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Posts Tagged ‘First Nations art’

Last summer, I contributed to Haida Raid 3: Save Our Waters, an environmentalist animation. I couldn’t resist, given the cause and the perk of a print: Jaalen Edenshaw’s “K’alt’side K’aa” (“Laughing Crow”).

Edenshaw is the brother of Gwaii Edenshaw, one of the foremost jewelers on the coast. Much of his work is on poles and other community art, with only an occasional piece making it as far south to Vancouver. So I was happy when, a few weeks after the Haida Raid fundraiser closed, I received this small sample of his work. Many people assume that Haida art has no humor, and I’m glad to have a piece that proves otherwise.

What particularly interests me about this piece is its resemblance to some of the figures on the ring I bought from Gwaii Edenshaw five years ago. I had asked Gwaii to do a ring illustrating the story about how Raven turned the crows black. Not wanting to share their salmon with Raven, the crows put crumbs in the dozing Ravens’ mouth, then try to convince him that he already eaten when he wakes up. But Raven is not deceived, and throws the crows into the fire, singeing them so that their feathers turn from white to black.

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On the ring, Gwaii depicts the crows in the middle of sprinkling Raven with crumbs of salmon, rolling them into his mouth and along his back. The crow figures resemble the ones on Jaalen’s print, and I mean to ask him which came first the next time I see him.

Meanwhile, the print is a good example of how I can enjoy a hundred dollar piece as much as a ten thousand dollar one. With a print run of 270, the print is unlikely ever to be valuable, but I admire it for its unusual posture, as well as the lines indicating movement on both sides of the figure. Compared to most prints, it is a cartoon – but that, I suspect, is exactly what was intended.

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Several years ago, Haisla carver Nathan Wilson was one of the standouts at the Freda Diesing School graduation exhibit. Unlike most of his classmates, he was already regularly selling masks to the galleries. They were well-finished, but, I thought them lacking in individuality. However, his masks also suggested that very soon he would manage that individuality – and I when I saw “ Tagwa” on Facebook, I knew immediately that he had. I immediately offered to buy it, nipping in ahead of several other buyers.

The only catch was that Wilson had done the panel for his YVR scholarship. That meant I would have to wait a year to take it home, while it hung in the Vancouver airport for a year. Then, ominously, when the year was up, Wilson said he wanted to make some adjustments to it.

Knowing something about carvers and perfectionism, I joked that the octopus would probably come back as a grizzly bear. Mercifully, on closer examination, Wilson decided to restrict himself to minor corrections, and the panel arrived at my front door fourteen months after I had reserved it.

“Tagwa” is an abstract piece, with the shape distorted to find the shape of the panel. In fact, the body of the octopus is upside down, with its beak at center left. The abstraction is heightened by the body, which – fittingly – resembles a loose sack of random shapes in which only the beak and eye are visible.

At first, only a few tentacles are visible, the others, presumably, being hidden by the octopus’ body. However, if you look closely, you start to realize that what at first appears to be the formlines for the body could actually be another two tentacles. You also realize that although four tentacle tips are visible in the right half of the panel, they twist in such a way that more tentacles may be present. Stare long enough, and the exact count becomes difficult to decide, because the tentacles seem to start twisting as you try to make sense of them.

The tentacles, they contrast with the body by having a contemporary design. Instead of the ovoids that many artists would have used to indicate the tentacle’s suckers, Wilson contents himself with plain ovals. Instead of a formline design, the tentacles themselves form the center of interest, twining and showing their two sides, one painted red and the other left unpainted cedar. If you look closely at the picture, you can see that the wood mimics the rubbery texture of an octopus’ skin.

This contrast between the two sides of the panel is heightened by its colors. The body reverses the traditional formline colors, making red the primary color and black the secondary one. In addition, as often happens in Haisla works, blue is added as a background color.

The result is a piece that immediately catches the eyes. It now hangs prominently in the center of one wall of my living room, where it catches my eye several times a day, and where in the last nine months it has become one of my favorites pieces. Wilson himself, I am happy to say, has continued to show his own sense of style in his more recent works, consistently proving himself the artist I always suspected he was.
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Many artists in their mid-Sixties are past their best work. Their art no longer engages them, and what made them original has grown stale, expressed only in minor works. Then there is Tahltan/Tlingit artist Dempsey Bob, whose face grows boyish with enthusiasm when he discusses his work, and who can be heard fretting about how to find time to realize all his plans. At sixty-six, Bob is as passionate as ever, and, as the work in “North,” his current show at the Equinox Gallery demonstrates in every piece, still at the height of his powers.

