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Archive for the ‘Tsimshian’ Category

A couple of weeks ago when I was in Terrace, Dean Heron drove me the fifteen kilometers northeast to the Kitselas Canyon National Historic Site. We left the highway, bounced up a gravel road through some second growth forest to a gate and, after opening it, descended to the top of the site.

I’ve been hearing about construction on the site for a couple of years and the work that teachers, students, and graduates of the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art had been doing there, but nothing really prepared me for the site or the scope of the effort. The top of the site was dominated by a nearby mountain, so dramatically close that I could never quite keep it out of my glance, or resist looking up at it (or be unaware of it at my back):

To date, four longhouses have been completed. A fifth is largely complete but unpainted and will eventually display a wolf design, if I remember correctly.

In front of the line of longhouses, are the carved figures of a grizzly bear and a beaver:

Each of the longhouses, Heron explained to me, would become the showcase for a different aspect of the local Tsimshian culture. About a hundred meters across the gravel was the future gift shop and the washroom.

However, the current buildings were just the start of the plans. Eventually, part of the leveled gravel will become a ground for dances and ceremonies. And, behind the gift house, a path lead down to the archaeological site where the original village had been located. I would have liked to descend to the site, where an interpretive center was being built, but Heron was unsure of his right to go there. He had a key to the gate, and having worked on the top of the site, had no hesitation about going there, but the archaeological site was another matter – perhaps because he was not a member of the Kitselas First Nation.

Nor could we enter any of the longhouses, because alarms had been added recently to them. Naturally, I was disappointed, but I was glad that some pre-cautions were being taken, because apparently one of the longhouses had already been broken into. In fact, considering some of the art work there, I can see a day coming when the site has security staff around the clock.

Still, even without seeing everything, I was impressed, both by what had been done and what I imagined the finished result would be. Between the magnificence of the setting and the carvings by Dempsey Bob, Stan Bevan, and their current and ex-pupils, Kitselas Canyon has every chance of being the cultural and tourist landmark it is intended to become. Personally, I can’t wait to see what it should become in a few years — and I’m grateful to Dean for the preview.

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A couple of months ago, Haisla artist John Wilson told me about a promising first year student at the Freda Diesing School named Colin Morrison. After seeing some minor pieces by him, I commissioned a painting. It turned out to be his first professional sale.

I am absolutely confident that it won’t be his last – and not just because I would like to boast ten years from now that I had the foresight to see his potential before he became well-known. “The Spirit of the Wolf” is an accomplished piece that illustrates Morrison’s potential better than anything I can say. It is all the more remarkable because it comes from a man in his mid-twenties.

On the surface, “The Spirit of the Wolf” is a traditional piece, reminiscent of Roy Henry Vickers’ work. It shows a strong interest in style, with a variety of ovoids and U-shapes used throughout and a variety of tactics used to control the thickness and joints of the formlines. The sheer number of tactics could easily result in a mishmash, but Morrison controls it by having shapes mirror and contrast each other in disciplined way. The mirroring is especially obvious when the primary and secondary formlines are adjacent to one another.

At the same time, you do not have to look very long before you realize that “The Spirit of the Wolf” has a playfulness that suggests a very contemporary outlook as well. The design is basically a play on the various interpretations of the title, with wolves spread throughout the design – everything from the physical wolf to the Wolf as a clan crest. This dichotomy is suggested by the vaguely yin-yang shape of the overall design.

There is even, Morrison says, several spirits in the metallic paint of the design. So far, I have to admit, I have been unable to detect what kind of spirits they might be, or if anything specific is intended, but I find the idea immensely appealing all the same.

You could even go one step further and say that, since Morrison himself is a member of the Tsimshian Wolf Clan, that the painting itself is a manifestation of a wolf’s spirit.

You might call the painting a kind of Northwest Coast “Where’s Waldo?” If you wanted to say the same thing more seriously, you could say that the content is as inventive as the style.

Asked to say something about himself, Morrison replied, “I’m Tsimshian, Ginadoiks tribe, Wolf Clan. I’ve been an artist since I was young; I started painting when I was 18, and didn’t take it seriously till I was 23 years old. I’ve been painting off and on since that time, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life.

