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Posts Tagged ‘Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art’

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.

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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:

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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:

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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:”

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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::

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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:

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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:

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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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Last weekend, I flew north to Terrace to give out the Mature Student Award at the Freda Diesing School graduation. This was the fourth year I have sponsored the award, and the third in which one main recipient and two honorable mentions were named. The award honors students twenty-five and older, recognizing that returning students face challenges in returning to school that younger students don’t, yet often contribute grreatly to a class.

The main recipient was Steven Wesley, a member of the Eagle side of the Haida Nation. Wesley fished for many years, then returned to school in 1997 to earn his high school diploma. “I wanted to be a role model for my daughters,” he said. “I wanted to show them that even their Dad could get his Grade Twelve.

Wesley went on to become a bus driver and trucker. However, he relates that, in 2002, “A friend handed me a knife and a block of wood and asked if I wanted to carve. And ever since I kept pursuing my dream of becoming an artist,” he says.

Although mostly self-taught and learning by observing others, Wesley was accepted at the K’san School in 2004. However, he had to turn down the position due to lack of funding. When he applied to the Freda Diesing School in 2008, he was luckier in finding support.”I just wanted to learn everything,” he says. “I taught myself how to do the ovoids and U shapes but I wasn’t sure they were the way they should be. So, coming back, I wanted to learn from the beginning again. “

However, for Wesley, the most satisfying part of his first year was learning about negative space in carving: “how deep, how high, how wide. I knew the forms, but I didn’t know how to use negative space in my designs.”

He plans to return for his second year in September, and to carve and paint over the summer. “The more you carve, the less you forget,” he says.

One of the two honorable mentions was given to Roberta Quock, a Tahltan from Telegraph Creek who grew up in Merritt and Kamloops. Long interested in painting and beadwork, she says, “I’ve always wanted to go to this school to study more and to learn carving and study more of the culture.”

Besides beginning to learn how to carve, Quock found the first year class a friendly place to learn. “We really bonded together, and we helped each other out,” she says. “We looked out for each other like a family.”

Quock also plans to return for her second year, studying beside her brother Lyle.

The other honorable mention went to Lorretta Quock Sort, a Tahltan of the Crow Clan. An experienced textile artist, for some time Sort has been making fire bags (ammunition pouches) that the president of the Tahltan nation has been distributing as gifts.

Sort’s first ventures into carving will all be given away to her parents and three children. She explains, “My Mom always told me that when you do something for the first time you should give it away. You’re not supposed to keep it or sell it. But, coming from such a large family, it was hard to decide who got what.”
Like the other winners, Sort plans to keep busy over the summer. She has already set herself the task of doing a mask and bowl over the summer, as well commissions for two button blankets and more fire bags, which these days are popular as women’s purses.

Wesley, Quock, and Sort were all among the more accomplished students in this year’s exhibition. I look forward to seeing them develop in their second year, and I’m pleased to have played a small role in their development as artists.

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Six weeks ago, Haida/Tsimshian artist Mitch Adams and his wife Diana were in Vancouver on a selling expedition. We sat on the shaded porch of a Starbucks, and Mitch unwrapped the pieces he hoped to sell to one of the galleries. They included a variety of pipes (“They’ll make you look taller! Cooler!” Mitch claimed), several miniature masks carved from ebony, and a couple of sculptures I would have bought on the spot if I’d had the money. Then Mitch brought out a framed painting from the back of the car.

I remembered the painting. I’d seen it when I was in Terrace the previous April, sitting at the back of Mitch’s workshop. It was a design that he had done while a student at the Freda Diesing School. An injury had left him temporarily unable to carve, so, rather than sit idle (or more like, kibbitzing with the other students, if I know anything), he began to do designs on paper.

At the time, I asked him if he would sell it, but he was unsure of the price, and I had enough to carry back on the plane already. “Throw it in the trunk next time you come to Vancouver,” I said, but, to be honest, I’d forgot all about the piece until I saw it again. However, once I got over my surprise, I was happy to buy it.

