lover give a male student a rose, on the grounds that men rarely receive roses. That seemed especially fitting, since Trish had said something similar to me on my twenty-first birthday.

But no matter who held the rose, the sight never failed to leave a catch in my breath and tears in my eyes. Later that night, as I stared up into the dark in my hotel room, I reflected how strange it was that a gesture carried out by people who had never known Trish should be so much more moving that the memorial service held a few weeks after her death. I was not the least ashamed of crying, because I knew that Trish would have sobbed to see it, and I knew I had to cry in her place. I drifted off in melancholy satisfaction, and slept well I awoke, grateful for the gesture and wondering if it might be repeated next year.

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Mitch Adams is an artist I’ve been watching for some time. From the pictures he’s posted on Facebook in the last year, I suspected that it was only a matter of time before I saw one of his works that I wanted to buy. And, sure enough, when I walked into the 2010 Freda Diesing School Student Art Exhibition, his “Blue Moon Mask” immediately caught my eye. I consider it one of the finer examples of contemporary Northwest Coast art that I’ve seen in the last year – an opinion with which some traditionalists strongly disagree.

I am not the only one to think so highly of the mask. I know of at least half a dozen people who would have been happy to buy it, and who wished that it had not been marked as not for sale. Two of those people were frankly envious when I told them that, after I expressed my admiration, Adams decided not to send it to the upcoming Spirit Wrestler show after all, but to sell it to me. One even asked me if I would resell it.

Similarly, when I posted a picture of it in my review of the exhibition, one viewer called it “the most stunning mask I have ever seen.”

To me, such reactions seem perfectly logical for anyone who has troubled to look at the mask. Although “Blue Moon Mask” is covered entirely with paint, the paint is not so thick that you cannot see the smoothness of the carving.If anything, the palest blue on the mask tends to emphasis the plans of the carving, making them into shadows rather than lines.

The careful selection of the shades of blues is equally obvious, from the pale, almost white skin color to the darker blue on the outer rim, and makes the mask seem ever-changing, especially with the tear tracks falling from the eyes. Depending on the light and the angle, the mask can look serene, corpse-like, or even like the heavy makeup of a Goth on Friday night. It is a work that is both accessible and ambiguous at the same time.

Some aspects of the work are traditional. Looking through galleries or museums, you should have no trouble finding other moon masks of the same general shape. Many details are traditional, too, including the eyebrows and nostrils, and the array of U-shapes and ovoids surrounding the face.

Yet the work departs from the northern tradition in at least two key ways. For one thing, in the northern tradition, blue is a third color, used in small amounts if it is present at all. Black and red are the typical colors, with a third being added by the natural color of the wood. A departure from this norm is, by itself, enough to define a work as contemporary.

For another thing, the use of paint on the entire mask is unusual in Adam’s Haida and Tsimshian tradition (although not entirely unheard of, either). The northern tradition tends to be sparing in its use of paint, with designs painted across the mask that ignore the features beneath them. Adams’ decision to paint the entire mask would be more common in the Kwakwaka’wakw tradition, although, even there, his use of different shades of the same color instead of contrasting ones would be more characteristic of modern artists such as Beau Dick or perhaps Simon Dick.

To make these departures is a risk – but I believe it is a necessary one, of the kind needed to keep Northwest Coast art developing and relevant. Nor is it a unique one. Historically, the art form has long been a combination of local conventions meeting industrial societies’ technologies and sensibilities. So-called tradition has long changed and benefited from artists’ discoveries of metal tools, industrially produced paints, and, much later, of power tools. Similarly, the first European influence on subject matter is over a century and a half old, in top-hatted figures on poles and sailing ships on argillite plates. From this perspective, what Adams does in “Blue Moon Mask” is not radical, and should be easy to appreciate.

Yet, sadly, a minority noticed “Blue Moon Mask”’s departure from strict tradition and could not get past it. I am told that one teacher reacted strongly to it, and that another one joked about it. Even worse, some students, seeing the teachers’ reactions, immediately imitated them rather than using their own eyes.