“Then, one day last year, my Mom started going to a carving class in school. She wanted me to go and dragged me there. I started painting again, and liked what I was doing. My instructor (Harvy Ressel) saw the raw talent and asked me if I wanted to go to the Freda Diesing School. I said yes. Since then, I have found my calling.”

Since doing “The Spirit of the Wolf,” Morrison has completed his first mask and is in the process of finishing his second. I expect that the world of Northwest Coast art will be hearing more from him, but remember (I said, with a certain pride) – you heard of him first from me.

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“I’ve been doing art all my life,” Mike Dangeli, the up and coming Northwest Coast artist says. But although he identifies himself mainly as an artist, you cannot talk to him for very long before realizing that he is also many other things — a member of the Git Hayetsk Dancers, the heir to a chieftainship, and a man passionately committed to living in the culture of his Nisga’a, Tlingit, and Tsimshian ancestors within the context of modern technological society. Nor can you separate any of these things from the others, because Dangeli is at least as well known for his artistic work for ceremonies and regalia as for his commercial offerings.

Mike Dangeli

The interconnections go a long way back, although Dangeli took some time to bring them all together. He got his start in art early, making his own dance regalia when he was four or five with his grandmother, artist Louise Barton-Dangeli. He went on to learn acrylics, water colors and oils from her, as well cedar pouches, bags, and beaded necklaces.

At the same time, he learned “everything from weaving to painting to beadwork” from his mother, Arlene Roberts, both individually and as part of the yearly programs at the Chilkoot Cultural Camp in southeast Alaska.

At the camp, he learned from its organizers, Richard and Julie Folta and Tlingit artist Austin Hammond . From an old couple he only remembers as Mr. and Mrs. King, he also learned how to make drums — “that’s everything from taking a deer skin and scraping off the fat to making your own rawhide to string the drum,” Dangeli explains. He enjoyed the process so much that he estimates that by the time he became a professional artist at the age of 27, he had made “over five hundred drums.”

Beaver Drum

Another important early experience was spending the summer travelling on the Alaska ferries with his mother and grandmother, stopping at each port to sell what they made. Dangeli recalls that they did well enough to pay for their fares and his clothes for the coming school year. Through this experience, he also learned from his guardians “how to talk to galleries, to tourist shops, and cultural centers.”

Dangeli’s first training in carving came from his uncle in Prince George. “I spent a summer with him learning basic design and carving bowls and helping him with his work,” Dangeli says. “It was a lot harder than it looked, and I was a teenybopper with a lot of different interests.”

The road to an artist’s life

As a young man, Dangeli staged his own form of rebellion by joining the American army as an Air Ranger. He explains, “I’ve heard all my life that I’m in line to take a chief’s name. When you hear something like that all your life and you have to be good because of it, you decide you’re missing out and think, ‘I’m going to do my own thing.'”

The army seemed a natural choice, because he was thinking of going into law enforcement. “I didn’t see myself as an artist and living that kind of of lifestyle.”

Dangeli spent ten years in the military, rising to Staff Sergeant, but continued carving and designing in his spare time, and visiting family members when possible. It was on these visits that he started gaining a more deliberate understanding of his nation’s Angiosk –traditional territory — and Ayaawx — customs.

Adjusting our frame of reference

When he became a reservist, he attended the University of Alaska and working with his uncle Reggie Dangeli, a historian with the Alaska State Historical Commission. Eventually, he transferred to Washington state.

Matters came to a crisis when he got into a fight with another Staff Sergeant. “He said, ‘That’s the problem with you Indians,’ and of course he said effing Indians, so I smacked him up one side of his head.” At least partly because of the experience, Dangeli decided to leave the military, a move that cost him his university funding.

Finding himself in a well-paying but dead end job, Dangeli drifted towards Robert Boxley’s Seattle dance troupe and eventually apprenticed to him. He went through “a nasty divorce” due to his change of lifestyle, and headed “home to the Nass Valley to lick my wounds.”

The trip got sidetracked in Vancouver when he was asked to finish a pole in Woodland Park.

“I didn’t want to do it,” he says. “It wasn’t a very nice chunk of wood, and I didn’t want to do someone else’s work. So I said, ‘If I do it, it won’t be mine. It will be a community project.'” Hiring ten youths, he finished the pole and celebrated its completion with a potlatch — and, in the process, discovered that he had found himself a community.

