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Sometimes, you may find an artist whose work you admire, but have trouble finding the exact piece you want to buy. Or maybe the artist is selling privately, and few of their works are available on the open market. In such circumstances, you might consider commissioning a piece – but be sure you know what you’re doing before you go ahead. The financial arrangements, the decisions about the subject matter, and how and when the finished work is delivered all require careful thought before the commission goes ahead.

You can commission art either through a gallery, or directly from the artist. Going through a gallery gives you the advantage of expert advice, and could make getting a refund easier if too many problems arise. It is also considered proper etiquette to go through the gallery if it has introduced the artist to you.

However, one problem with commissioning through a gallery is that you will usually pay more overall. Some galleries, too, are so anxious to preserve their position as go-betweens that they will will go to extraordinary lengths to prevent you from meeting the artist, even with a gallery employee. This attitude means that deciding the subject matter is much more difficult. In fact, in one case, it caused the artist and I – both of whom were originally perfectly willing to observe proper etiquette – to make our own arrangements.

By contrast, a direct commission usually takes less time to arrange. You may receive a price closer to the wholesale price – but don’t count on it. You may also have trouble contacting the artist, although these days so many are on social media that is less of a problem than it was a few years ago.

But the most serious problem with a direct commission – for both you and the artist – is whether you can trust each other. Bad faith and outright theft sometimes happen on both sides of a direct commission, so before any money changes hands, you should learn what you can about the artist’s reputation (if they are experienced, they will be doing the same about you). After all, you could be spending thousands of dollars, and, if something goes wrong, your only recourse may be small claims court.

Whatever way you approach the artist, the subject and the design should be a balance between what you want and the artist’s interests. Personally, I see no reason to commission a standard mask such as a Hamatsa raven or a sculpture based on Raven’s theft of the light unless you have an interesting variation in mind. For me, the whole point of a commission is to get something unusual, and to give the artist a chance to do something the market might not otherwise allow them to do.

For that reason, I like to suggest a general subject or design, and hope that the artist will be intrigued enough to develop it in their own way. If possible, I ask for sketches to approve before the final work begins. What I am looking for is something that both intrigues the artist and will satisfy me.

Before the commission begins, you also need to discuss the financial arrangement. Some artists may expect no money until the commission is finished. However, a more common arrangement is for the buyer to pay one-third when the deal is accepted, one-third when the artist finishes, and one-third after any final adjustments requested by the buyer. This arrangement minimizes any possible loss for the buyer, and compensates the artist for their time if the buyer walks away from the deal.

Another matter you should specify is the approximate delivery time. Despite all the jokes artists make about “Indian time,” an increasingly number of artists these days take a professional attitude and do their best to meet their obligations, but, even so, the emphasis here is on “approximate.” You are dealing with art, not utilitarian manufacture, and by definition artists are perfectionists. As a result, a strict deadline would be almost meaningless even if you insisted on it. With the best of intention, slippage may happen, and, so long as you are kept informed, shouldn’t be a matter for concern unless it drags on indefinitely.

Even if completion is delayed, you may be content to wait. One commission took two years to complete – so long that I sometimes concluded that it would never happen. However, I felt reasonably sure that the artist meant to meet his obligation, and, in the end, he delivered a piece that I regularly describe as breathtaking.

As I said, it all comes down to how much you and the artist trust each other.

Speaking of which, it can’t hurt to write down the terms of the commission and have both you and the artist sign it, especially if the two of you have never worked together. In many cases, though, a commission is a verbal agreement, aside from any receipts you may receive from any gallery involved.

With all these considerations, commissioning can be an exhausting experience – and, sometimes, a harrowing one. So why attempt it? The answer is simple: a commission is a mental collaboration. As the buyer, you may not raise a carving tool or dip a paint brush, yet seeing the completed work can be an exhilarating experience. It gives you a small taste of what the Medicis must have felt as patrons of Renaissance Florence – a mixture of pleasure and pride that, indirectly the piece of work in front of you would never have existed except for you. Despite the many setbacks that can happen, that is an addictive feeling that you can easily come to want again and again.

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At First Nations art galleries in Vancouver, Mitch and Diana Adams have a reputation as an effective sales team. Being the artist, Mitch does much of the talking, but because Diana at one remove from the discussions with gallery owners, she is an astute observer of what is happening, and is actively involved in strategic planning.