These reactions strike me as both unfortunate and short-sighted. The basis of Northwest Coast art will always be the traditional work. If nothing else, the contemporary needs the traditional to react against.

Yet I do not see why admiration for the traditional must include a rejection of everything contemporary. True, you may prefer one over the other, or prefer one in your own work. But what you like and what is done well are by no means synonymous. Nor does preferring one require that you condemn the other.

Personally, I refuse to take sides. “Blue Moon Mask” is a technically skilled piece, and amidst our collection of traditional works by artists like Norman Tait or Richard Hunt and of contemporary pieces by artists like Alano Edzerza or Ron Telek, it claims a place on our wall on its own merits. It’s a piece that I consider myself lucky to live with, and I’m proud to have our keeping.

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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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On April 23, I did something I had been waiting to do for ten months: I stood up at the graduation ceremony for the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art at Northwest Community College in Terrace, and gave out the first Mature Student Award. Trish and I hope it will be the first of many, and I think the award got off to a good start by having Carol Young (Bagshaw) as the first recipient.

A member of the Haida Eagle side, Young did not grow up with traditional culture, but absorbed much of it indirectly from her mother. Later, as a single mother of four, she began selling a variety of handicrafts and art pieces loosely based on Northwest Coast design on eBay. Although she says she never thought of herself as an artist, she sold over a hundred pieces of every description imaginable. Masks, rattles, miniature canoes, and, most of all, Haida-inspired dolls – all of these and more she managed to produce as a way of bringing in extra money.

With her children grown, Young decided to do something for herself, and enrolled in the Freda Diesing School last September. Her teachers and fellow students tell me that at first she seemed to have trouble feeling comfortable in the dorms or the class room, and that learning formline design didn’t come easily to her after years of doing things her way.

However, in the second semester, especially after hearing that she had won the Mature Student Award, Young started to hit her stride. Her design took on a new discipline and maturity as she absorbed what the teachers had been telling her, and she found a place among the other students, most of whom were far younger – although at times, she told me with a smile, she felt that her role was that of den-mother in the dorms.

By the end of the school year, Young had become the speaker for the first year students, announcing them at the graduation ceremony, and appearing with fellow student Sheldon Dennis on a CBC podcast about the school. She also took it on herself to present me with a school cap and T-shirt, and, when I requested one for Trish (who was unable to attend the graduation), gave me hers, claiming that she didn’t wear T-shirts anyway – a kindness that I was grateful for, although I wondered if it was true.

During the podcast, Young said that attending the school had given her “a whole new life.” Previously, I had only contacted her briefly via email, but when I met her during the graduation ceremony and exhibition, she seemed like a person who was happy about the direction she was heading. Not only was she in the middle of preparations and cleanup for the weekend, but she talked about how she hoped she could present a female perspective in her carving, which she felt – despite the name of the school – had been under-represented or explored. She said, too, that she would like to establish an award for women at the school, and would like to teach after she graduated next year.

My impression is that Young is the sort of self-starter who can get where she wants to be under her own power and on her own terms. But I would like to think that the Mature Student Award made her self-development a little easier and quicker than it might otherwise have been.

As the first recipient of the award, she sets a high standard. If next year’s winner is even half as deserving, I will feel that our ongoing involvement in the school through the award has been worthwhile.

Carol Young, First Recipient of the Mature Student Award at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art

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One of the many songs inspired by the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 is “Little wot ye wha’s coming.” It is little more than a list of the clans that supported Bonnie Prince Charlie, and I’ve heard it sung slowly by Ewan MacColl, and faster and faster by The Corries. Just back from the Freda Diesing School graduation exhibit in Terrace, I’m reminded of the song because I feel as though I’ve spent the last two days meeting people.