“It was such a sad little pole,” he says. “It had been stolen twice, spray painted and a chunk was taken off the side, and someone took a Louisville [baseball bat] to it. It was horrible. But I look at it in retrospect as a physical manifestation of where I was in that moment in time — just beat up and kind of sad. It ended up being something very beautiful — not necessarily the totem pole itself, although it’s still up there and humbling to look at, but because it represents a massive amount of growth. What I created was a community here in Vancouver.”

Lifting up my god-son mask

While carving the pole, Dangeli found studio space at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre at Hastings and Commercial. He remains there to his day, running a program called The House of Culture. At first, the program was a cooperative, through which artists passed like Robert Davidson, Reg Davidson, Henry Green, Simon Dick, and Lyle Campbell, as well as younger artists such as Ian Reid and Phil Gray.

More recently, The House of Culture has become a rental space, because “there were a couple of people who had abused the space because they were abusing themselves in their addiction,” as Dangeli explains the situation. Dangeli now shares the space with Woodlands artist Don McIntyre, and Mari Torizane, a Japanese master painter who works as Dangeli’s assistant. Space is also found from time to time for other artists, such as Ian Reid, whom Dangeli regards as a brother.

Such experiences have left him with a strong interest in collaboration. One such result can be seen on the west side of the Friendship Centre, where Dangeli recently painted a mural with Don McIntyre.

Dangeli now works in a variety of media, including stone carving, wood carving, jewelry making, painting, and sculpture. He works twelve to fourteen hours a day and completes 10-30 pieces per month.

“I love a bit of everything,” he says. “You get lost in what you’re working in, so there is no favorite medium. It’s whatever I’m working on. but I always have five of six projects on the go in various stages. You get bored with one and you want to pick up something else. but then the clock’s ticking on a couple of pieces, and you’ve got to get going on them.”

Ceremonial, commissioned, and commercial art

“What’s become really important to me is the performance and ceremonial part of our art,” Dangeli says. “You can ask every Northwest Coast artist, and they’ll tell you that some of the best carvers and west coast artists are the ones who have an understanding of ceremony. It’s a lot different than creating something for the galleries.”

Part of the difference is that a mask intended to be danced “needs the inside to be functional. It needs to be carved to the dimensions of the face of the person who’s wearing the mask.”

Another part is the “responsibility and rights and privileges that you learn by attending ceremonies and understanding them.”

However, the largest difference, Dangeli says, is the spirituality. “In our languages, masks were naxnox— ‘beyond human power.’ These naxnox embodied the wind, they embodied the spirits, and were able to connect us to that spirit world. There’s an understanding that if you don’t treat these naxnox right, they’ll bite you.

“And I’ve seen that happen. I’ve seen a guy who played around too much with a mask and he was dancing on stage at this one event, and he fell right off the stage. It was a good five foot drop. That was part of the mask saying, ‘I didn’t appreciate that.’ I’ve seen it happen in our own dance group. I’ve even had it happen to me.”

Another consideration is the stories that are told in ceremonial and commercial art. “With a lot of our naxnox, there’s an oral history that’s owned by families that I don’t have the right to go and use. There’s even traditions that belong to my family that I would never go and openly sell. When I do art for potlatching or for individuals who ask me for things that display their clan crest, there’s always a different price. I don’t ever charge the full price in these cases, because the best payment is having one of your pieces used. It’s more of an exchange” of services or goods or artwork.

By contrast, “when I’m doing things for a gallery, there are certain stories that are universal to everybody” that can be used instead. Dangeli suggests that this is not a limitation, so much as a situation that calls upon his ingenuity as an artist. He likens the distinction to his experience of dancing, where there are some dances that are not recorded and others that are brought out for public performance.

Dangeli acknowledges that other artists do not observe the same distinctions, but seems to feel that their choices are not his business. “I find it really sad when I see artists breaking those laws [about what can be publicly displayed], but it’s up to their elders, their chiefs and their matriarchs to put them back into line, not us as artists. Although there are some things you look at and think, ‘Gosh, I can’t believe they did that.'”

These distinctions are increasingly easy for Dangeli to observe because, while he has had work in galleries, today, commissions and ceremonial work mean that he does not rely on the commercial art market to make his living. While he praises some galleries like the Eagle Spirit and the Leora Lattimer Gallery, and speaks of their owners with respect, he is concerned that meeting the galleries’ needs can be restrictive for artists.

