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In the renaissance of Northwest Coast art, the story of how Raven stole the light is the equivalent of the Madonna and Child in classic European art: sooner or later, most artists produce at least one version of it. Several years ago, I bought Bill Hudson’s version of the story, which shows Raven opening a box labeled Sun Crispies as he sits down at a kitchen table. Now, in James Crawford’s “Raven Steals the Lightbulb – Unscrewed,” I have found another modern updating of the story.

If anyone knows one story from the local First Nations, it is the story of how Raven stole the light from the chieftain who held in locked in his chest. Raven turns himself into a pine-needle and has himself swallowed by the chieftain’s daughter so he can be born as her son. The chieftain dotes on his grandchild, and one day gives him the light as a toy – and Raven promptly flees with it, burning himself black as he escapes through the smokehouse of the longhouse, and scattering the sun, moon, and stars, accidentally creating the world as we know it. With variations, the story is told in many different cultures. Usually, the depiction has Raven holding a sphere of light in his beak as he flees.

Crawford gives a modern rendering of this familiar scene. It is evidently a supernatural light bulb, since it appears to be still radiating light after being unscrewed, and in the upper left is what might be the rising sun. Raven looks mischievously pleased with his theft, or perhaps with the updating of the well-known scene.

However, the print is more than a one-punch piece. Instead, it is one of Crawford’s experiments with lino block prints: images that are carved, then inked and used as a stamp. It is a seldom used technique, although Stan Bevan, one of Crawford’s instructors at the Freda Diesing School, released at least one block print of his own. The effect is totally unlike any other medium, with irregular lines, and an often blocky appearance. It reminds me of the woodcuts in books from the 16th and 17th Centuries, which used a similar technique. The result gives Crawford’s print the eerie impression of being an artifact from some alternate universe in which the local First Nations had European-style printed books.

Needless to say, block prints require tremendous care when they are printed, especially when more than one color is used. Consequently, the print is small, roughly 12 by 25 centimeters. However, the effect is so appealing to my eye that I plan to buy some of Crawford’s other block prints – and to keep an eye on his work in other media as well.

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I missed the 2016 Freda Diesing School’s graduate exhibit, so attending this one meant all the more for me. The moment I walked into the campus longhouse, with its carvings, natural light and high ceilings, I immediately felt at ease. Within moments, I was circling around the exhibit, trying to get pictures while staying one step ahead of the crowd.

This year’s show included a skillful piece by instructor Dean Heron, an alumnae of the first graduating class. I was glad to see it; focusing on his teaching, Dean does far less carving that I would prefer.

However, the emphasis was on the students’ work. The classes of 2017 were some of the stronger ones of recent years, with several outstanding graduates of the program and a promising collection of first year students. I found myself dividing the pieces displayed into those whose main appeal was their painting, and those whose appeal combined both painting and carving.

It takes a steady hand to paint convincingly – a steadier one than I have ever had – and the exhibit included several examples. Joseph Campbell, Lorraine Wolf, and Roger Smith all hung portrait masks with a steady hand and palettes of primary colors. In her moon mask, Kari Morgan took another direction with a minimalist white that put the emphasis on the finish of the wood and her carving.

More exotic were Sage Novak’s “Ghost Mask” and Violet Gatensbury’s “Fire Mask,” which blended paint skillfully into the wood and also featured rows of beads on the mask.

Among those with both strong painting and carving were Raven LeBlanc’s Dogfish mask, which rapidly went on my shortlist of possible purchases.

Similarly, Amanda Hugon showed her skill and versatility with her Tsimshian-like “Great Canadian Beaver” mask and Salish Moon Mask.”

However, the standouts in the show were Reuben Mack and Jaimie Katerina Nole. Mack submitted two Nuxalk-style masks,and only his absence from the crowd kept me from asking if they were for sale:

 

By contrast, Nole submitted three masks in three very different styles: the “Don’t Froget Me” frontlet, the “Trickster Flow” portrait mask, and the “Princess Luna” moon mask.

With an unlimited budget, I could have willingly bought most of these masks, assuming they had been for sale. However, since my parents refused to let me be born rich, I could only buy Nole’s “Princess Luna” – to my eye the pick of the show In fact, it caught my attention from across the floor as I stepped into the exhibit, and within twenty minutes, I was begging to buy it.

All these masks, and possibly more, are scheduled to be in the 2017 Northern Exposure show opening on May 27 at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver. If you have an interest in First Nations art, take the time to have a look at them in person. Even if you don’t buy, the pleasure of seeing what has become one of the biggest yearly exhibits in British Columbia is too great to miss. Believe me, I won’t make the mistake of missing it again – and neither should you.