Some I knew online but had never met, others by reputation. But let me see if I can generate a list, roughly in order since I arrived at the exhibit at 2PM on Friday:

  • Jill Girodat, the Associate Registrar at Northwest Community College, who helped us set up the Mature Student Award, and is well-known among students in need for her ability to find funding for them. Jill kindly volunteered to show me around the campus.
  • Stephanie Forsyth, Northwest’s president, who saw me taking photographs when I arrived and was puzzled about who I was until I got up to give the Mature Student Award that night, but remained polite.
  • Todd Stephens, a graduate last year from the Freda Diesing, who supervises the carving shed at the George Little House. Last year, we bought his “Jorja and I,” which hangs over my computer desk.
  • Shawn Aster, one of this year’s graduates, who remains a promising artist, both in terms of his ability and in terms of his promise that one day he will finish the painting we’ve discussed.
  • Gayton Nabess, one of the first year students, who showed me a left-handed stone paint pot found on the banks of the Skeena, and pictures of a non-traditional piece he recently completed (which I’m sorry that I never had time to see).
  • Dean Heron, the newest teacher at the Freda Diesing,who kindly gave me a tour of the nearly completed longhouse on the Northwest campus, and drove me out to see the work being done at the Kitselas Canyon project.
  • Ken McNeil, one of the teachers at the school, whose work I have long admired.
  • Stan Bevan, the program coordinator at the school, who let me see not only the four crests for the longhouse, but also his home and work area, and drove me around on Saturday evening. I also appreciate the book he presented me — a reprinting of a transcript of oral tales that were originally recorded almost a century ago. It’s the sort of genuine record of First Nations culture I’m always looking for, but rarely find.
  • Rocque Berthiaume, who teaches art history at the school, whom I’ve heard praised by many students but whom I had never previously met.
  • Carol Young Bagshaw, this year’s winner of the Mature Student Award, who introduced the first year students at the graduation ceremony, and saw that I not only had my own cap and T-shirt from the school, but also a shirt to bring home to Trish.
  • Colin Morrison, whose first mask we bought. He turns out to be much taller in person than I had imagined.
  • Mitch Adams, who kindly agreed to let me buy his “Blue Moon Mask” rather than send it down to the upcoming Spirit Wrestler Show. It was one of the most sought-after pieces in the end of year exhibit, and he could have had half a dozen other buyers, had he chose. Mitch also invited me down to hear his band play, although by 10PM on Saturday, I no longer had the energy.
  • John Wilson, who is clearly the most accomplished artist in this years’ graduating class, even if he doesn’t always receive the credit he deserves. Over the last year, we’ve chatted so often on Facebook that, when he walked up, we started talking as if we met face to face everyday.
  • Latham Mack, another of this year’s graduates, who danced his Thunder Spirit Mask on Friday night, and kindly got me permission from his elders to post pictures online of the performance (which I plan to do some time this week).
  • Chaz Mack, who showed me some of his vivid and powerful works in his dorm room.
  • Dempsey Bob, the school’s Senior Advisor and one of the master carvers of his generation, who made some effort to draw me out at dinner on Saturday, when I looked overwhelmed by all the new faces.
  • Diana Wong Adams, Mitch’s spouse, whose taste for the Pogues instantly told me she was a person worth knowing.
  • Ron Telek, whose work we’ve been collecting for several years. Somehow the disasters and mishaps that have averted our previous efforts to meet were absent this time, and we actually got to hang out.
  • Peter Jackson, who drove up from Prince Rupert to talk over dessert.

These are only the people I had extended conversations with (although possibly I’ve left out one or two). Were I to include everybody I was introduced to, or exchanged a few brief remarks with, the list would be over twice as long.

 

But whether I mentioned people or not, my thanks to all those I met for their friendship, kindness, and hospitality. Together, you stimulated and exhausted me in equal measure. I look forward to renewing our acquaintance at the Spirit Wrestler show next month, and at next year’s graduation.

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