In fact, in some cases, dealing with galleries can be “abusive,” he says. He recalls selling a drum and a mask to one gallery, and being told by the owner, “‘Now, don’t go drinking this all up in one spot.’ So I looked at him and said, ‘I don’t need this,’ and I ripped up the cheque and handed it back, and took my pieces.”

This experience was reinforced a few years ago by an incident online in which his building and launching of a canoe received condescending criticism from an academic, and others rallied around him.

“It was really wonderful having support from my own people, indigenous people, and people from museums from all over the place, and I let go of that final fear about what people think of my art. It’s none of my business. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, that’s fine. I think [this attitude] has made me a better artist, and that taking on more commissions has helped me to focus on more personal items and concentrating more on things for potlatches. It’s wonderful to have that freedom, and I would wish it for every artist.”

Art and the community

Dangeli takes his role as an interpreter of his culture seriously. “There is a responsibility, because artists are our historians. They are people who are able to act as a conduit between our culture and our people to the outside world. They’re historians, they’re writers, they’re creators of things that will be used inside those ceremonies. So, yeah, there’s a lot of importance in being a leader and an artist.”

For Dangeli in particular, this responsibility and importance is augmented because he is heir to two chieftainships, one of which he grew up expecting to inherit and one which he has only recently become heir to. This situation, he says, “has affected me in wanting to convey more of my messages. And taking on that larger chieftainship means that I have more responsibilities, both financially and culturally. Financially in the way of making sure that I can get home to attend feasts and potlatches, culturally by being able to create things for my people. It has affected some of what I create and definitely the responsibility not to do anything embarrassing as well.”

Sunset

However, asked if artists help to restore pride to First Nations communities, Dangeli characterizes the idea as an outsider’s view. “I think that, as an outsider looking in, yeah, it could be construed that way. But are you being made aware of it because individual artists are opening your eyes to what’s going on inside those communities? Because, growing up and witnessing all these wonderful things happening within my community, there’s always been pride. There’s always been this sense of beauty and right and wrong and putting your best foot forward. A lot of artists, especially in the generation before mine, have all grown up with that responsibility.

“There’s a huge responsibility being an artists and growing up in that culture, which is why some artists choose not to be part of it. It is too much responsibility. Everyone always wants you to create things for some sort of giveaway or to do this or that. So there has to be a balance.” For instance, Dangeli will often repurpose a piece, or ask permission to make a print of an original painting, so that he can respond to a request without taking too much of his time. He cites Joe David and Beau Dick as two of the older artists who are models of how to find this sort of balance.

“We have a responsibility because we’re able to function in so many worlds, whether it be the white world, within the art world — and it’s not just the art world, it’s the First Nation’s art world as well — within our communities, culturally, and academically and with art historians. I’ve been able to walk in all these worlds, and been intimidated in all of them.

“I remember when Mique’l [his financee] had moved up here. I was looking through some of the readings she had to do for her Master’s in Art History, and I became worried because art historians analyze everything. And I was like, ‘Look, I was poor this month, and people will say, this is Mike Dangeli’s blue period because I didn’t have anything else but blue paint. That was part of my fear: Is what I’m doing now going to be analyzed and picked apart twenty, forty years down the line?. And that was something else I had to let go.”

But, for all the fears, the responsibilities, the obligations and the need for balance, Dangeli clearly remains committed to all that he has taken on. “I love what I do. It’s not a job, and it’s not a career –although it is both — it’s a passion. I absolutely love it. So to be able to have that opportunity to take what’s inside me, to make my thoughts tangible –”

He trails off for a second, then starts in a new direction.

“I’m able only to put out so much in thirty or forty years. That’s a short time in a person’s life. And I started this when I was a little older than most artists. I was 27 when I decided to become a professional artist. so I have a lot of catching up to do. And, at the same time, I’m grateful to be able to create art and to have people see value in it.”

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Last night, I was at the reception for Tahltan artist Alano Edzerza’s new exhibit, “Gift of the Raven.” The show features Edzerza’s work of the last six months. Also on display were a number of pieces by Morgan Green, a recent recipient of the YVR Art Foundation Scholarship and (as she may be tired of hearing) the daughter of Tsimshian master carver Henry Green.