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I first became aware of the work of Heiltsuk artist Kc Hall’s when I saw a tattoo he designed on Facebook. Instantly, I put him on the short list of young artists I wished to buy from.

It was not just the graffiti style. These days, half the newer artists seem to playing with similar styles, and, while I like the idea of First Nations artists doing something new, many graffiti-inspired works frankly seem to me tiresome and lacking inspiration.

However, Hall’s work is not like that. I could tell at once that he was well-grounded in traditional work. Later, I was not at all surprised to learn that he had designed the vests given to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge when they visited recently (an assignment for which he drew some sharp criticism from those who imagine that artists share the politics of their patrons), because his graffiti style – or styles, I should say, to be more exact – show a knowledge of tradition that is often missing from modernist works. Unlike many working in similar styles, Hall knows what he is playing with in h is modern work.

So, although Hall seems incredibly busy, both with canvases and tattoo designs, last summer I commissioned a work from him and took it home from the Starbucks at New Westminster station after a pleasant talk about local art punctuated by the arriving and departing Skytrains.

After some discussion, Hall painted “Happy Mess,” a colorful canvas that breaks just about every traditional aspect imaginable. To start with, it is not confined to a primary color of black and a secondary red, with perhaps a third blue. Nor is it symmetrical, as most First Nations designs are, nor even a hint of a formline.

Instead, as the title indicates, the painting is a collection of random traditional elements spill across the page at an angle. Only an analytical eye is likely to notice that it is a series of interlocking triangles, with objects at each angle, subtly structuring the apparent randomness.

The objects themselves are often traditional. The rectangles with faces are borrowed from Chilkat weaving, while the hat is a traditional cedar one, painted with what looks like a traditional black raven. Meanwhile, the central part of the painting appears to be primarily a view up a pole from directly beneath, but also doubles as the fin of a killer whale with the blowhole transformed into what could almost be the Rolling Stones’ lip logo, and is held together by  what looks like a buttoned collar halfway up. And among these elements are arrows of two different sizes that would be more at home in a flow chart. There is even a stylized black blob, as if the artist left an accident uncorrected.

Add the cartoon clouds, and the overall impression is of an artist having fun with forms. The result is completely different from almost anything else in my collection, yet, because Hall knows the traditions he plays with, one that still manages to fit with the paintings around it. I have considered one day commissioning a traditional piece from Hall to hang beside it, but, until I do, it hangs at the entrance to my living room, where it never fails to get a reaction from my visitors.

kchall.png

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I have always had misgivings about trigger warnings, the labels for movies and books that are supposed to allow the traumatized to avoid any unpleasantness. To my way of thinking, they are a presumption, a judgment on an artist’s work that is all too likely to be based on an out-of-context summary or an arrogance like that of an American complaining about being unable to get a hamburger on a gluten-free bun in Paris. I have started to explain my reaction once or twice, but never got around to finishing the explanation – which is a good thing, because recently I discovered that A. E. Housman had made a much more graceful explanation than anything I had drafted.

These days, A. E. Housman is not a fashionable poet. He wrote largely in ballad-like quatrains, often affecting a kind of pastoralism, neither of which fits into modern poetic conventions, and he is usually discredited as not being a profound thinker. Yet, despite this reputation, he retains a certain popularity, and school anthologies often include his poems “To an Athlete Dying Young” or “With rue my heart is laden.”

Housman’s tone is often melancholy, if not world-weary. Apparently, he was well-aware of the fact, since he wrote explaining his own defense of his tone. His defense appears in the poem known by its first line as, “Terence, this is stupid stuff” – Terence being the imaginary shepherd who wrote Housman’s poems.

The poem opens with Terence’s friends comically complaining about his music, and pleading with him to play something happier. Terence replies that he enjoys a drunken carouse himself, when “the world seemed none so bad, / And I myself a sterling lad.” But the trouble is, when he wakes in the morning, he realizes that “the tale was all a lie” and all that is left was to return to the daily routine.

Under the circumstances, although:

the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would.

Hearing his melancholy, Terence goes on to say, his friends might find something to sustain them when the inevitable time comes when they are troubled in their own lives.

To reinforce his point, Terence makes a comparison with Mithridates, the great enemy of Rome in Caesar’s day. According to legend, to avoid assassination, Mithridates gradually accustomed himself to various poisons, until he had developed an immunity to them, confounding his enemies as he swallowed the arsenic and strychnine they slipped him without any effect.

Houseman does not belabor the point, ending simply with, “I tell the tale that I heard told, / Mithridates, he died old.” However, the implication is clear enough: Just as Mithridates developed an immunity to poison by taking small doses, by first facing the gloomy parts of life second-hand through art, people better prepare themselves for the inevitable time when they face similar experiences in their lives.