Several weeks ago when I was in Terrace for the Freda Diesing School graduation ceremony, I asked her what advice she would give young artists about dealing with galleries. Diana responded in detail as we had dinner at Boston Pizza, with Mitch throwing in the occasional comment.

Diana is able to contribute because of her own lengthy experience in sales. “I grew up in a family restaurant business,” she says, “So selling comes naturally to me. As a waitress, my job was to sell the meal. My favorite situation was when people would go, ‘I don’t know. What do you recommend?’ I’d find out what don’t they want to eat, what’s their budget, what they are allergic to, and take it from there.”

Some of what she knows about sales comes from observing her father. However, Diana has been selling her own bead work for several decades. She still remembers her first effort at a Tupperware-like party, where she sold $450 worth of merchandise, confounding her parents’ expectations.

Since then, Diana and Mitch have sold regularly at music and craft festivals through northern British Columbia. For seventeen years, they have been regulars at the Terrace farmers’ market, during which time they have fine-tuned their partnership in sales.

Preparing and handling anxiety

Some artists, especially established ones, can sell to the major galleries in southwest British Columbia without ever visiting Vancouver or Victoria. However, the business of First Nations arts remains very much a face-to-face proposition, and young artists in particular are more likely to make sales when they talk to a gallery’s buyer directly.

Asked how she approaches selling Mitch’s work to a gallery, Diana emphasizes a strategic approach. “I take it on as though I’m applying for a job,” she says. “I do my background homework. I’ll look at a store or a gallery that I want to deal with. I will go in, and not tell them that I’m looking to sell to them. I will observe how they treat their customers. I’ll also see the quality of what they sell. If they have a pamphlet, I will take one, or Google them on the Internet.” She does not worry much about prices, figuring that is not her concern, but she will note at the quality of what is sold, and how staff treats customers.

The point of this research is to decide whether they want Mitch’s work in that gallery. “What a lot of artists don’t understand,” she says, “is that they have an option of deciding whether this is a gallery to deal with or not. I want to know that I’ll be dealing with someone who is dependable, approachable, fair to deal with, and able to give criticism. If I offer them something they’re not interested in, I want to be able to dialog about it. As much as I might want to be a client of theirs, or leave works on consignment, I need to know that I can have a professional working relationship with them.”

Before approaching a gallery’s buyer, Diana and Mitch discuss what pieces to show, their prices – both the price they want, and a bottom-line figure that they will accept as a last resort – and what to say about each piece. This preparation, she stresses, is absolutely essential. “Gallery owners have told us that’s one of their pet peeves, when artists approach them and they don’t know the price of an item. That’s a death-sentence, right there.”

She also notes that, on an introductory visit, artists can expect a lot of questions. Galleries “want to make sure that you are the artist, and not someone else. If you’re the artist, you would know the answers right down to the details.” Forgery and theft are regular events in local First Nations art, so galleries want an indication that the seller truly is the artist.

Another reason for preparation is that it helps to reduce nervousness. “It’s always nerve-wracking. I’ve done it countless times, but there’s still that excitement and anxiety, because you want to do well. But you can’t be overly anxious or insecure, or you’re going to fall flat on your face.”

Another way to reduce anxiety is to take someone with you. However, Diana immediately adds, “Don’t take anyone who’s going to undermine you. Don’t take anyone who doesn’t know anything about your art or will second-guess you.”

Instead, the second person should be either silent, or an active partner. “There’s been times when Mitch has forgot something,” she says, “but I always give him a chance to speak first. But if he forgets something, I’ll come forward. I’ll look at him, and if I know that he’s done talking, I will say my piece.”

According to Diana, planning not only relieves anxiety, but also helps to present yourself as a professional who is easy to deal with. She suggests role-playing the presentation of your artwork, and even approaching galleries you do not plan to deal with so that you can rehearse and prepare yourself for visits to the galleries you hope to work with.

Making the visit and the first impression

“We don’t expect a sale on first visit,” Diana says. “We hope we make a sale, but the whole point is making contact.

Her emphasis is on professionalism throughout. “Dress as though approaching a job,” she advises, “as though leaving a resume. Make sure that the work is well-presented, not carried in a garbage bag. Because if we have no respect for the art, it’s going to show. We use an artist’s portfolio, because presentation is everything. Some of the people we’ve approached have been quite reserved, but we still put on a professional smile, and say what our purpose is.”