As you might guess from the story about its origin, “Haida Box Design” is a formal exercise, but no less interesting for that. Like Celtic knotwork, abstract Northwest Coast designs fascinate me in their intricacy. When you know a bit about the artistic tradition, you can appreciate the breakdown of the figures in a series of basic shapes, each of which is varied by such details as how the thickening of the formlines where they meet is minimized, or the designs inside the U-shapes. At its best, the result is a strong sense of individualism within a detailed tradition – which is certainly the case here.

Adams’ individual touches are numerous. To start with, rather than designing primarily in black, he balances red and black almost perfectly. The design puts round shapes, rather than the more common ovoids, in the center where they can hardly be missed. Many of the lines are straight, rather than curved, as you would expect in most designs on paper, although that would make them ideal for carving. Tapering of the lines is minimal, and Adams makes wider use of thin lines than most artists would.

However, what fascinates me most about the design is how, despite being symmetrical, it manages to avoid some of the stiffness usually associated with symmetry – especially to a modern eye, trained to consider asymmetry of design the norm. Day after day as I’ve done my morning stretching exercises, I’ve watched the piece and considered the elements that undermine the potential symmetry.

First, there’s the easy interchange of figure and ground between the black and red that changes depending on what you focus on. Then there’s the mild variation of rounded shapes in the center of the design. Most of all, however, what really offsets the symmetry are the shapes positioned on an angle.

All things considered, I’m tempted to say that I’d appreciate seeing “Haida Box” design carved in yellow cedar and painted. The only thing that keeps me from doing so is the fear that, the next time we meet, Mitch will present me with exactly that, and I won’t be able to resist pulling out the cash to buy.

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In April, I flew up to Terrace for the Freda Diesing School’s graduation show. I entered from one end of the modern longhouse where the exhibit was set up, and wound my way through the display panels and cases to the opposite end. As I rounded the last panel, Kelly Robinson’s “Nuxalk Box Design: Four Carpenters” caught my eye.
Immediately, I knew two things:

First, from the amount of red and the particular shade of blue, and the looseness (or non-existence) of formline, it was a Nuxalk piece.

Second, it was such an eye-catching piece that, if I could, I was taking it home with me. At the time, I already owned Robinson’s canvas, “Mother of Mischief,” but this was a contemporary piece that was, if anything, even more striking.

As things turned out, I didn’t take the painting home with me that weekend. I bought it, but both Robinson and I were worried that the glass might not survive the flight home, and that the painting might be damaged. As things were, it was only six weeks later, when a somewhat different version of the show was displayed by the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver as Northern Exposure that I finally took delivery.

The Nuxalk, sometimes known as the Bella Coola (although not by them) are a nation about midway up the coast of British Columbia. Like the neighboring Heiltsuk and Haisla, their art shows hints of both the northern formline style and that of the Kwakwaka’wakw to the south, but with bold lines and colors that make it unique.

Unfortunately, Nuxalk art has not been extensively studied in comparison to, for instance, that of the Haida or Tsimshian. However, in the last half century of the local First Nations revival, the Nuxalk have never lacked for artists. My own familiarity with the style – such as it is – comes mainly from the Nuxalk who have graduated in the last few years from the Freda Diesing School, such as Latham Mack, Chaz Mack, and Lyle Mack, all of whom are related to Robinson.

Nuxalk mythology has been neglected by academics almost as much as the art. So far as we know, we have no transcriptions of how Nuxalk stories might have been told a hundred and fifty years ago. Nor has anyone collected the stories. But, from the little I know, the Nation has some unique traditions.

Foremost among these traditions are the Four Carpenters. These are the supernatural beings charged by Atquhtam the Creator to prepare the world for the Nuxalk. Sometimes, the Four Carpenters are loosely glossed as being arch-angels, but a better analogy is probably heroes like Prometheus, who are responsible for the foundations of culture.

