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Archive for the ‘Victoria’ Category

Ten years ago, Wayne Young was a promising journeyman in Northwest Coast art. Taught by such well-known figures as Dempsey Bob and Robert and Norman Tait, he had an enviable reputation for imaginative, often asymmetrical designs, and for fine finishing details on his carving. Now, however, illness keeps him from working. Since new works from him seem unlikely, when I first noticed this miniature argillite transformation mask of a raven and a human on the Alcheringa Gallery web site two years ago, I was immediately interested in buying it.

Not only was I interested in the artist, but I figured that the piece had to be one of a kind. I mean, a mask not only made of argillite, but with two faces? And one no more than fifteen centimeters long and six high? The thick hinges that the outer face swings upon and the fine screws drilled into the argillite are evidence of the difficulty in the construction – and also all the explanation necessary of why no one else is likely to try to imitate the piece.

However, obtaining the piece proved a challenge. When I visited the gallery fifteen months ago, none of the staff knew where it was. In fact, despite the fact it was still on the web site, they could never remember seeing it, and were sure it must be lost. However, three months ago, I queried again. This time, the gallery director answered, and could locate it.

Ordinarily, I don’t haggle over price. However, ten months previous, the mask had been part of an on-site auction, with a quick price that was two-thirds the listed price. Since the gallery had had the piece for seven years, I sensed it might be eager to sell it, so I offered the quick price. It was accepted, and I took a day trip to Victoria primarily to carry it safely home.

I declined the frame and beige and brown matting the gallery had added. I thought the frame did not do the mask justice; I am currently awaiting an argillite stand to display it properly.

Unfortunately, too, time has not been kind to the piece. Another artist who remembers seeing the piece when it was new remembers the outer mask closing evenly. Now, one hinge is slightly twisted, and one side of the mask is lower than the other when closed. A drop of glue on a couple of the screws might be useful, too, and perhaps a replacement of the black cord on the controls.

However, despite these imperfections, I consider the mask well worth having. The carving is simpler than most of Young’s work, but the lines need to be bold on a piece of such minute dimensions if they are to be discernible. Finer lines would be nearly invisible, and therefore wasted – nor would argillite lend itself to them. The fact that Young knew the restrictions of the size and the medium says a lot about his skill as an artist.

I could almost believe that Young deliberately set out to challenge himself by putting obstacles in his own path. If he didn’t, he must have soon discovered them. But, either way, he overcame the obstacles, not with inlays and other distractions, but with a well-designed, cleanly carved, understated bit of excellence. I consider myself lucky to have obtained it, and my only regret is that new pieces from Young are unlikely.

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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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When I wandered into the Alcheringa Gallery in Victoria on a day off, I really wasn’t planning to buy another piece of art. My official excuse was to see the gallery’s “More Than Meets the Eye” show, which included a recent piece by John Wilson, and a twenty-five year old piece by Ron Telek. But when I saw an artist’s proof of Wayne Young’s “Wolf Clan,” a purchase was more or less inevitable.

For one thing, Wayne Young is an artist on my short list. Having learned his craft under Dempsey Bob and his uncles Robert and Norman Tait, like his cousin Ron Telek, Young displays in his work all the characteristics you would expect – imagination, a strong sense of line, and careful attention to finishing – while still managing to display a distinctive style of his own. One of his prints at the Alcheringa Gallery was one of the few renditions of Dogfish Woman that didn’t descend from Charles Edenshaw’s sketch via Bill Reid. Another print that I saw at the same time showed Raven and the First People without being dependent on Bill Reid’s monumental work; in fact, unless I miss my guess, it shows a mussel or a chiton rather than a clam shell.

Just as importantly, something that always fascinates me about Northwest Coast art is how the design is rearranged and constrained by the surface it is on. A flat design can be wrapped around the handle of a ladle, for instance, or rearranged to fit into a round panel. The challenge to the eye is to pick out the details of the design and identify it while enjoying the intricacy.

In the case of “Wolf Clan,” the shape of the design is reminiscent of an argillite pipe. The compressed space contains three wolves, two full sized and one small one, perhaps a cub. Of the small one, only the head can be identified for sure, although perhaps its body and legs are to the right of it or to the left across the two central S-curves. Possibly, it is a killer whale, representing a clan related to the wolves. The wolves on the end show few clear signs of their bodies, with most of the space given to their heads and tails, and, on the left, a single paw.

What is mildly unusual for Northwest Coast art is that it is asymmetrical, with all three heads both facing the same way, and the right side of the share by two of the heads. The two S-shaped areas in the middle – at least one of which is a tail, and possibly both – also create the optical illusion that one side is shorter than the other. However, which one seems shorter depends on which S-shaped area you focus on, and measurement proves that the two halves are about the same length.

