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Posts Tagged ‘Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art’

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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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.

CY-wolf-mask

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Preparing and handling anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making the visit and the first impression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revisiting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This year’s graduation exhibit at the Freda Diesing School was held on April 19 and 20. It was by far the weakest of the five I have attended. In previous years, there have always been one or two students who were ready to become professional artists, but this year there were none, although a reassonably large number could be ready if they keep working for another year or two.

Unfortunately, this year’s show featured too many shaky hands on the paint brush and failures to find the grain. Too often, what passed at a distance was flawed close up.

However, that’s not to say that the exhibit was disappointing – just that it could have been better. The longhouse on the Terrace campus of Northwest Community College is always worth a lingering visit, and I never object to a preview of those who might become promising new artists in another few years.

longhouse-interior

The work of many of the best artists was visible in the display of paddles at the entrance. This is probably no accident, since a painted paddle is one of the first assignments given to students in the school, so students had plenty of time to perfect their results.

entrance

Inside, I first scanned the exhibit for artists whose works I had seen before. Sam Mackay, the winner of the 2012 Mature Student Award produced a solid effort in his “Wolf Howling in the Moon” mask:

sam-mckay-wolf-howling

 

I also looked for works by Jared Kane, from whom I bought two prints last year. He proved to be one of the more imaginative carvers in the show, but the fact is obscured by the lack of finishing on many of his works, as well as his attempts to use light washes of paint that only look sloppy. His potential is obvious, but he seems to be working against himself in these respects:

jared-kane

This year’s Mature Student Winners (who only found out they had won at the show) also showed considerable potential. Steven Wesley, this year’s winner of the award, produced the very solid “Eagle Transformation:”

steven-wesley-eagle-transformation

 

Roberta Quock, one of this year’s honorable mentions, produced “Wolf Mask,” one of the best finished and painted masks in the exhibit:

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This year’s other honorable mention, Lorretta Quock Sort showed a similar talent. I particularly liked her mask, “Long Face Willie Campbell,” carved in honor of a grandfather she had never met and reserved to give to her parents::

lorretta-sort-long-willie-campbell

By the time I had looked around the show a few times, two artists stood out. The first was Lyle Mack, the latest from the large and talented Nuxalk family to attend the school. The painting on Mack’s “Beholder of the Light” was imperfect in one or two places, but with some retouching this frontlet could would no trouble meeting professional standards:

lyle-mack-frontlet

However, the most promising artist in the show was Angelo Cavagnaro. His “Gitmidiik Wild Man” mask and “Lunar Eclipse Mask” owe their success to their high standard of painting, but, although their treatments of their subjects are conventional, both are competently carved:

angelo-cavagnaro-wild-man

angelo-cavagnaro-luna-eclipse

Cavagnaro also contributed to the show a bowl entitled, “Supernatural Flounder” which was the most imaginative piece in the show – so much so that I took it home with me. Despite the roughness of some of the carving, this bowl, more than anything else, suggests what he might be capable of with another year or two of practice. When I posted a picture of it to Facebook, it immediately attracted Likes from four or five proffessional artists:

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Most of the pictures in the show will be in The Spirit Wrestler Gallery’s “Northern Exposure” show in Vancouver at the end of May. Several students were also planning to add additional pieces for the southern show, which I look forward to seeing. As always, I anticipate that show, but I look forward even more to seeing what first year students like Robert Quock and Lorretta Quock Sort will be doing next year, with another twelve months of development.

 

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When Angelo Cavagnaro was completing his projects for his second year at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Arts, senior adviser Dempsey Bob stopped by his work bench.

“What’s that?” Bob joked. “A flounder?”

Cavagnaro says that he had intended the bowl to be a halibut, as its shape and the two eyes on one side suggests. However, remembering Bob’s comment, he named it“ Supernatural Flounder.” It’s a fittingly whimsical title for what I consider a whimsical piece.

“Supernatural Flounder” reflects not only the importance of fishing to traditional Northwest Coast cultures, but of grease. While the northwest coast of North America historically supplied the abundance of food necessary for cultures centered on status and art, the diet was low in fat, or grease as it was generally known.

Just as in medieval Europe, people craved grease incessantly. In fact. stores of grease – usually from the oily oolichan or candle fish, whose season was in early spring, when supplies would be at their lowest – were a sign of wealth. To this day, it remains a traditional delicacy. Historically, it was a treat at feasts and ceremonies, where it would be served to guests in highly decorated bowls. Some of these bowls were about the size of Cavagnaro’s piece, holding enough grease for a single serving. Others were a couple of metres long, and must have served dozens.

“Supernatural Flounder” is a transformation piece, like many that I have bought. The human face in the tail suggests that the fish – whether halibut or flounder – is one of those supernatural creatures that can assume human form. Many depictions of such creatures show them in the moment of transition, which is often shown as dramatically agonizing, like some of the computer-generated transformations of werewolves in modern horror films.

However, Cavagnaro takes a somewhat different approach. The body of the bowl is simply carved, with fins indicated by rough shapes scored with a couple of lines apiece. That leaves the human and fish faces to be emphasized, their lips and nostrils painted with the same red, and their eyes with the same black. There are differences in the shapes of the eyes and their sockets, but if you look at the piece long enough, the resemblance is undeniable. Both have the same blankness, inviting a comparison which explains why I call the piece whimsical – in the end, the human face ends up looking not that different from the fish’s. The result is a creature that looks at home with its dual nature, whose stomach just happens to be where the bowl is.

As a carving, “Supernatural Flounder” could stand more attention to finishing details. The interior of the bowl is rough, and there are many places on the carving where the artist’s working against the grain is still obvious. On a piece that is so minimally painted, such details stand out, and need to be thought about. But the general shape and proportions is well-thought out, and Cavagnaro shows the same steady hand on the paint brush as in his other works.

In the end, the bowl turned out to be the only piece I bought at the graduate show. As I write, it sits on a sideboard a few paces away, where I can enjoy by turning my head a few centimeters.

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