In other words, unlike those who favor trigger warnings, Housman does not believe that art is simply for enjoyment, or – I might add – to please members of the audience by reinforcing their viewpoint. In fact, to do so is to present a false view of the world. Instead, the purpose of art in Housman’s view is to prepare people for life, and that means dealing with subjects that are sometimes distasteful and uncomfortable.

Housman does not mention catharsis, the purging of emotion and the sense of renewal that comes from tragedy. However, the concept fits well with what he does say, suggesting yet again that what matters is the interaction between the audience and art.

Reading Housman, I realized that those who favor trigger warnings are like the people for whom music is what Frank Zappa called “aural wallpaper” – something in the background of their lives that reinforced their existing conceptions and left them unchallenged. But for me (and, I suspect, Housman), the point of art is not to reinforce prejudice, but to experience life from the artist’s perspective. The perspective may be troubling, and in the end you may reject it as false or offensive, but, even then, your experience does you more good than simply hearing what you prefer to hear.

Not that there is anything wrong with light entertainment. Most of us, if we are being honest, prefer light entertainment at least some of the time. But the limitation of trigger warnings is that they imply that is all there is to art, and that is an over-simplification, and as much a lie as Terence’s joys of drinking.

Yes, experiencing art that is challenging can be unpleasant, and sometimes more than you can endure. Yet I can’t help remembering that, more than any other generation of soldiers, those who fought in World War I resorted to poems and fiction as a way to endure the realities of war. In the same way, I recall a man in a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic who survived a storm by singing Stan Rogers’ “The Mary Ellen Carter,” with its refrain of “Rise Again!” over and over. I did much the same in the first days after being widowed. And when I think of such examples, I suspect that advocating trigger warnings, far from sparing people pain, in the long run deprives the traumatized and risks doing them serious damage, like parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated.

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I always appreciate recognizing talent before anybody else. What interests me is not so much the potential for a piece done early in an artist’s career to increase in value (since I never sell what I buy) so much as the satisfaction of recognizing talent before anyone else. So when Kelly Robinson, one of my favorite Northwest Coast artists, told me in December that he was teaching his brother Randall to carve, I was immediately interested in the results. And, given his selection of materials and the finish on “Rainwater,” in Randall James Robinson’s case I am already experiencing that satisfaction in the reactions of those who see the mask.

“Rainwater” is one of Robinson’s first masks. The carving is relatively simple, but a good choice for the material. The mask is carved from spalted alder – that is, alder infected with a fungus that discolors the wood. The discoloration apparently does not photograph well, and is actually much smoother-looking than it appears to be in the photo below, but the point is that the spalting is so interesting in itself that too-elaborate carving would be a distraction, especially since the spalting’s long lines of discoloration suggests long trails of rain running down the mask.

Robinson tells me that he got the wood from Gordon Dick, the carver and owner of the Ahtsik Gallery near Port Alberni, who produced the spalting, but found that it set off allergies when he tried to carve it.

Robinson is carving in the Nuxalk style. The Nuxalk have traditions that are vastly different from those of the northern first nations, such as the Haida, Nishga’a,Tsimsian, Tahltan. If I understand correctly, one of the major Nuxalk ceremonies is the thunder dance, which celebrates “the greatest of the supernatural beings in Nuxalk culture.” The thunder dance tells of four brothers’ encounter with the spirit of thunder on a lonely hillside, and is apparently the origin story of a major Nuxalk family.

I have seen the thunder dance performed several times by Latham Mack, who has carved a couple of thunder masks. However, I have never seen the rain-water dance, which is performed before the thunder dance. During the rainwater dance, the dancers sprinkle those watching with water as cleansing ritual. “It’s the bringer of rain before the thunder,” Robinson tells me, meant “to cleanse the earth before thunder.”

Since the entire coast is a rain forest from the American border to Prince Rupert and beyond into Alaska, a rain spirit seems only appropriate to a local culture. In the same way, “Rainwater”’s use of spalting to portray that rain spirit is a choice that speaks well of Robinson’s developing artistic sensibilities. Like any newcomer, Robinson has endless hard work and learning ahead of him in order to have an artistic career, but this early effort suggests that he has the talent to succeed if he chooses.

rr

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Sheldon Steven Dennis is a Tahltan artist who graduated from the Freda Diesing School in 2010. He’s been on my short list of artists to buy from ever since, and a few weeks ago I finally bought copies of what I consider his best work, “The Dance of the Bear Dog.”

The print honors the Tahltan bear dog, which officially became extinct about fifty years ago. Dog owners are now trying to recreate the species from crossbreeds. Whether this effort is an honest effort or a scam is a matter of dispute, but you can understand why the idea captures people’s imagination.