The evening started with a performance of “Raven Steals the Light” by Victor Reece’s Big Sky Multi-Media Storytelling Society. The performance was held in the courtyard of the Waterfall Building, the complex in which the Edzerza Gallery is located. It featured a dancer with suitably nervous bird-like movements and a light mask with mirrors for eyes, and ended with him climbing to an overhead walkway to conclude the performance – all in all, a successful blending of the traditional and the contemporary.

Then, the crowd squeezed inside the gallery for the viewing.

The show did not include any new traditional style work by Edzerza. Otherwise, it was a good representation of the different strains in his work. My main problem was dodging the crowd and finding gaps in it that lasted long enough to snap a picture. Combined with the fact that some paintings were hung high, the result is pictures that are less than professional quality (to say the least), but should give some idea of what was on display.

In one corner of the front of the gallery was a collection of Edzerza’s glass boxes:

alano-glass-boxes1

Elsewhere, you could see some of his experiments with color, such as this collection of closeups of traditional formline designs done in the electric colors of pop-art on a back wall:

alano-colors

The same pop-art sensibility appeared in a couple of contemporary paintings of frogs, which were inspired, I am told, by a tattoo on a woman’s back:

alano-frog3

But the major works in the exhibit were the multi-panel ones, like this one that was hung near the ceiling, facing the door:

alano-orca-multi

Another orca design, a triptych, was hung just inside the door, and a triptych featuring ravens on the back wall. The raven triptych was especially dramatic, as one of its panel shows:

alano-eagle-triptych2

All these multi-panel works shared features that are characteristic of Edzerza’s work: A three-dimensional contemporary take on traditional Northwest Coast designs, an experiment with color in mainly grayscale designs, and a dramatic sense of movement that is enhanced by the separate canvases and draws your eyes from one to the next.

Morgan Green is not as an experienced an artist as Edzerza, but, in the last year, her work has matured quickly. Previously, the work by Green that I knew best were her leather cuffs and a somewhat over-ornate wolf helmet in the gallery, but the works I saw last night shows some other sides to her work, and an interest in different media that, if anything, is even greater than Edzerza’s.

Green’s works included a wall hanging and a variety of earth-colored ceramics inspired by a recent trip to Arizona and the First Nations work she saw there. A plate depicting Mouse Woman was particularly striking:

morgan-green-mouse-woman-plate

So far as I know, no historical depictions of Mouse Woman survive. But Green’s rendering seems a reasonable one, with features like the ears, the round eyes and the incisors providing the defining features that you would expect in a traditional design. At the same time, placing the design on grainy ceramic creates a pictograph-like effect, all the more so because the formline is hinted at more than fully realized.

Perhaps the most accomplished work by Green on display was a Dogfish Woman robe she had created for an elder. The design was fairly standard (that is to say, more or less a descendant of Charles Edenshaw’s sketch via Bill Reid), but the cutting of the design and the assembly of the robe made for a first rate piece of work. As Green was discussing it with some of the guests, one of them agreed to model it:

morgan-green-dogfish-woman-robe

The evening was a fund-raiser, with a quarter of all sales going to the Vancouver Foundation. How successful the evening was a fund-raiser, I didn’t ask. But from the perspective of spotlighting two promising young artists, no one could have asked for more. I came away from the evening with increased respect for both, and an even greater determination to watch and enjoy their future growth.

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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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I’ve always thought that Beau Brummel has a lot to answer for. He’s the one who, in the early 19th century, set the standards that reduced the color palette in men’s clothes to brown, black, gray, and dark blue and – even worse – restricted men’s jewelry to rings, watches, cuff links and tie pins. No doubt his look was an improvement on Prinny’s excesses, but what Beau did was to condemn us to drabness. And if, like me, you don’t wear ties or French cuffs or carry a wrist watch because you look at it every twenty seconds if you do, your choices are even more limited. But, yesterday, I found a way around these restrictions that nobody can find fault with: I took home a three inch West Coast bracelet.