If I have the stories correct, the Four Carpenters created the Sun, which is often depicted as a canoe, as a vehicle for the Atquhtam. By some accounts, the Four Carpenters created the Raven specifically to steal the light, as he does in other first nation cultures. But the Four Carpenters also designed the Nuxalk language, as well as the ceremonies and dances of each of the Nuxalk clan; each of the Carpenters may also be the founder of a clan. When they left Atquhtam’s house, they descended to earth on the sun’s eyelashes.

“Nuxalk Box Design: Four Carpenters” shows the subject surrounding the sun, with the bottom two, perhaps, starting to descend to the earth. As the name suggests, Robinson’s painting is a study for a design that might be painted or carved on a box. That description sounds like a formal, academic study, the kind of rigidly traditional work that might be done by a student artist, and there are, in face, objects in the painting such as the faces that remind me of other Nuxalk work I have seen. There is also a regular layout that suggests the careful measurement that might be expected in such an exercise.

At the same time, a strong sense of style is obvious at a glance. “Bold” was the first word that came to my mind when I first saw the painting, and it remains the best description I can think of. With the thickness of the red lines, it could almost be intended for a housefront ten metres long, and not just a box. And, while the painting may be generally symmetrical, the difference in positioning between the upper two and lower two Carpenters strikes me as a touch that a modern artist would be more likely to add than a traditional one, or one just learning the style.

Still another individual or modern element is the large amount of cross-hatching in the design. So much cross-hatching might appear in metal or wood, but from my limited knowledge seems rarer in Nuxalk painting. Perhaps, like many local First Nations artists today, Robinson has been influenced by other traditions of painting, such as the Tsimshian’s, which sometimes uses cross-hatching heavily.

I rate the painting as Robinson’s best to date, and have hung it in the living room, facing “Mother of Mischief” on the opposite the wall. I suspect that, on that fast-approaching day when I have so many paintings and prints that I need to rotate them on my wall, “Nuxalk Box Design: Four Carpenters” will be one of the few than hangs permanently.

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The Nu-chu-nulth (formerly known as the Nootka and West Coast) were among the earliest First Nations to have contact with European explorers. Yet today, very few Nu-chu-nulth artists are well-known. I can think of Patrick Amos, Joe David, and Tim Paul, and have to do a web search to come up with any other names. This lack is unfortunate, because, while the Nu-chu-nulth sometimes work in the northern formline tradition, their art also includes at least one other – possibly two — schools of design that are unparallelled anywhere on the Northwest Coast.

For that reason alone, a few months ago when Kelly Robinson recently offered his “West Coast Wild Man” mask for sale, I was happy to add it to the works on the walls of my townhouse. But I was also glad to buy because the mask was not like anything I had ever seen before.

A 2012 graduate of the Freda Diesing School, Robinson has been selling his jewelry to galleries for several years. More recently, at the Northern Exposure show at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery, three of his four pieces sold within the first three hours of the show. He is also a skilled painter, and one of his canvases, “Mother of Mischief,” already hangs on my wall.

However, most of Robinson’s work is in the Nuxalk style. He has only occasionally explored the other side of his heritage and worked in the Nu-chu-nulth style, but if “West Coast Wild Man” is any indication, he could have a significant contribution to make to that tradition as well.

There are few references for Nu-chu-nulth stories, no matter what name you search under. I assume that the Nu-chu-nulth wild man has some similarities to the Bukwus of the neighboring Kwakwaka’wakw or possibly the Gagiid of the Haida. All three are often depicted with large hook noses and grimaces, and probably their symbolic taming was a feature of the midwinter dances in all three cultures.

Probably, though, the parallel is not exact. The Bukwus is a dwarf, often conceived as being dead, who tries to tempt the living into eating its ghost food so that he can carry them away. Often,  like the Gagiid, he is said to originate as a shipwrecked voyager.  The Nu-chu-nulth wild man seems to share these characteristics, since the culture often raised memorials of skulls to shipwrecked sailors, but almost certainly some of the other context is missing.