Part of the reason that Bob not only survives as an artist but flourishes after nearly five decades is his belief in constant development. Bob’s roots may be in First Nations traditions, but, firm in the conviction that these roots are one of the great artistic traditions of the world, he has not hesitated to explore in other directions as well. In particular, in the last decade, he has been involved in cultural exchanges with Maori artists, visiting New Zealand over half a dozen times to study a culture with striking similarities to his own. Somehow, his latest show seems to incorporate all such influences, at times suggesting everything from a Mayan glyph to European traditions while remaining an extension of his roots.

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Another sign of Bob’s diversity is that perhaps a quarter of the show is cast bronze. These bronzes are the product of a period that Bob went through 5-10 years ago in which he concentrated almost entirely on works in metal, doing little in wood except for large scale commissions in which he was apparently more supervisor than artist. Varying from a modern coffee table to traditional masks, Bob’s works in metal would seem major accomplishments in any other context. However, hung next to his works in wood, they seem lesser works. The lines that seem so effortless in cedar appear rigid and slightly forced in metal. Just as importantly, the relative uniformity of the metal seems strangely bare compared to the grain of the wood.

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Bob’s wood pieces are impressive for several reasons. To start with, Bob leaves himself no place to hide, rarely using paint beyond a pair of black pupils here or red lips there. One or two pieces are even left unpainted altogether. The rare time that he uses larger regions of colors, as in the “Raven and the Box of Daylight” bentwood box, the result is all the more striking for its rarity. Mostly, Bob has only the wood to work with, and he rises to the challenge consistently with finishing details that rarely reveal the touch of a chisel or a vice.

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Another noticeable feature of Bob’s work is that his carving is deep and intricate – deeper and more intricate than just about any First Nations carver of the last seventy years. These characteristics are a sign of mastery, because, as often as not, they mean working against the grain, risking cracking or breakages in order to achieve the desired shape. Yet the taking of such pains is worth it, because the depths add another dimension to the carving, casting shadows that become as much a part of the sculpture as the wood itself, even though they are always changing with positioning or the time of the day. They share these features with his metal sculptures, of course, but their softer edges complement the wood in a way that the sharper edges of bronze never manage.

Bob’s subject matter is often traditional. But although he sometimes produces a relatively ordinary work as “Eagle Leader,” more often he takes a traditional shape to produce his own twist. His spirit catcher is several times larger than any that a shaman could ever have used on a sick bed. So, too, is his helmet, which is perhaps the standout of the show.

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Similarly, his transformation mask might be called post-modern. Like a traditional transformation mask, it is a mask within a mask. However, unlike a traditional mask, it is not fully rounded, but has one side that is flat so that it can be easily hung on the wall. Its shape amounts to a comment on the difference between a mask that is considered a work of art and one that a dancer would wear in the traditional winter ceremonies. After all, when the function has changed, why not change the shape? Bob’s answer is, perhaps, quietly humorous in its practicality, but also strikingly original.

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A photographer enthused to me at the opening of “North” that the way that Bob has made international influences his own while retaining ties to his origins would be instantly recognized by his ancestors of two centuries ago. He would have to explain that poles were rarer today than then, but once they understood that the stories were now depicted instead on sculptures hung on the walls, they would approve his work without reservation.

I understood immediately what he meant. Although the renaissance of First Nations art in the Pacific Northwest has come long distances in the last seventy years, only a handful of artists reach the complexity and absorption of other influences found in the nineteenth century. However, “North” proves, once and for all, that Bob is unquestionably one of those handful. In fact, in his mastery and extension of tradition, Bob just might be the greatest carver that the renaissance has produced.

Seeing two dozen of Bob’s works together is exhausting and inspiring at the same time. I am unlikely to ever afford his work, but knowing it exists is a comfort all the same – an overwhelming a reminder of what great art can be that leaves me wondering why we ever settle for anything less.

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On April 25, I flew to Terrace for the sixth time to attend the graduation exhibit at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Carving. As usual, the graduation was also a gathering of alumni, and the longhouse where the show is held was so heavy with the smell of varathane as students worked to the last minute to finish their pieces that leaning into one of the display cases could leave you dazed and dizzy.

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This year’s show was stronger than last year’s on two accounts. To start with, the first year class included at least two promsing artists. Kyle Tallio exhibited a hawk mask, whose elongated shape and and striking painting made it a standout:

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Another first-year standout was Reuben Mack, who continue the tradition of his extended family (including Latham, Kyle, and Lyle) with a portrait mask that showed both a steady hand on the paint brush and an attention to detail that should serve him well if he chooses an artistic career:

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Yet another promising first-year was Kirsten McKay, this year’s winner of the Mature Student Award, who placed a Chilkat weaving design on a spoon with pleasing results:

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Even more importantly, the work of several second year students demonstrated that they had put the last year to good use. Cyril Bennett-Nabess showed a notable improvement in both his painting and carving, displaying several masks, including this traditionally-shaped bear mask:

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Similarly, Roberta Quock showed the same high standards that made her an Honorable Mention for the Mature Student Award in 2013:

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The work of two students in particular stood out form. Lyle Quock, who stood out in his first year, showed an originality of design and color selection in the masks he displayed this year:

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But if I had to choose a single artist as a standout, it would be Loretta Quock-Sort, an Honorable Mention for the 2013 Mature Student Award. Quock-Sort’s female portrait mask was one of the more original pieces in the show:

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But it was her work in fabric that stood out, including a leather robe with mask in their own display case, and the black and red robe that she wore for the graduation itself.