Notice, too, the variation of repeated elements, such as the eyes and pupils of the heads, and the secondary elements that surround the head and eye. Even the teeth vary, with the wolf on the left sporting an incisor and the one on the right none. The small head, by contrast, actually seems to have incisors that curl up In much the same way, the stripes on the tail vary as well. Since contemporary design is asymmetrical, the overall impression is of a modern sensibility, even though all the elements, taken one at a time, are traditional.

Even more unusual is the extraordinary variation in the thickness of the formline, ranging from the thick lines of the wolf snouts and heads to the pen-thickness of the outline of the tail in the middle, and the extreme tapering of some of the secondary elements where they join another line. This variation gives “Wolf Clan” a certain angularity, despite the roundness and the sweeping curves throughout the design. The variety also makes a sense of constrained motion in the design, moving the eye along one line until it catches the next one.

“Wolf Clan” is a small piece but it shows all the strengths of Wayne Young’s work. I have noticed recently that we have a disproportionate amount of Nisga’a works among our purchases, probably because of the bold simplicity that features in that nation’s traditional designs. To that tradition, “Wolf Clan” adds an intricacy that I’m sure will intrigue me for years to come.

wolf-clan-lo-res

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Not too many years ago, you only had to walk down Government Street in Victoria to find more shops selling Northwest Coast art than you could properly absorb in a day. Looking back, I’m not sure of the quality of some of the shops, but they were there. But times are harder, with many store fronts along Government empty, and now you have to search for galleries.

Descending on Victoria yesterday, these are the galleries we managed to find:

  • Art of Man: Located in the mall in the basis of the Empress Hotel, the Art of Man specializes in Inuit and First Nations masks and sculpture. The pieces for sale included four or five from Ron Telek, including a meter high blue shaman (this from an artist who rarely uses color), and a shaman marionette fending off a spirit attacking his foot with other spirits resting in his hand. Daryl Baker, the nephew of the LaFortune brothers Doug, Perry, and Aubrey, is also represented by highly-detailed designs that border on the surreal, and that are all marked by a close attention to finishing details. The Art of Man also seems to get first pick of Tim Paul’s work – so much so that I realize that only his lesser pieces reach Vancouver. Other artists whose work is available at this gallery are John and Luke Marston, whose work shows an awareness of history that I had never realized before that it possessed. In general, the quality of the work at the Art of Man is extremely high, making it by far the premier gallery of Northwest Coast art in downtown Victoria.
  • Hill’s Native Art: Like the Vancouver store, the Victoria Hills is mainly a tourist shop. However, the Victoria store seems to have a slightly better ratio of art to high-end tourist pieces, as though it gets first choice of all the locations. But perhaps this impression is due partly to the fact that it is less crowded and better lit.
  • Alcheringa Gallery: From the web site, I had the impression that this gallery was huge. The reality, though, is that this is a gallery with only a few of its pieces on display – and about half of those are given to works from Papua New Guinea, which is worth seeing, but doesn’t engage my interest the way that the Northwest Coast tradition does. Still, you can see some works by Tim Paul and John Marston there. I was also interested in seeing two works I had seen on the Internet, one by Ron Telek and another by Dean Heron.
  • Pacific Editions: Unfortunately, this story is closed on Mondays, which meant that we walked six blocks out of our way for nothing. But what we could see through the window confirmed the impression I had from the web site: Pacific Prints has a huge collection of limited editions prints. I look forward to spending a happy few hours there the next time I’m in Victoria.
  • Eagle Feather Gallery: A mixture of art and tourist pieces, this gallery is only a block from the Empress Hotel – but on a side street that you may have trouble finding. It specializes in the work of Doug, Perry, and Aubrey LaFortune, especially Doug (in fact, he was due to drop by the day that we visited, although we missed him). Daryl Baker and Pat Amos also have a couple of pieces, while Francis Dick has at least a dozen 2-D works from throughout his career at the gallery. Whether the gallery is worth a visit probably depends on your opinions of these artists, although its stock gives you a good opportunity of evaluating Doug LaFortune thoroughly.
  • Out of the Mist Gallery: This gallery specializes in antiques. Its modern selection is devoted largely to the Hunt family, and includes a few curios like a mask carved by Richard Hunt when he was a teenager, a formal, somewhat stiff print from the start of Beau Dick’s career, and a two meter-long eagle by Roy Henry Vickers. The quality of the antiques is completely indiscriminate, and includes some pieces from across North America. If your taste runs to antiques in Northwest Coast art, you could probably find something to your taste, but the somewhat dim lightning and the bored staff makes the effort hardly seem worthwhile.

As with previous lists I’ve made of galleries, this one makes no effort to be comprehensive. We did not, for instance, have to visit the Provincial Museum’s gift shop, which I seem to remember as having a few art pieces. So if you know of any other galleries in the Victoria area that might be worth a visit, please add a comment and let me know.

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