Posts Tagged ‘Charles Edenshaw’

Thanks to the Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibit, I not only have a greater appreciation of Charles Edenshaw as an individual artist, but a greater understanding of his key role on the Renaissance of First Nations Art in the Pacific Northwest. But, increasingly, I wonder about the man behind the art. What was his inner life like?

Glimpses of his life do exist. In During My Time, his daughter Florence Davidson mentions how her father used to say a prayer, then sit himself down on the low chair he preferred and work for the next twelve hours. I believe, too that Davidson tells how he once said that he was tired of art, and wouldn’t do any in his next life; a great nephew who showed no interest in art but died early is suspected to have been his reincarnation. Haida friends also tell me that a lively oral tradition about Edenshaw continues to exist on Haida Gwaii, and from his art, I infer a man with great powers of concentration and attention to detail who took pride in his work.

But such glimpses are tantalizingly few, especially for such a man and such times as he lived in. Almost immediately, the reliable information trails off into surmises. He was said to have been sickly in his youth, and even in his prime, he looks small and fragile in the pictures that have survived, and possibly not too steady on his feet. His early ill-health is often surmised to be the reason he turned to art to make a living – he simply wasn’t rugged enough to earn a living by fishing and logging, like other men of his generation.

Yet what he thought about his life is completely unknown. Did he ever feel resentful at having to live a sedentary life? Or was he quiet man, content to stay close at home and perhaps see more of his family than most of his generation of men? We simply don’t know.

Nor do we know how he felt about the great events happening around him. How did he feel about the epidemics that wiped out most of his generation among the Haida? Was he grateful to survive, or did he sometimes brood at his work bench, wondering how he survived? Was he proud of the titles he accumulated due to the gaps in the successions? Or did he see himself as a caretaker of the titles, assuming them in trust for future generations?

Similarly, I wonder why he accepted baptism in middle age. Did he hope that Christianity might preserve him and his family from other epidemics? Did he see his culture as ending, and Christianity as a way into the future? Or did he see baptism as a way of hedging his bets, an accommodation that allowed him to preserve more of his culture than opposition would? Perhaps as the leader of his people, he converted to maintain his authority over the increasingly Christian Haida clans and houses. Or perhaps he was genuinely drawn to Christianity.

But we do not know any of the reasons for what he did. We do not even know what he thought of the art that such a central feature of his art. I would give a lot to know whether he ever thought of his life’s work as anything other than a way to feed his family. Did he see himself as an individual artist, the way that those from European and American cultures do? Did he hold himself responsible for preserving parts of Haida culture that the epidemics had left abandoned, or was Haida culture just a commodity that he could sell to make a living?

I wonder, too, whether the man who was known in his lifetime as Charlie among English-speakers be proud or embarrassed to be addressed in tones of respect as Charles. I imagine that a man who had taken on so many names as his importance as a chief increased would have taken taken yet another name in his stride. Still, what would he have thought about his influence on the modern art of not only the Haida, but their hereditary enemies the Tsimshian and all the other nations up and down the coast. Did he ever imagine such a role, even for a moment when talking to Franz Boas and the other ethnographers? Or was he too busy going about his life to ever imagine that anyone else would take take such an interest in his work?

At this point, the only answer to all these questions is that at this point we will never know. Fortunately, we do not have to know, because his art is eloquent by itself. But, historically, the man himself remains laconic, and frustratingly close to mute.

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The Charles Edenshaw exhibit currently at the Vancouver Art Gallery is a rare opportunity to understand not only one of Canada’s greatest artists, but also his influence. The odds are against these two hundred pieces being shown together again any time soon, but, while they are together, they allow visitors to observe the elements of Edenshaw’s style, such as his growing awareness of negative space as part of the design. Just as importantly, the exhibit shows the importance of Edenshaw in the development of not only Bill Reid, but of the entire revival of Northwest Coast Art in the last sixty-five years.

This is an outcome that Charlie Edenshaw (as he was known during his lifetime until a more formal version of his name started being used as a sign of respect) could hardly imagine. We know little of his inner thoughts, but, as he started his day’s work with a prayer, preparing to hunch for hours over his latest work, he seems to have had little concern beyond making a living for his family. In fact, he once said that he was so tired of carving that in his next life he planned to avoid it altogether. When a descendant was one of the few of his generation not to experiment with art, he was widely believed to be Edenshaw’s reincarnation.

Bill Reid never hid the debt he owed to Edenshaw. I suspect, for example, that Reid’s love of deep carving may have come from seeing Edenshaw’s argillite carving, whose cutbacks are so deep that you can often stand to one side and see daylight on the other side. If you are know Reid’s work, you cannot spend ten minutes at the Edenshaw exhibit without being haunted by a sense of familiarity. Reid was not being the least bit humble in his comments about Edenshaw; he was only stating the truth about his own development.

