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Kwakwaka’wakw carver Beau Dick is one of the names on my short list of people from whom I would one day like to buy a mask (for the record, the others are master carver Norman Tait, Nishga’a surrealist Ron Telek, and Tlingit carver Stan Bevan). Not only does Dick have a subtle sense of color that is rare in Northwest Coast mask-makers, but he manages to find endless creative possibilities in two main figures — Bukwus, the wild man of the woods, and Tsonoqua (also called Dzunuk’wa), the wild woman – producing countless masks of both without repeating himself very much. And, like the others on my list, he is meticulous about finishing details, although he often chooses a rougher look than Tait, Telek, or Bevan. So, last month, when I came across a few sketches by Dick for about the price of a quality limited edition print, I was instantly tempted to buy.

The first Dick sketches I saw were at the Inuit Gallery in Gastown. One was a colored pencil sketch of a mask with a quick gradient background, one was a mask done in charcoal, and the third was a colored sketch of a dancer. At first I thought them unique, but a week later at the Latimer Gallery, I saw some similar works, as well as some colored pencil sketches of dancers that I suspected were done from photos. The Latimer Gallery pieces were dated about four years later than the Inuit Gallery mask sketch, and were about two-thirds the price, although I judged them not quite so interesting.

From what I was told at the Latimer Gallery, the mask sketches were the result of a period in which Dick had sketched his designs before carving them. He had tried this experiment at least twice, once in 1999 and again in 2003. I don’t know, but I surmise that he either was not especially satisfied with the results, or found the exercise not useful for his carving since (so far as I know), he only tried the experiment a few times with masks. I hope one day to learn more.

Meanwhile, I was disappointed to find that the sketches weren’t as unique as I had imagined. Instead of coming down the next week to buy the mask sketch at the Inuit Gallery, I went to other galleries instead.

But, last Saturday, Trish was well enough to take a brief tour of some of the downtown galleries. When we reached the Inuit Gallery, she was as intrigued by the sketch as I had been, and we bought it on the spot, bearing it home in a mailing tube sealed with tape at both ends to keep out the rain and wrapped in a plastic bag. Tomorrow, it goes to the framer.

What interests me in the sketch is partly the subject matter. If you have ever been in the northern rainforest alone, especially near nightfall, you have no trouble understanding how Tsonoqua entered the local myths; she’s the sense of something terrifying moving just behind the trees.

But, just as importantly, the sketch is interesting for the way it is rendered. If you examine the lines of the face, you’ll see that they are not lines so much as surfaces. Even a single line, like the ones on either site of the mouth are not so much lines as areas, and their shadows are likewise. In other words, Dick is sketching with a carver’s eye.

The only exception to this approach is the hair of both the head and the shaggy eyebrows (although even the individual hairs tend to be thick). The mixture of the two different approaches only adds to the oddness of the face. So does the red patch on just one of the cheeks.

The sketch is rough, but not so rough that Dick didn’t give it a bit of a finishing touch with the gradient background. I suppose that some people would consider the roughness a fault, but, really, what else do you expect in a sketch?

Anyway, a calculated roughness is a common characteristic in a lot of Dick’s work, and seems to suit a character that has been living rough.

One day, I might be lucky enough to find the mask that matches the sketch. But, for now, the sketch is a small and slightly curious addition to our small art collection.

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Tsonoqua Mask by Beau Dick

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