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The show opens at The Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver at the end of May, possibly with a few works that were not ready in April. If you want to see what the next generation of First Nations artists are doing, you won’t find a better place to satisfy your curiosity and aesthetic senses.

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As an artist, Carol Young has gone from strength to strength, so when her “Wolf Mask” became available for sale, I jumped at the chance to buy. In the not-too-distance future, I may not be able to afford her work, and I wanted – at least – a second piece of work to enjoy in my townhouse.

This premonition is based on how far and how fast Young has come as an artist. Less than five years ago, Carol Young began a new career as a carver. In her second year at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, she emerged as one of the most accomplished students in her graduate class, winning the encouragement of master carver Dempsey Bob and becoming the first recipient of the Mature Student Award. In the four years since then, she has gone on to develop a strong original style with a strong interest in the role of women and environmentalism in First Nations Culture. Recently, at sixty, she had her “Moon Matriarch” mask adapted for gold and silver Canadian coins.

“Wolf Mask” reminds me of Bill Reid’s comment that traditionally the wolf must have been a mythical creature to the Haida, because there are no wolves on Haida Gwaii. Like Reid’s own wolves, Young’s mask depicts a degree of ferocity missing from the depictions of other animals. It is a fantasy creature, with an exaggeratedly large mouth and teeth, with fangs that cannot be contained its jaws, and large, swept-back ears that suggest an aggressive alertness. The impression is rounded off – literally – by the U-shapes at the edge of the jaws and the eye sockets that creates a clenched look, as if the grimace on the mask is habitual.

This sense of ferocity is all the stronger because Young has left the mask mostly unpainted. The lack of paint makes the carving more pronounced. And when Young does add black to the wolf’s outsized pupils, they appear larger and wilder than they possibly could have if surrounded by any other paint – even another section of black.

More often than not, fur added to a NorthWest Coast mask is a step too far – a sign, usually, that the artist is uncertain about their skill and trying to hide any errors by over-embellishing. However, the fox fur that Young adds is an exception. Its untidy shagginess on the top of the mask adds to the ferocity, while its off-white color contrasts strongly with the natural color of the wood.

Unfortunately, the fur made shipping the mask to the United States impossible. But since that technicality is why I was able to buy it, I have no complaints. However I got my hands on Young’s “Wolf Mask,” I consider it one of the outstanding treasures in my art collection.

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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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I have been meaning to buy from Haida artist Carol Young for a couple of years, but, until now my spare cash and opportunities haven’t coincided. Not only was Young the first recipient of the Mature Student Award that I fund at the Freda Diesing School, but she is also one of the strongest women carvers currently at work on the coast, with an awareness of line reminiscent of her teacher Dempsey Bob, and a realism uniquely her own. In less than five years, she has gone from an adequate beginner to a carver with a style that promises to make her one of the great originals in Northwest Coast art.

“Wind-Rider” seems an appropriate place to begin buying from Young. Before Young attended the Freda Diesing, she sold Haida dolls on the Internet, and continues to give classes in doll-making. A couple of years ago, she placed a similar figure on a mask for an all-woman show at the Steinbreuck Gallery in Seattle. With its removable hat and cedar bark hair, the figure seems to embody the entire span of her career, so much so that I suggested to her that she should use it as a logo if she ever prints business cards or sets up a web site.

One of the things that makes the carving unusual is that human forms – especially naked ones – are rare in the Northwest Coast Renaissance. Classical works and oral tales sometimes show a decided earthiness, but, by the time of the local Renaissance, Christianity had changed the standards of what was appropriate. As I write, the Bill Reid Gallery is about to host a show of native erotica, featuring younger and avant-garde artists, but in general, the current artistic tradition approaches the human form cautiously, if at all.

By contrast, “Wind-Rider” depicts a semi-realistic naked female form, with a sensuous appreciation of the curves of its spine, buttocks, and thighs. Yet, at the same time, I would hesitate to describe it as erotic, and not just because the figure suggests a young girl rather than an adult woman. This is not a figure poised for the male gaze in some impossible contortion – nor for any other gaze at all, for that matter, considering its wild array of hair. The posture suggests that the rider is absorbed with the act of balancing and holding on, while the upward tilt of the head conveys a sense of wonder, with the eyes – the only part of the sculpture that is painted – fixed on something that only the rider can see. Meanwhile, the blank expression suggests concentration and determination. Sensuousness and innocence are not usually thought of as going together, yet somehow in “Wind-Rider” they seem to co-exist without any difficulty. In fact, you might say that the figure is sensuous because she is self-absorbed. But, however you parse it, the depiction is original in a way that nudes rarely manage.

