Archive for the ‘West Coast art’ Category

Northwest Coast art has a new medium. It’s called forton, and it’s a mixture of gypsum, fiberglass and plastics, and has the advantages of being non-toxic, lightweight, weather resistant, and capable of imitating anything from marble to plaster or bronze. So far, you can see the largest collection of sculptures in forton in Vancouver at the Douglas Reynolds Gallery, including one cast from James Hart’s Celebration of Bill Reid pole that was officially presented to the public on December 5.

The Celebration of Bill Reid pole is a permanent fixture at the Bill Reid Gallery in downtown Vancouver. Carved by James Hart with the help of Ernest Swanson, Tyson Brown, Carl Hart, and GwaLiga Hart, the pole is topped by a raven whose chest is a stylized version of Bill Reid’s face. Through the Douglas Reynolds Gallery, eighteen copies of the raven are being made in forton – six imitating plaster, and 12 bronze, including three artist proofs.

Hart spoke briefly at the launch, arriving after the crowd had already gathered and was well into the buffet and wine. A tall man with long gray hair, he wore a bright Guatemalan jacket and carried a string of trade beads in his hands that someone gave him as he came in the door. He walked with a stoop and a slight hesitation. As he stood halfway up the stairs in the gallery, he was surprisingly soft-spoken for a well-known artist who is also a chief.

Hart spoke briefly about the pole and its intent to honor Bill Reid. He explained that he not only learned carving from Reid, but how to survive in the city, including such details as how to use an elevator, something he had rarely encountered in his rural youth. Turning to the plaster raven in the corner, he emphasized that it was a white raven, a representation of the trickster before he stole the moon and was singed black in his effort to escape with it through the smoke hole.

Afterwards, I managed to talk briefly to him as he mingled with the crowd. He said that the project was his first effort to work in forton, and that he liked the way it could be carved and was resistant to weather. He also expressed his enthusiasm for the new medium and designs that younger artists from all the local first nations were developing the traditional art forms.

Until the new raven cast, most of the works in forton that I’ve seen were done by Don Yeoman at the Douglas Reynolds Gallery. However, Reynolds mentioned the side of a house in Whistler that recently had several dozen forton panels added to one side, and I suspect that any artists who encounter it are likely to be as interested in it as Hart seemed to be.

One look at the cast and you can understand why. Made from a mold of the cedar original, the pseudo-plaster cast picks up so much detail that you can actually see the wood grain and tool marks in it. With forton offering so many benefits and no drawbacks so far as I can discover, I strongly suspect that, just as local first nations artists adopted to argillite a century and half ago and glass in the last few decades, many are going to seize on forton as yet another medium for their work.

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Patrick Amos is one of the leading Nuu Chah Nulth artists. From the first time I saw his work, I knew it was only a matter of time before I bought something by him. However, until I was browsing the Quintana Galleries web site about six weeks ago, I hadn’t found the right piece. There, I saw his acrylic on paper “Supernatural Wolf Transforming into Killer Whale,” which appealed in so many different ways that I immediately contacted the gallery before anyone else could snap it up.

I assume (but haven’t been able to verify yet) that the piece refers to a myth apparently shared by both the Nuu Chah Nulth and Haida nations of a great wolf that was such a savage and wasteful hunter that shamans transformed it into a killer whale so that it would not de-populate the animals of the land. This is a story that I have never seen depicted in art before, which gives the piece an immediate interest for me – I mean, Raven stealing the light is a powerful story, but it’s as common in Northwest Coast art as Madonnas and crucifixions are in European Renaissance art. I simply like to see my imagination stirred by a story less often told.

However, “Supernatural Wolf” is also an office in the important Wolf Society, although why one should be transforming into an orca isn’t clear to me.

At any rate, transformation is a subject that often brings out the best in many Northwest Coast Artists, and this piece is no exception. Amos’ acrylic shows the wolf twisted in the throes of transformation – throes that seem all the more agonizing as it struggles in the confines of the circle.