To even a casual observer, Robinson’s mask shows obvious signs of the Nu-chu-nulth style, with the inverted skull dangling below the chin, the straggling hair, and the unusually large eye sockets and relatively small eyes. Whether the hair, which resembles dreadlocks, is also traditional or Robinson’s own innovation, I am uncertain, but either way, the general influence is obvious when you compare the mask to the work of carvers like David or Paul.

However, if you continue the comparison, you will notice something else. If you search on the Internet, you will soon notice that David’s or Paul’s work has an air of historical re-creation. Both artists reach a high level of quality, but their work is little different from that done a century and a half ago in the same tradition.

There is nothing even mildly wrong with this choice, and I look forward someday to having works by both David or Paul around the house to enjoy. But, having trained with some of the leading woodworkers on the coast today at the Freda Diesing School – artists like Dempsey Bob, Stan Bevan, and Ken McNeil – Robinson is trying to do something more.

Consciously or unconsciously, Robinson is following his teachers, and thinking of his work as fine art. His use of both paint and abalone is restrained, and his wood is finished to modern standards. He also takes full advantage of the grain, shaping it to fit his carving. While obviously based on past Nu-chu-nulth tradition, the result is something that – so far as I am aware – no other Nu-chu-nulth artist has attempted. And what is even more important, Robinson succeeds, producing a work that is both contemporary and not quite like that of any other artist.

This originality – admirable in anyone, but especially so in such a comparatively young artist – is sensed almost immediately by anyone who views the mask. Robinson delivered the mask to me at the opening of the Northern Exposure show, and the first response of each of the half dozen people I showed the mask to responded was a sigh of wonder. “West Coast Wild Man” is an original work of unexpected power, and if Robinson can continue to meet the same high standards in other works, his future as a major artist on the coast seems assured.

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Once a year, I teleconference with the instructors of the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art to decide who will receive the Mature Student Award. We discuss candidate’s financial situation, and weigh their artistic skills and leadership, whittling down the list until we have this year’s recipients and – funds permitting – honorable mentions.

But this year, the discussion was short. Kelly Robinson, one of this year’s leading students, was quickly chosen as one of the honorable mentions. After a brief discussion, the second honoable mention was awarded to Stacey Calder, who was technically underage for the award, but judged someone who could make best use of it. Then, unanimously, the instructors urged Sam McKay as the main recipient, a nomination to which I quickly agreed.

In barest outlines, McKay’s story is one that sounds all too common for First Nations people of his generation. A member of the Nisga’a wolf clan, he was forced out of his culture to go to residential school. He ended up on skid row, addicted first to alcohol, and later to crack.

But unlike many versions of this story, McKay’s has an upbeat ending. After thirty years on skid row, in 1991 McKay started to turn his life around. He went to university, and started doing social work with the homeless in Victoria. Eventually, he took a job in the Terrace area, and rediscovered his culture, becoming a dancer and a carver and holding a major chieftainship.

Speaking in a soft, hesitant voice, McKay recalls that “I was well into my fifties” when he changed his life. “I remember when I was getting my driver’s license, and there were all these sixteen year olds waiting for their tests. I told my instructor, ‘All those kids must think I’m a road hazard.’”

McKay had always admired his namesake grandfather, and remembers watching him carve spoons and bowls. At various times, he had also also studied with master carvers like Henry Robertson and Tom Dawson. However, just like getting his drivers’ license, learning to carve was part of the process of the last twenty years.

“I always wanted to learn how to carve a bowl, how to carve a paddle and a totem pole,” he says, adding that he appreciates the talent of the young students in the class, and the school graduates who occasionally drop by to help with the classes.

He finds art essential to both his re-discovery of his cultural history and his personal journey, saying, “When I feel out of place, I just pick up a pencil and start sketching. I’m an artist. It’s natural.