Diana also suggests that body-language is important. “Smile,” she advises. “Have good eye contact [with the buyer]. “Don’t cross your arms. Remember to breathe.”

After the introduction, the actual presentation of the pieces is left to Mitch, on the grounds that as the artist he is the one best qualified to talk about them.. “I try to be halfway through explaining the piece as I hand it to them,” he says.

He also gives some thought to the order of presentation. “What I like to do is not give them my best piece right off the bat. Instead, I lead up to it. And I think they see it, too, that the best piece is still to come. But they’ll be lining the pieces up, and hopefully they’ll be being wowed by the pieces that aren’t the best ones.”

If the discussion turns towards the price of any of the pieces, the Adams’ policy is to hold firm to their original asking price, falling back slowly to their minimum only if they strongly want the sale.

“You can’t be desperate,” Diana says, adding as a warning, “never say to anyone, ‘I’ve got bills to pay.’ Never say that because, really, it has nothing to do with the gallery owner. That’s a form of manipulation. It’s a really poor sales technique, because the person who’s being spoken to feels bad and put on the spot. It leaves a bad taste in their mouth, and makes them want to avoid you in the future.”

Some buyers, according to Diana, will claim to find flaws as a tactic for lowering the purchase price; they should be ignored and not cause you to waver in your price. Others may mention what they perceive as flaws as explanations as to why they are not buying; their criticism can be considered later. In fact, once or twice, Mitch has gained credibility by acting on such criticism and taking a piece back to the criticizer for another look.

Revisiting

Many inexperienced artists are disappointed when they fail to sell after a first visit. Many will give up and avoid that gallery. However, as Diana emphasizes repeatedly, you shouldn’t count on making a sale after a first visit.

In fact, at one gallery, the Adamses visited three times before making a sale. “But we kept going back, introducing ourselves, and reminding the purchasing agent who we were. We didn’t take [rejection] personally; we just thought they weren’t able to purchase.”

The truth is, you may never know why most sales fail. Often, the reason will have little to do with you or the artwork, or only in the most indirect way. For example, “there’s some galleries that only buy big items, and Mitch does only miniatures. We needed to keep that in mind, and not take it personally. There’s no reason to be rude, even when they’re rude; we just stay professional, and thank them for their time.”

After an initial visit, Diana and Mitch discuss the experience, and decide whether they want to continue trying to sell to a particular gallery. Sometimes, they may decide not to return, even if the buyer seemed interested in Mitch’s work, because they have decided to deal with only a limited number of galleries so that they can focus on building long-term rapport.

If they do return for another visit, they prepare for subsequent visits in much the same way as the first. The main difference, Diana says is that “we’re not so tense.”
Also, the introduction may become more personal and friendly. “I try to remember something about that person that they shared with me,” Diana says, such as the birth of a grandchild or a trip they have recently taken. But “the contact is still professional. It’s intimate, but it’s not stepping over a line.”

Trying to sell your work to a gallery can often be difficult and full of anxiety. Unsurprisingly, mistakes can be made. For instance, Diana recalls “one time when Mitch got so nervous that he put his hand over his mouth, and what he was saying came across as very muffled. All I could do was reach over and pull his hand down, and he kind of looked at me like, ‘What are you doing?’ Then he realized what he had done.”

Diana continues, “Some people beat themselves up about moments like that, but there’s nothing you can really do except laugh.” She advises other artists not to dwell on such circumstances, but to focus on being prepared and professional, focusing not just on a first sale, but on a long-term relationship that will also eventually produced a second and a third sale, and many more over their career.

That is the approach that Diana and Mitch are taking, and so far it seems to be working. Listening to their war stories, it is obvious that it hasn’t always worked exactly as they hoped. However, it has worked well enough that Mitch is well on his way to establishing himself as an artist.

Much of the credit is due to his finishing skills and original designs – but at least as much should probably go to the successful sales strategies and partnership that Diana and Mitch have developed. Watch them even once, as I have done, and you’ll know how professionals deal in the world of First Nations art.

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Twenty-years ago, I happened to be in a gallery when a First Nations man was talking to the owner. He was selling copies of a relative’s work – his father, I believe he said. They were loosely rendered works in a style I had never seen before, and I was immediately intrigued. I bought two as birthday presents for my partner, although I had never heard of the artist, Henry Speck. Nor could I find any information about him aside from the fact that he was Kwakwaka’wakw. I concluded that he was a minor figure and that his relative had exaggerated his importance.