I suppose I could have opted for the full Scottish effect for formal wear. Never mind that I don’t have the remotest connection to a tartan; kilts suit short-legged, barrel-torsoed men like me, and, like my late friend Paul Edwin Zimmer, I could have used an unclaimed one like Ancient MacAlpin. And Scottish regalia has the advantage of allowing you to wear more jewelry, although too much of it has banal thistle designs and you have to be careful that nobody that nobody calls your skean dhu a concealed weapon. But kilts are even more trouble than suits, and fabulously expensive as well.

I suppose, too, that I could have got a tattoo. But tattoos are too permanent for my liking, and good ones surprisingly rare. And why go through discomfort for the sake of mediocrity?

Instead, for almost twenty years, I’ve wanted a thick West Coast copper bracelet. At least in British Columbia, such bracelets are works of art, thanks to the fame of artists like Bill Reid, and nobody is going to make tiresome remarks about effeteness if you’re lucky enough to have one to wear (not that I would care if they did; my identity as a straight male is well-established, thanks very much). Not only First Nations men, but men of every ethnicity can wear West Coast bracelets and nobody thinks twice about it – everyone’s too busy envying them.

But most West Coast bracelets you see are in silver or gold, metals that don’t catch my eye nearly as much as copper, even if they are more expensive. Besides, although I know that modern West Coast art is a blend of First Nations traditions and modern metal work techniques, copper seems more appropriate because the local cultures did work copper before their first contact with Europeans.

Moreover, few bracelets in any metal are more than an inch and a half wide, and most are made for the tourist trade. What I wanted was an original work of art, on a surface whose size would do the design full justice, and a weight that I could never forget while it was on my wrist. And for years I couldn’t afford one, although I came close once or twice to placing an order.

But in December, I suddenly had the the spare cash. I had long since narrowed down the shops to order from to two or three that were far above the watered down traditions in the Gastown tourist shops. Further investigation showed that Coastal Peoples in Yaletown was the only shop among those known to me that would take custom orders, so I placed my order there.

My choices were limited by a lack of artists who work in copper. However, I did have three or four possible artists – assuming any were available for a commission. After careful consideration, I decided I wanted Tsimshian artist Henry Green. Not only is Green a versatile artist who works in several media – his carved masks are especially fine – but all his work had a strong sense of line that the others lacked.

The Coastal People staff were polite, but non-committal about whether Green would accept the commission. However, a few days later, one emailed to tell me that he could do the piece in about a month. I rushed to put a deposit down before his schedule filled.

Then came the design decision. Not wanting to be too exacting for fear of receiving uninspired or merely competent work, I diffidently suggested that the design include Raven and Mouse Woman. Raven, of course, is the trickster, while the lesser-known Mouse Woman is the keeper of tradition and domestic values, so I thought the combination an interesting contrast. So, apparently, did Green, since he told Coastal Peoples that he liked the idea.

We did bandy about the idea of receiving a sketch from Green of the design, so that I could approve it. However, when I learned that it would be only a sketch and not a finished design, I decided it was not worth the additional sum he would charge. I abandoned the idea and settled down to wait.

A month passed, and I heard nothing. I didn’t want to get impatient. Art doesn’t work well to timetables, and, besides, the holiday season had intervened, yet I was nearly shaking in anticipation.

Then, yesterday afternoon, I received a call that the bracelet was ready. I soon abandoned the pretense of working, and knocked off early to pick it up; one of the advantages of being freelance is that you rarely have to work to schedule.

The work was – overwhelming, in a word. Green had created not only an inspired work of art, but, between the size, metal, and design, a unique one. It was also a well-engineered one, since Green had chosen the gauge of the copper to be thick enough for strength, yet thin enough to be pliable and relatively light. Even the staff at Coastal Peoples seemed impressed. I told the clerk to tell him that I was extremely satisfied, and left wearing it.

I plan to wear it in the future whenever possible, until it becomes my trademark for the rest of my life. Living with art is always uplifting, and, while Green did all the work, as the patron of the work with my stipulations, I can’t help feeling that I played a small part in its creation. And to have waited so long to get something that exceeded my expectation means that I couldn’t be more pleased to have this cuff of copper on my wrist

Someday, I might get a matching bracelet for my other wrist, and cement my reputation for eccentricity. Meanwhile, I keep looking at the design of Mouse Woman in the center and raven below her, and marveling at the bit of metallic beauty that has come into my life.

Bracelet by Henry Green

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