At the moment depicted, the most obvious sign of the transformation is the dorsal fin on the wolf’s back that it is evidently twisting to see (and maybe bite). However, at a second look, the wolf’s head is also sprouting the fin that is one of the killer whale’s distinguishing features in Northwest Coast Art. Moreover, if you look closely, one front leg may be changing into a flipper, while the other, with toes that seem elongated compared to the hind foot beside it, seems to have just started to change. The tail, too, is presented in a three-quarters view that makes it look flat, and more an orca’s flukes than a wolf’s brush.

An additional indication of change may be the irregular and asymmetrical shapes that make up the wolf’s legs. They give a strong contrast to the wolf’s body, which exists only in outline, except for the two stars that perhaps suggest the wolf’s spirit, remaining unchanged despite the physical transformations that arre happening.

For me, the piece is all the more effective because it is in stark white and black. Not everybody appreciates black and white or grayscale these days, which may be why the piece languished in the gallery for a while. Personally, though, I have always felt that, with the right subject, a lack of primary colors makes for boldness and drama, which is certainly the case here.

One additional note: The small mark in the lower right is a finger print, presumably Pat Amos’. The gallery was apologetic about this flaw, but I was more philosophical. Your eye is hardly drawn to it, after all. Besides, if I ever wanted to establish provenance, I shouldn’t have any trouble (to which the employee I was dealing with replied that you could have no doubt that Amos had a hand in the work).


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In the last few weeks, I’ve realized that my fascination with Northwest Coast art goes back further than I originally thought.

When I was seven or eight, I was mad for mythology. I started with Greek and Roman mythology, and, before I was ten, I’d worked steadily through Egyptian, Norse and every other coherent set of tales that I could get my hands on.

Part of that mix was various North American First Nation tales, and, most of all, stories from the Northwest Coast. All myth fascinated me indiscriminately, but Northwest Coast myth was special, even in the fragmented retellings for children that were – and still are – the most common form of presentation. Unlike the other mythologies, they were about places I had seen, or at least could travel to in a day or two.

That gave them a special interest and grounding in reality that even the Greek and Norse myths – my other two favorites – could never hope to match.

One off-shoot of this interest was that, while at four I was dressing up as a cowboy with chaps and cap guns, four years later I was pleased at souvenirs that included a bamboo spear with a rubber point, and a Plains-style headdress that draped my face with artificial raccoon tails. Watching westerns, I started cheering for the Indians. They had imaginative mythologies, and the cowboys had none.

At about ten, I also started buying my first pieces of art: souvenir totem poles made in Japan and China. Even then, I knew that their straight lines and garish colors showed no real knowledge of what they were representing, and that they shouldn’t be sold alongside tipis, but, so far as I knew, they were all that were available. Better, to my childish mind, an inadequate souvenir than none at all.

My aesthetic sense took a slight turn upward when my father brought home a raven graphic he had designed at work to go on the panels of a phone booth for some special event. It was a simple design, black and white, with the raven’s head turned to the right and the wings and feet symmetrical. I suspect now that it was copied from some other design, since so far as I know, my father had no interest in Northwest design. Probably, it showed no more understanding of form than another special booth he did for Vancouver Chinatown, in which his efforts to improve the characters ended up making them illegible, but it did include authentic U-shapes and ovoids, however unimaginatively they were depicted. I loved it, displaying first a version on cardboard then one on plastic for years in my bedroom.

Enough interest remained that when Trish and I went shopping for engagement rings, we quickly dubbed the conventional ones tacky and unimaginative and went shopping for Northwest Coast designs. People laugh now when we tell them that we bought our engagement rings at the Vancouver Museum and Planetarium, but, back then, the first Northwest Coast art galleries hadn’t appeared, and you could buy Bill Reid and Roy Vickers limited edition prints in the gift shop, as well as high quality silver jewelry.

Unfortunately, in those days, we weren’t much interested in the names of the artists, and now, years of daily wear have effaced the signatures inside – to say nothing of much of the detail of the designs.