Last week, I finally learned more by visiting The Satellite Gallery’s small show, “Projections: The Paintings of Henry Speck, Udzi’stalis”. It turns out that Henry Speck was a Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary chief, fisherman, and artist. While he had been painting since the 1930s, his moment of greatest recognition came in 1964 when the New Design Gallery held an exhibition of his work – an exhibition that was almost unheard of for any First Nations artist at the time. Even Bill Reid, who could be scathingly scornful of anything non-Haida, acknowledged his work as “far beyond anything attempted before in Kwakiutl art” (although, strangely, Reid did not include Speck’s work in his seminal “Art of the Raven” exhibit in 1967).

In other words, Speck is one of the bridges between the decline in traditional First Nations culture and art in the early 1900s and the renaissance that began midway through the same century.

This current show hints more than once that Speck might be considered a modernist, and it is easy to see why. Surrealists and modern artists like Jackson Pollack have been fascinated by the masks and paintings of the Northwest Coast and their obvious sophistication, and have tried to give their impressions of what they saw – usually very poorly, since they had almost no understanding of the artistic traditions they were seeing.

To a degree, Speck’s work is equally impressionistic, obviously sketched in ink or paint, and without the close attention to exact lines and curves that you see in traditional artists today such as Richard Hunt. His work also has individual idiosyncrasies, such as using short parallel lines or rows of irregular circles to fill empty space that – so far as I know – have no antecedent in Kwakwaka’wakw art.

However, the difference between Speck and the mainstream surrealists and moderns is that Speck had at least some understanding of the traditions he was depicting. Consequently, while his art seems less disciplined than that of modern traditional artists, his work does not seem glaringly wrong or poorly-observed so much as individualistic. Like many recent First Nations artists, his work does not fall neatly into either the modern or traditionalist categories, but seems to contain elements of both.

The “Projections” show is disappointingly small, with no more than a dozen original pieces, none of which is larger than 16×20 inches. However, taking the lead from Bill Reid’s observation that Speck’s work seems unnaturally confined at these sizes, and would benefit from being much larger, “Projections” includes a large slide show based on the Speck collection at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary that partly compensates for the lack of originals. Not only was Reid quite right in his observation, but seeing Speck’s work on slides restores the often-faded colors of the originals.

Behind the screen for the slides is a loop of archival footage of Speck and his work. by modern standards, the film clips are often gratingly patronizing, as journalists try to adjust to the idea of a First Nations artist. Is it hard to work in the traditional art, they ask Speck, when as a modern man he can’t believe in what he is depicting, the way he might have a century ago? Does he see a conflict between his subject matter and his own Christianity? But Speck, although unassuming, is far from the naïve native that the journalists assume, and answers with more graciousness than his questioners had any right to expect.

“Projections” is a show that can be easily absorbed in seventy minutes, and I wish it was larger. Yet, even as it is, the show goes some ways towards to restoring Speck to the position he deserves in the history of local First Nations art. And, finally, I have the context for the copies I bought so many years ago.

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Paintings have never been a large part of modern Northwest Coast Art. Since the 1960s, artists have preferred to release limited edition prints instead. Recently, though, this trend has shown signs of changing.

Ever since the 1960s, limited prints have been far more common than paintings. The reason is simple economics: A limited print costs the buyer anywhere from half to one-tenth the price of a painting, which pleases buyers not interested in an investment. If a run of a hundred can be sold, the artist makes much more than they would from a painting – enough, with luck, to allow them to earn a living from their art.

As a result, limited prints have long been the norm in Northwest Coast Art, despite the forgeries that have been periodically discovered. By contrast, artists interested in painting have often found selling their work to galleries difficult. A few exceptions exist, such as Robert Davidson in the last decade, but they are exceptions because of their fame.

A better indication of the status of paintings in Northwest Coast art is the fact that even an artist as accomplished as Lyle Wilson could only manage a show consisting entirely of paintings this year – and at least two-thirds of the pieces were completed decades ago and had never sold. Meanwhile, an artist’s first limited print is still seen as an important step in their career.

However, the days when prints could be counted on to fund an artist’s career are rapidly coming to an end. Hundreds are entering a market that once sustained dozens, thanks in part to the relative cheapness of producing a print from a computer compared to traditional silk screening.

