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Posts Tagged ‘Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art’

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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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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I first became aware of Nuxalk artist Latham Mack when I visited Terrace for the Freda Diesing School graduate exhibit. He had already won one YVR scholarship, and would go on to win another, and his paintings and drawings were among the best in the class – so much so that the teachers gave him the privilege in his second year of working in the Nuxalk rather than the Northern tradition. In fact, when he showed me a sketch for a painting of the Four Carpenters, I said I would buy it sight unseen. However, that painting was never done, and at the time his sculptural work was no more than competent, the best feature of his masks being the painting.

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Mack’s patience and hard work, though, mean that his story today is very different. Under the mentorship of Dempsey Bob, Mack has become one of the outstanding carvers of his generation, and the prices of his work should soon edge beyond my affordability. So when he showed me his relatively inexpensive “Grizzly Bear Spoon” outside Dempsey Bob’s “North” exhibit in 2014, I jumped at the chance to buy. I had to wait six months while the spoon was on display at the Richmond Art Gallery, but in early 2015 I finally carried home an example of his work.

My understanding is that Mack began the spoon while still at the Freda Diesing School and finished it in 2014. Certainly its quality and execution is closer to that of his current work than his student masks. If I didn’t know Mack’s connection to Bob, I might have guessed it by the minimal paint job, although Mack does use what I mentally tag “Nuxalk Blue” around the eyes and ears. The wood is soft to the touch, and the lines of the paint completely straight, both signs of a highly-finished work (and, in the case of the paint, a steady hand. What I especially like is that, with the minimal paint, the contours of the grain because as much a part of the result as the carving.

Adding to the piece are the proportions and curves of the spoon’s bowl. They are framed by the legs, with the knees marking where the bowl begins to widen, and the descent of the bowl’s curve by the calves. Further up the handle, the start of the bowl is framed by the claws.

Most of the body is simply carved, with the roundness of legs and arms emphasizing the wood’s grain. But what really catches the eye is the depth of the carving on the head. Typically, deep carving is a sign of excellence in northwest coast carving, and this spoon is no exception. The tip of the chin is at least three centimeters from the base of the neck, and the inside of the mouth slightly more. The lips are half a centimeter thick, the eye-sockets symmetrically about the same. The result is dramatic, especially when painted, and even more so in dim light.

Currently, “Grizzly Bear Spoon” sits on a tea trolley in my living room, where I pass it twenty times a day and my glance can hardly help but linger on it. I suppose it is a minor work compared to Mack’s larger pieces, but between the curves, the grain, and the depth of the carving, I consider it every bit as much an accomplishment.

lmgbs

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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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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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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.

longhouse

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:

kyle-tallio

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:

reuben-mack

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:

kirsten-mckay-chilkat-spoon

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:

cyril-bennett-nabess-becoming-a-bear

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

roberta-quock-thunderbird

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:

lyle-quock-moon-mask

lyle-quock

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:

loretta-quock-sort-mask

loretta-quock-sort-leather-robe

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.

loretta-quock-sort

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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