Over the next few years, we bought a few limited edition prints, including one by Clarence Wells and several by Richard Hunt, and always we were thrilled to afford some real art (the memory of those souvenir totem poles were haunting me with embarrassment). But our purchases became fewer and fewer over the years, partly because of periods of poverty and partly because other interests and priorities intervened.

Then, well-sunk in middle-age, I realized that I could finally afford the bracelet I had always wanted – and did so. Within a few months, my old interest came rushing back. I started frequenting galleries. Looking at the prints on our walls, I found many of them formal and fussy compared to what was being done today. I began reading the available information about the myths, finding it hard to track down and almost as incomplete as the retellings I had read as a child, but tantalized all the same.

Now, as I write, the art-fever is on my more fiercely than ever. I suppose that the interest will taper off eventually, but maybe not — no sooner can we afford a modest piece than it seems that two or three others worth having hove into our attention. But, far from being a recent whim or interest, it’s really an interest that goes back to the days of my earliest literacy and imaginative awakening.

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My friend Bob Ley has been an art collector as long as I’ve known him. The office where he practices psychology is carefully decorated with unique paintings and antiques – mostly modernist, with a tendency to primitivism and abstracts, but all of them a welcome change from the endless reprints of 19th century impressionists or the bland corporate art visible elsewhere. “I’ll never understand why my friends will pay $100 for a print of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and then another $400 for the frame,” he says, “When for the same price they could get an original work of art.” After my purchase of a custom West Coast bracelet a couple of weeks ago, I know what he means.

Buying original art may be expensive, but it’s also very satisfying. For one thing, in West Coast art, at least, it means experiencing another level of quality. I’ve long been aware of the vast difference in quality between the bracelets and masks in tourist shops in Vancouver and the true art galleries; you don’t need the price difference to see the difference in quality. But when you enter the world of custom art, you discover a new standard altogether. It’s not that the art galleries are full of shoddy work, or that you can’t find quality pieces in the tourist shops if you search carefully. Rather, there’s a freshness in custom work that you don’t usually see in designs knocked off for the tourist shops, or even for limited editions. Custom work tends to engage the artist in ways that other work doesn’t, simply because it’s unique.

For another, when you commission an original piece of art, you experience the pleasure of being a patron. Besides the beauty of the piece itself, you have the pleasure of knowing that, if not for you, the piece wouldn’t have come into existence. The artist, of course, is the primary creator, but, as patron, you have a minor secondary role. On a small scale, you can glimpse why Lorenzo de’ Medici was such an enthusiastic supporter of artists.

Even more importantly, you can view new art with a clean eye, in a way that’s rarely possible with works firmly enshrined in the canons of great art. Short of a radical step such as the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, I doubt that anyone can appreciate works from the high renaissance like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in the same way that people in the sixteenth century could. We’ve not only seen these works too often, but we’ve been told too often what to think of them. While some appreciation can be gained by seeing such works in person as opposed to in a print or an illustration, for the most part we’ve lost the power to see these works for themselves. With newer, less familiar works, we can still see the accomplishment for themselves.

This ability is important, because living with art enriches and relaxes us. A room designed by an architect of genius is simply a comfortable place to live or work, although many people would be hard-pressed to notice or tell you why. A room decorated with art that you can still see with fresh eyes has much the same effect. Both are at the opposite end of the spectrum from public institutions with deliberately mediocre art. What’s more, such rooms become more comfortable as people spent more time relaxed in them; the way we use room really can create an impression or aura that we can respond to (which is why I don’t frequent the coffee shop in the old gatehouse of the BC Penitentiary – there’s been too much misery, however justified, in the place for it ever to be a place I’d care to linger).

In the same way, with my new bracelet, I walk a little straighter and my stride has a bit more of a bounce because I am always aware of its weight on my arm, and the way it catches the light. Moreover – even better than an artistic room or a room full of art – I carry the bracelet with me, and can enjoy a closer look at the design whenever I want.

That, really, is the ultimate pleasure in commissioning a new piece of art for yourself: You not only have a unique relation to it, but your life is broadened by an appreciation of something breathtaking and new.

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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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