Perhaps as a result, the average price of a print has declined or remained static, with many prints available for well under a hundred dollars unless the artist is well-known. Moreover, where, thirty-five years ago, so-called limited prints could have a release of five or six hundred copies, now releases of a hundred, or fifty, or even twenty have become common, partly to reduce forgery and partly to ensure that artists are not left with a large inventory of unsellable prints.

At the same time, Northwest Coast artists are more closely connected to other schools of art than they have been at any time in the last sixty years. Artists like Dean and Shawn Hunt have succeeded to some extent in selling canvases outside the usual Northwest Coast markets, and new artists – an increasing number of whom have attended art school – are becoming more interested in painting as well. In fact, I know several young artists who began working on canvas and only learned carving and metalwork later.

Whether on wood, paper, or canvas, painting has suddenly become semi-respectable. The Douglas Reynolds Gallery has been showing an increasing number of high-end paintings over the last couple years. Similarly, Lyle Wilson may have had to go to the suburb of Maple Ridge rather than downtown Vancouver to mount his recent Paint show, but the point is he managed to have the exhibit. And, as I write, I have just returned from the Lattimer Gallery’s opening reception for “medium: Painting on Canvas,” an exhibit of over fifteen canvases by both new and leading artists.

Slowly, painting is becoming acceptable in Northwest Coast art. It still has a ways to go – according to Peter Lattimer, for many of the artists in his exhibit, working on canvas was a new and not wholly comfortable experience. But the change is coming, all the same.

Most likely, painting will not replace limited prints. A handful of top artists are still doing well with limited prints, and will probably continue to do so for years. However, a day might come within the next decade when most limited prints are viewed as tourist wares and no longer as fine art.

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Any exhibit by Haisla artist Lyle Wilson is worth seeing. With a career spanning thirty-five years, in media varying from wood to metal and from jewelry to sculpture, Wilson is one of the major figures in Northwest Coast Art, deserving to be mentioned alongside names like Robert Davidson and Dempsey Bob. However, “Paint,” his current exhibit at the Maple Ridge Art Gallery, is more worth lingering over than most.

For one thing, paint is not a medium that is popular in Northwest Coast art. Its place has largely been taken by limited edition prints, despite the fact that many artists experiment with it. Wilson in particular is not known for it, and went so far at the reception as to say that it was a medium that he disliked. However, given that Wilson says in the program book that he has done over seventy paintings in his career – forty of which are on display in “Paint” – and has stored many unsold for decades, this professed dislike should probably be received with some skepticism.

When Wilson talks about painting, especially the superiority of wood rather than canvas or paper, his tone is calm but clearly engaged, so perhaps the lack of a market has more to do with his claim than any personal preference. Wood, as he pointed out when I talked to him, is the traditional medium for most of the painting on the coast, and he agreed that “warmth” was a suitable adjective for describing its effect compared to canvas or paper.

Which brings up another point: unlike Wilson’s “North Star” exhibit three years ago, which was mostly a display of Wilson’s versatility in different media, “Paint” is about tradition and its role in modern art as much as media. This concern is highlighted in pieces like his illuminated map of traditional Haisla territory, or in his word paintings or his designs that include the major crests of the Haisla nation.

Less obviously, it shows in his attempts to trace ovoids and other elements from the northern style of design to the anatomy of local wildlife; for instance, he suggest that ovoids originate in the eyes of the skate fish.

Tradition, shows, too, in the marine life that crowds Wilson’s work. Skate, halibut, octopi, red cod, salmon – always salmon, the mainstay of traditional life – cluster in much of his work, like “Raven and the Fisherman.”

Other designs are closeups of marine life, or designs made from their intertwined bodies. Their predators, such as the raven, eagle, and the heron also appear. More than most local First Nations artists, Wilson is always mindful that the traditional culture was one that harvested the ocean and depended upon it.

Another way to look at “Paint” is from a personal level. A miniature Tsimshian-style house front and moon reflect Wilson’s personal studies.

One or two small paintings are studies for larger works, such as “Orca Chief,” which was the model for the sculpture “Orca Chief” at the Vancouver airport.

The exhibit shows, too, how Wilson mixes contemporary life with his artistic tradition, as in his alphabet or maps – the closest, perhaps, in contemporary culture that he can come to the role of art in Haisla tradition – and in his traditional orca spouting rainbows of color.