“I always say that I’ve come full-circle. It’s funny, because when I was younger, my grandfather told me my story. It didn’t dawn on me until a few years ago. ‘Be careful,’ he said, because somewhere in your life you will run into trouble. But you are going to realize the situation and get out of it. And when you do, you’ll come full circle.’”

With all the efforts he has made, McKay is exactly the kind of person whom the Mature Student Award was meant to help. I wish him continued success when he returns next year to complete his studies.

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Last week, I flew into Terrace to attend the end exhibit at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art.

Of the four year end exhibits I’ve attended, this years’ was the weakest, with the fewest number of pieces on display and the lowest quality, but there were compensations. The show was partly a reunion of alumni, with former students such as Mitch Adams, Latham Mack, John Wilson, and Carol Young in attendance. And, as always, Waap Galts’ap, the longhouse on the campuse of Northwest Community College in Terrace, made for a setting that was both aesthetic and relaxing.

Nor was the show entirely lacking in pieces worth lingering over.

Larry Darrick displayed an abstract panel design that was all the more striking for being in black and white:

Darrick’s “Boogie Mask- Myth of Hairy Man, Bigfoot & Boogie Mask” was also worth a second look for its use of woven cedar for its mess of hair, although its copper nostrils and eyebrows seemed more elaborate than the simplicity of the carving would justify:

Among the spoons and bowls, the painting and lines of Lyle Mack’s “Transformation Spoon” was noticeable, so much so that I found myself wishing he had finished a mask or a painting for the show:

I was especially pleased to see that some of the high-quality work was done by last years’ winners of the Mature Student Award, which I sponsor. Barry Sampare, last years’ winner, showed more attention to detail and finish than most students:

Similarly, Evan Aster, who last year received an Honorable Mention for the Mature Student Award, displayed the same attention to the painted design as in last year’s exhibit to produce a mask of mildly eerie paleness:

Last year’s other Honorable Mention, Moses White, produced the strongest work of his that I’ve seen to date in “Oil Stained Warrior – Blood will spill before oil.” White’s mask had one side slightly higher than the other, but managed to be eye-catching just the same.

One of the standouts of the show was Nathan Wilson, who has already had some commercial success in the galleries. His “Defend the Village: Warrior Mask” seemed to show traces of the influence of John Wilson, with whom he worked privately in the past, but the boldness of design, as well as the mixture of materials (alder, horse hair, abalone, cedar bark, acrylic) was a a rare example of embellishments not overwhelming the design:

My only regret was that Wilson was not displaying more in the show.

First year student Jared “Citizen” Kane was another standout, with prints that were somewhat lacking in detail, but intricate enough that I bought both of them:

Still another standout was Paula Wesley, who plans to continue her art studies at Emily Carr next September. Although Wesley’s carvings looked a little rushed, and were not her best work, her two-dimensional pieces showed a pleasing discipline of line and a complexity of design, as in her “Releasing the Light”:

Wesley also created one of the strongest pieces in the show, a family box design that, had it been for sale, I would happily have bought:

However, pride of place in the show literally went to Kelly Robinson. Already a professional jeweler and painter, Robinson showed that he is equally promising as a carver. The central area of the exhibit was dominated by a display case with a spoon by Robinson, while two of his masks hung facing each other on either side:

In addition, Robinson’s painting, “Box Design (The 4 Carpenters)” hung at the main entrance of the longhouse, and was the most accomplished piece of the entire show:

The title refers to what might be called the celestial contractors in Nuxalk mythology who were charged with making the sun and other aspects of the world. The painting has a boldness and a mixture of traditional and contemporary that many visitors to the show admired, and I am proud to say that it will soon be on my living room wall.

With such artists as Kane, Robinson, Wilson and Wesley, the show was still worth seeing, and, as in past years, both the students and instructors couldn’t have been more welcoming. I look forward to seeing what the grads do next (and maybe buying more of their work), and how the first year students improve after another year of instruction.

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