Two exhibits make that influence especially clear. Near the start of the exhibit is Edenshaw’s famous sketch of Dogfish Woman – done, if I remember correctly, at the request of anthropologist Franz Boas. Although acknowledging that we no longer know the story of Dogfish Woman, Reid adapted the design many times in his career. Not only that, but dozens of other First Nations artists, both Haida and non-Haida, have copied the same basic pose and design in the last half century.

The second exhibit is in a display case of bracelets near the end of the exhibit. In the middle of the case are two bracelets, one by Edenshaw and one done by Reid in 1956. They are supposed to be of two different animals, but the use of negative space and even most of the features are identical – and Edenshaw’s has the strongest sense of line. Early in his career, Reid clearly not only studied Edenshaw, but, as developing artists often do, copied him almost exactly – just as dozens have studied and copied Reid since. The next time I go to the exhibit (which is so overwhelming as to be impossible to comprehend in a single visit), I mean to watch for other evidence of the influence.

Besides an appreciation for Edenshaw’s work by itself, the exhibit is important for understanding modern Northwest Coast Art. I do not think that I am detracting anything from Reid’s reputation to notice such signs of influence; one reason that Reid is so fascinating as an artist is that he began as a copyist, and the depths of his talent only blossomed fully thirty years later, in the last two decades of his life. To see what Reid owes to Edenshaw does nothing except to offer more insight into the process of his development.

Just as importantly, as a key figure in the Northwest Coast revival, Reid himself continues to influence dozens – possibly hundreds – of artists. Considering his debt to Edenshaw, it would not be too much to say that, without Edenshaw, the revival either would have been stunted, or else not happened at all.

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Last year, I started the Northwest Coast Art Meetup Group. But the assistant organizer proved unreliable, and, I couldn’t afford renting meeting space in downtown Vancouver every month – a necessity, since I’m in the suburbs. Lacking support, I stepped down as organizer. But I regretted the failure, and was as pleased as I could possibly be when Stacey Jessiman. took over and announced a new meeting.

Last night, a half dozen of us met at Stacey’s house on the west side of Vancouver to hear Bill McClennan, a curator at the Museum of Anthropology, deliver a slide show on the recently-concluded Charles and Isabella Edenshaw exhibit. Meeting in her house helped to keep the atmosphere informal, and the expenses down.

Charles Edenshaw is generally considered the premier Nineteenthh Century Haida artist, and recently his wife Isabella has received the credit she deserves for spruce root weaving of baskets and hats, many of which were painted by her husband. The show at the Museum was an unprecedented bringing together of his silver work (although not, unfortunately, his argillite carving) and her surprisingly well-preserved weaving, and I had visited it twice in the last year.

Not that I objected to seeing slides of some of the pieces, many of which came from private collections or distant museums, and aren’t easy to see. Charles Edenshaw’s work, with its use of negative space, remains surprisingly modern, especially in its use of blank space – perhaps because he heavily influenced artists like Bill Reid and Robert Davidson. Similarly, I am intrigued by the thought that Isabella’s work has distinct knots and patterns that, to an expert, identifies it as hers.

In addition, Bill did a good job of putting the Edenshaws in context, showing surviving pictures of the houses where they lived, and even the general store on the banks of the Skeena where Charles Edenshaw sold his art while Isabella Edenshaw labored in the salmon canneries down the beach.

However, I was equally intrigued by Bill ‘s behind-the-scenes account of the exhibit. The Edenshaws’ descendants number in the hundreds, and perhaps a quarter attended a private viewing and celebration the night before the official opening.

For example, Bill relates that as the descendants entered the exhibit’s gallery, he was surprised to see that many left quickly. Apparently, some were concerned that the spirits connected to the pieces were upset by the chaos of the crowd, and only re-entered after elders performed a ceremony to calm the atmosphere.

Bill also explained that, at any exhibit, some pieces always receive more attention than others, and that he was curious to see what those pieces would be at this one. To his surprise, the main attraction was a blown-up photograph of Isabella Edenshaw. Although the Haida were forced to become patrilineal by English and Canadian society, matrilineal remnants are still strong among the Haida (so much so that some thought the patrilineal descendants shouldn’t be invited), so Isabella was of of more interest than Charles. Many, too, were interested in the Edenshaw’s four daughters for the same reason, and some had never seen pictures of their female ancestors.

In fact, interest was so strong that the pictures were carried out of the gallery into the main hall for the celebration. In the slides Bill showed, the pictures stand in the background, almost, as he said, as though Isabella and her daughters were waiting to speak or to enter the dance floor. For me, hearing about these personal touches helped me to recognize that the exhibit was not just an artistic event, but a cultural and familial one as well.

This information was delivered informally, with Bill propped against a cushion on the floor next to the projector, and the rest of us arranged on the furniture around the fire. It was an atmosphere that rented space could never have matched, even without the buffet of salad, bread, cheese, and drinks that Stacey prepared.

All in all, I’d call it a successful re-launch. I look forward to the next meetings (although I suggest they be potluck, so that everyone can enjoy them). Obviously, the meetup is now in much more capable hands than before.

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