Circle the exhibit several times, and you can also start getting a sense of his preferred palette, a muted selection of colors far less vivid than, for instance, that of Robert Davidson. In fact, much of Wilson’s strongest work is black and white, where his control of contrast is as subtle as it is effective.

“Paint” is a show that is as intellectual as it is personal. Thankfully, it is accompanied by a sixty-six page catalog that combines Wilson’s artistic statements with personal memories and the sometimes fragmentary remnants of his culture past, as well as a strong plea for a revival of interest in the Haisla language, which is quickly approaching extinction. Far from being the usual collection of glittering generalities, this is a catalog rich in personal and cultural biography that adds genuine aesthetic and intellectual appreciation to the exhibit itself.

In fact, ideally, anyone interested in Northwest Coast art should attend the exhibit, then take the catalog home and read it slowly and carefully in preparation for a second, more informed visit (which is what I hope to do myself, even though Maple Ridge is a ninety minute bus ride away). But even if you can only manage one trip, “Paint” is a major show by a major artist, and you are sure to come away with a stronger sense not just of the artist and his art, but also of the culture behind them.

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Gwaai Edenshaw was long overdue for a solo exhibit. Both a goldsmith and a traditional carver, he is an artist’s artist, and his work is in popular demand. However, for his first exhibit, he has chosen to emphasize another aspect of his work: his graphite and ink drawings, and their role in his artistic process. “Sounds Good on Paper,” currently at the Petley Jones Gallery, does include some his work in gold, but largely to illustrate the importance of his preliminary drawing in his jewellry.

With this theme, the show’s catalog inevitably chooses “The Dreamer” as the piece on the cover. The piece is not only an obvious choice for the theme of the artistic process, but for Gwaai himself (to use the name with which he signs his work). The cartoon style is a reminder of his animation prototypes for teaching the Haida language, and the rings on the hat, a sign of high status in traditional culture an indication of the importance of art among the Haida today. At the same time, the doodles around the margin, as rough as they are, have a non-traditional look. Also, to anyone who has sat down with Gwaai for any length of time, they are a reminder of his constant doodling.

Other pieces in the show emphasize Gwaai’s different traditions and influences. Some, like “Kagan Dajangwee,” are slightly stiff exercises in the northern First Nations style, with their formline and cross hatching:

Others, like “Nanasimget,” a depiction of an Orpheus-like figure in Haida mythology, look like a two-dimensional rendering of a metal casting (and, perhaps not coincidentally, are reminiscent of some of the sketches of Bill Reid, Gwaai’s mentor when he was a teenager):

At the opposite extreme are more mainstream pieces. “Ts’aahl Girl” (Eagle Girl), for instance, combines realism with a touch of whimsy:


Similarly, the two studies of Gagiid, the Haida wildman whose lower face is pierced by the spines of the sea-urchins he is forced to eat after being castaway, bear a distinct resemblance to Gollum as portrayed by Andy Sirkis in The Lord of the Rings:

This movement between traditional Haida culture and urban industrial life – so effortless that it includes analogies – suggest the position of the modern First Nations artist. For those of us who have met him, it also seems very typical of Gwaai’s wide-ranging mind.

Some of the most interesting pieces in the show offer a glimpse of the creative process.For example, “Detail: The Two Brothers Pole” shows the precision-drafted plans for a pole that Gwaai recently completed with his brother Jaalen, and a view of the raised pole. The pole is located in Jasper National Park, and was a replacement for a repatriated pole that was appropriated from the Haida in 1907 and that is often attributed to Charles Edenshaw:

A more personal glimpse of the relation between sketches and other media is provided by “Sons of Djillaquon” and the gold pendant “Sons of Djillaquons:”

Both the sketch and the pendant are powerful works in their own right, but together they illustrate what is gained and lost in the transfer between media, as well as the limitations of each. It is this relationship that makes the oxymoron title of “Sounds Good on Paper” a suitable title for the exhibit.

Casual observers might be tempted to to describe “Sounds Good on Paper” as a minor show. And, in one sense, they would be right: most of what is displayed are not the pieces for which Gwaai has rightfully gained his growing reputation.

Yet such a view would also be short-sighted. More than anything else, “Sounds Good on Paper” is a very personal show. It displays many different aspects of Gwaai’s personality – probably not all –and offers a tantalizing hint or two of his creative process and his interest in different media.

My only regret is that the show couldn’t include some examples of Gwaai’s argillite prototypes for his jewellry. Placed beside the finished jewellry, these prototypes could have provided yet another perspective on the concerns of the show.