About half a meter high, the Tahltan bear dog was mostly black, with erect ears and a tail that has been described as a shaving brush. Double-jointed, they were able to move quickly through the forest.
Hunters carried the dogs in packs on their back, releasing them to surround the bear and distract it with their yaps and attacks until the hunters caught up. At home, they were known for the gentleness as well as their loyalty and intelligence.

Dennis’ print shows the moment when the hunters and the dogs have surrounded the bear, which is huddled in the middle of the design, its claws bristling and red, as though it has drawn blood, but its open mouth and lolling tongue suggesting that it is tiring. The human faces are set in grimaces of exertion, while the dogs are crouched low with an intentness as though they are keeping close watch on the bear and are ready to leap out of the way if attacked.

The design is striking for its limited use of red as a secondary color, which makes its uses on the mouths and the bear’s claws all the more striking. It is a darker red than is usually seen in northern designs, suggesting the blood being shed by all those involved in the hunt.

The form lines, too, are particularly interesting, with the thin lines of the hunters’ chins suggesting vulnerability in contrast to the thick, powerful lines of the bear’s body. By contrast, the strength of the dogs’ bodies is suggested by two thick ovoids, while the relative thinness of the legs suggesting agility.

However, what makes the design so effective is the crowded, concentric circles of action. Many northern designs, especially modern ones, are defined as much by their white space as the design, but Dennis has chosen a busy dance that reflects the chaos of the hunt. This chaos is suggested even further by the way that the outer abstract ring gives way to to the second ring of hunters and dogs, which in turn gives way to the asymmetrical design of the bear and hunters that spirals down as though descending into a drain.

Dennis’ accomplishment is to suggest a rarely seen sense of movement and action while using nothing but traditional forms – a combination that makes the description of the moment as a “dance” a precise choice of words.

Dennis is not a prolific artist. The fact that much of his work is apparently for family and ceremonial  purposes makes his works for sale even rarer. As a result, the pieces available for sale are relatively few. However, on the strength of “The Dance of the Bear Dog,” I will be watching eagerly for more to buy.

tahltan-bear-dogs

 

 

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Discovering a young artist near the start of their career is always exciting. Jaimie Katerina Nole came to my attention when Haisla carver John Wilson directed me to her Facebook page and “The Pregnant Frog Woman” one recent Saturday afternoon, and I knew at once that I wanted a copy. In fact, I wanted one so strongly that I settled for an ordinary limited edition – all that was left — even though I almost never buy anything except originals, artist’s proofs, or remarques.

I have only met Nole once for about five minutes, but she struck me as a young woman of determination. If I have her story straight, she was enrolled in the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art a few years ago, but withdrew when she became pregnant. She is apparently planning to return to the school this autumn, but, in the meanwhile, “The Pregnant Frog Woman” seems proof that she is making the most of her situation. When she posted the print, she quickly received over 3,800 Likes on Facebook, and decided to make a print of it.

“The Pregnant Frog Woman” is a striking piece for at least two reasons. For one thing, human forms remain uncommon in the modern revival of Northwest Coast art, female forms even rarer, and pregnant forms almost unheard of. So, although the kneeling posture is a conventional one, Nole quickly makes it her own simply by her choice of subject matter. The use of green and black is much less unusual, but enough to reinforce the impression of originality.

However, what is most striking about the print is Nole’s skill with the traditional forms. The use of ovoids for the shoulder, elbow, hip and knee joints is traditional enough, but those in the print are a variety of shapes, their contents echoing and contrasting with each other. The curve of the knee and breast parallel each other as well, and so does the knee and the buttock. Within the breast, the u-shapes also mimic the overall shape, suggesting the successive swelling of the breast during pregnancy.

Several other features of the design also emphasize the signs of pregancy. For instance, thick, black formlines frame the green uterus and fetus above and below it. Even more interestingly, the formline – which varies far more than usual in beginner’s work – is at its thickest around the breast and the bottom of the hip joint, between which the newborn will eventually pass. Not only is pregnancy the subject, but the design continually calls attentions to the symptoms of pregnancy in subtle ways.

A trace of eeriness is added by the signs of a supernatural creature, such as the long slender fingers and the hand with three digits, all differing little except in size from the visible foot. Since the head is barely sketched in, the focus is on the mysticism of pregnancy – the feeling, you can easily imagine, that the figure herself is feeling as she holds her hand over swelling stomach, perhaps to feel signs of movement.

Nole tells me that she is planning a series of prints of different aspects of motherhood, and, despite being a childless widower, at some point in the series, I would like an original. If “The Pregnant Frog Woman” is any indication, Nole not only understands the tradition in which she works, but has the unusual power of embedding emotion within its strict conventions. If her subsequent designs can match this one, Nole is an artist who seems likely to make her mark.

Jaimie-Nole

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