Sensibly, Young has left most of the spoon unpainted, leaving the lines of the sculpture to speak for themselves. With most of the attention focused on the rider, she has also left the spoon plain. Yet the spoon, too, is well-proportioned, with a graceful curve to the handle and a ladle that is deep enough and wide enough to serve as a visual counter weight to the rider.

One viewer on Facebook immediately thought of witches riding broomsticks (to which Young immediately replied that the Haida have no concept of Witches). Personally, though, my first thought was of Whale Rider, a film whose protagonist is a Maori girl who is determined to break with tradition and become a chief. Not only does the Maori culture resemble that of the local first nations, but, like the film, Young’s sculpture seems all about following dreams and female empowerment.

From any perspective, “Wind-Rider” is a powerful and unusual work. Examining it, I wonder why I took so long to buy from Young and I’m determined not to wait too long before I do so again.

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Most of the Northwest Coast art in my townhouse is in the formline style favored by the Northern First Nations in British Columbia. However, I am always willing to learn more about other coastal traditions, and slowly that’s what I’m doing. The only trouble is, relatively little is written about these other traditions, so most of my knowledge comes from looking at what working artists like Kelly Robinson are doing.

Robinson is a young artist of mixed Nuxalk and Nu-chah-nulth descent who is exploring both sides of his ancestry. In the last year or so, much of his wood carving (he is also an accomplished jeweler) has explored Nu-chah-nulth forms. In particular, he has built on the work of artists like Joe David and Art Thompson who revived the tradition and elevating it into fine art based on his time at the Freda Diesing School.

Fortunately for me, “Ancestor of Today” became available when I had just cashed a few cheques from editors. I first saw the mask in Cathedral Close, the garden outside the Bill Reid Gallery in downtown Vancouver, and, a couple of hours later, I was taking it home on the Skytrain in a bag I was clutching in a death-grip.

The inhabitants of the west of Vancouver Island, the Nu-chah-nulth (formerly called the Nootka and the West Coast) were in a position to be influenced by both the Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuxalk, and Heiltsuk to the east, and the Haida to the north. In fact, unlike most first nations around them, by 1900, Nu-chah-nulth had at least two different styles, a newer one based on formline, and the older, original style. There also seems to have been a third style reserved for the curtains used in the ceremonial mysteries, although I am not altogether certain.

At any rate, these mixed influences may explain the mixture found on “Ancestor of Today.” On the one hand, the mask includes elements that are universal in the coastal traditions, including the U-shapes and the labret that indicates high status. The hair, too, is arranged in a buzz-cut that I have seen in works from every nation.

On the other hand, the facial features all seem to me to be typically Nu-chah-nulth origin, from the raised eyebrows to the high forehead and the nose that swells around the nostril. One of the strongest distinguishing features are the outsized, shallow eye sockets. Unlike in the northern style, the eyes themselves are barely distinguished from the sockets. Here, they are no more than crescents indicate a closed eye, although they would probably not be much more detailed if the eyes were open. The eye sockets join the high cheekbones – another distinguishing feature – not in a plane, as in a northern style, but in a single line.

The painting, too, differs strongly from the northern style. The traditional red and black are the primary colors, but, they cover most of the mask, rather than being used only to highlight features like the lips, nostrils, and brows. Moreover, instead of the designs being painted across the face without much regard for the carving, the way they would be in the north, the designs on the bottom of the cheeks are on their own planes. Between the lips and the nostrils, a different approach is taken, with the inverted U-shape merging into the top list, and the unpainted border on each side of it into the nostrils.

(The mask’s use of gray and the unpainted wood as additional colors is also untypical of the northern style, although they may be Robinson’s innovations rather than indicating any particular tradition; I’ll have to ask him next time we’re in touch.)

The overall impression is of a simpler, bolder style than would be likely to come out of the north. It is enhanced by the slightly rough knife-finish – Robinson’s first effort at this technique, he tells me. To my modern eye, the closed eyes give it Buddha-like sense of calm dignity in keeping with the mask’s name, which asserts a claim that the tradition is still alive and evolving today.

I admire Robinson’s Nuxalk style work, especially the “Four Carpenters” and “Mother of Mischief” paintings, which hang in my living room. However, his Nu-chah-nulth work has its own fascination, especially since he is one of the few artists in the tradition who is trying to evolve the tradition. With “Ancestor of Today,” he manages the difficult trick of re-introducing the tradition while adding first-rate finishing and the steady hand on the paint brush that modern buyers expect. I’m looking forward to what he does next in this style.

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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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