However, even without this touch, “Sounds Good on Paper” remains interesting both aesthetically and psychologically. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an exhibit that shows so much of the artist without a hint of arrogance.

Asked the day after the opening what I thought of the exhibit, my first response was, “It’s very Gwaai.” Having had a few more days to think, I still that response the most accurate I could have given.

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The last time I saw a Robert Davidson retrospective was his Eagle of the Dawn show in 1993. Back then, all I knew about Northwest Coast Art was that I liked it. But, having learned a little since then, I appreciated the Surrey Art Gallery’s “Eagle Transforming: The Prints of Robert Davidson” as a chance to put my thoughts about Davidson’s work in some sort of order.

My superficial impression has always been that Davidson’s prints have changed dramatically in the last forty-two years. However, my second time around the gallery, I started to see the continuities.

For instance, from the start of his career, Davidson’s formlines have varied dramatically in thickness. He is especially fond of long tapers at the end of a line, such as the end of a feather, or at the end of elongated fingers or claws. Because of this habit, his formlines keep the eye moving far more than most artists’, which would account for the sense of movement in many of his designs.

Frequently, too, Davidson promotes red from the secondary to the primary formline color (although he uses a brighter red now than when he started), sometimes omitting black altogether, or else using it as the background for a print. When he does use a traditional black formline, he often used red as the primary formline on limbs or figures inside a larger one.

In addition, from very early in his career, Davidson has looked for unusual shapes to contain his designs. Although working in an art tradition that tends towards the symmetrical, Davidson often makes his designs asymmetrical. He is perfectly capable of a traditionally symmetrical design, as in “Eagle: Oliver Adan’s Potlatch Gift,” but his symmetrical designs have a stiffness (or perhaps a formality) that his other work does not. You might almost think that his symmetrical designs were exercises – and not wholly successful exercises, at that. Other artists succeed with symmetrical designs, but Davidson, I would suggest, is not strongly interested in them.

Accompanying the asymmetry is a search for form. A few years into his print designs, Davidson is already projecting his design on to a whale fin. Circular designs are also frequent in his work, both confining shapes and appearing as negative spaces in such works as the 1987 “Seven Ravens.” I was surprised not to see many split forms in the exhibit, but perhaps the reason is that split forms tend to be symmetrical by definition.

This interest in irregular and different shapes has served Davidson well over the years. “Butterflies,” printed in 1977, escapes the potential banality of its subject by placing the design into two circles. Similarly, a hummingbird design from a couple of years later avoids the usual cuteness of the subject by making it a stocky creature with wings attached to powerful shoulders.

Davidson’s least successful works? Those with extensive areas of cross-hatching, which work well in engraved metals or on carved wood, but tend to look unfinished in a print – especially since Davidson does little to vary them.

Nor is Davidson at his best with more than a few colors. Davidson’s palette is relatively small. In addition to red and black, it includes a royal blue and a turquoise. But, when he ventures beyond these four colors, the result can seem garish rather than bold, which may be why his color choice remains relatively cautious.

For me, one result of seeing so much of Davidson’s work side by side is that I now realize that his movement towards abstraction in the last decade is less of a break than I had previously thought. I knew, of course, that he had continued to do more traditional works while doing his annual prints, but I had tended to view the abstractions as facile works – as small ideas printed large to lend them an interest that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

I still think of these abstractions, which often take the form of closeups of a small part of a larger design, as working against themselves, because they expect the eye to linger when the basic tenets of the tradition have the effect of keeping the eye moving. However, even though I consider them unsuccessful, I can see now that they are a natural extension of interests that he has had all along.

My only complaint about the exhibit as a whole is that, by including only prints, it robs the individual pieces of part of their context. Davidson is a carver and jewelry-make as well as a print designer, and, to my eye, many of the prints in the show show the influence of these other media (for example, the cross-hatching).

However even with this omission, “Eagle Transforming” is well-worth a few hours and several trips around it. If you are like me, you will only notice some aspects on the second or third viewing.

And to those visitors who left comments saying that they don’t care much for Northwest Coast Art, all I can say is that they are barbarians who don’t know fine art when they are confronted by it. For myself, the only reason that I don’t look forward to the day when some of Davidson’s designs join Bill Reid’s on Canadian currency is that, when that day comes, he will probably be dead, and then we will have nothing new from him to admire.

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