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Posts Tagged ‘Freda Diesing School’

Which upcoming First Nation artists in the Pacific Northwest are worth having a look at? Giving an answer is not easy, because traditional art forms and contemporary variations are thriving as never before.

Still, if I had to give answer, these are the seven artists I would tell people to look for. Many post their work on Facebook, or somewhere else on the Internet:

  •  Mitch Adams (Haida): Adams has made a specialty of miniatures – everything from masks to combs and usable pipes – and of exploring different kinds of woods – including ebony and laminated blocks in which the layers substitute for paint. However, his best work so far has been in carving sculptures about thirty to forty centimeters high.
  •  Morgan Green (Tsimshian): Many Northwest Coast artists show versatility, but few can match Green. Her work includes cloth and leather design, wood carving, ceramics, and, more recently, metal work. Although in the past she seemed more interested in experimenting with new media than in developing her art, for the past couple of years, she has focused on jewelry and metal sculpture.
  •  Latham Mack (Nuxalk): Mack first attracted attention at the Freda Diesing School for his design work. However, since graduating, Mack has continued to apprentice with Dempsey Bob, and his discipline and carving is starting to reach the same standards as his designs.
  •  Kelly Robinson (Nuxalk, Nuchunulth): Robinson began as a painter, but since branched out into jewelry and carving. His work in both of his traditions has a strong sense of individuality, but in Nuchunulth style, he has the distinction of being one of the first to treat his subject as high art, rather than historical re-creation.
  • Todd Stephens (Nisga’a): As a carver, Stephens still needs practice, but few artists of any experience can match him as a designer. Study the details of his paintings, such as the different ways that the join of two formlines is thinned out, and you will soon know most of what you should be looking for.
  •  John Wilson (Haisla): Primarily a carver, Wilson is known for the speed with which he can finish high-quality masks. More recently, he has landed commissions for corporate logos and artwork. He is rapidly becoming the best Haisla artist since Lyle Wilson, but, right now, his work is extremely reasonably priced.
  •  Carol Young (Haida): The first winner of the Freda Diesing School’s Mature Student Award, Young first emerged as an artist to watch during her second year at the school, when she started doing naturalistic, unpainted masks. Since then, she has gone from strength to strength with more traditional carvings, some painted, some not. Once or twice, she has introduced female themes into her work.

Other artists who are less successful (so far) but still worth searching out include:

  •  Sean Aster (Tsimshian): Aster is one of the strongest designers who has graduated from the Freda Diesing School. Unfortunately, he does not seem to have marketed his work as well as it deserves.
  • Cody McCoy(Salishan): McCoy has won two YVR art awards, but he is marketing his work in both First Nations galleries and in mainstream shows as surrealism. The best of his work is strikingly original, with traditional forms half-hidden in the thick, restless brush strokes.
  •  Colin K. Morrison (Tsimshian): Morrison is an outstanding carver. However, he only produces a few pieces a year, so the danger is that he might eventually choose another way to earn a living.
  •  Chazz Mack (Nuxalk): Well-known for his design work, Mack seems to do much of his work for family and friends, instead of making many attempts to develop his reputation.
  •  Nathan Wilson (Haisla): Wilson’s high-standards of craft are obvious, but his design sense is sometimes no more than adequate and could use more individuality. However, sooner or later, I expect consistently strong work from him.

Neither of these lists is anything like complete. There are always promising artists whose work does not appear in Vancouver or Victoria, or in galleries anywhere, so I am sure to have missed some. If so, my apologies – chances are, my ignorance explains any omissions, not any judgment of quality.

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For many modern Northwest Coast artists, improving their skills means discovering their culture. Kaska/Tlingit artist Dean Heron is no different, except that he came to his art and culture later than most of his peers – and, that, in pursuit of both, last year he moved north to Terrace, instead of staying in the south where many NorthWest Coast artists now spend at least part of the year.

“I was adopted as a child,” Dean explains, “and grew up in a non-First Nations family,” mostly in Whitehorse, Kitimat, and Powell River. “I had grandparents who lived in Victoria, so we’d often go down to Victoria in the summer time. My parents always used to drag me to the Royal British Columbian Museum to look into my culture, but at that point I was six or seven, and I was more interested in riding my bike, playing street hockey – being a kid.”

Creating the Watchmen

Then, when Heron grew up, he worked as an assistant manager at a Milestones restaurant, and later in the IT department of the British Columbia Ministry of Health in Victoria.

Heron did have a general interest in art of all sorts, and he remembers a two-week survey of First Nations art when he was in Grade Seven in Kitimat. However, it was only after he met his wife Therese that his interest in his ancestral culture and art began to take shape.

“She was very inquisitive, always asking me questions about Tlingit culture,” Heron recalls. “We’d go down to the Royal BC Museum and she’d ask me all sorts of questions. And I was just blank. I didn’t really have any idea.”

Then, one Christmas in the early 1990s, when they were both students and short of money, Heron was pondering how he could give presents. “I had no idea. So Therese said, ‘Why don’t you create something?’ I think I laughed out loud, actually. I didn’t think I had an artistic bone in my body. But she went out and bought a book on First Nations art, and that was the beginning.”

Returning Sockeye

Making the artistic connections

Even then, for years art was more a hobby than anything else. Heron know no artists, but he received encouragement from Victoria gallery directors such as John Black and Elaine Monds. “I would take my early paintings down to Elaine or John Black, and get criticisms on them and come back and produce something else.”

At the time, Monds’ Alcheringa Gallery was displaying the works of master carver Dempsey Bob and his star pupils Stan Bevan and Ken McNeil, although most of them sold quickly. Heron also remembers visiting Vancouver to see the Inuit Gallery.

“But what really did it for me was a book that Dempsey Bob had produced with the Grace Gallery called Dempsey Bob Tahltan Tlingit – Carver of the Wolf Clan. It was this little catalog, way out of print now – I don’t know if you could even find it. There was a picture of a wolf forehead mask, and I had never seen anything like it. It was distinctly Dempsey Bob’s style – it was brilliant. And I just went, ‘Wow! That’s exactly what I want to be doing’ – although at that time I didn’t really know how I was going to do it.”

Moon Mask

Then, somehow, “it all just sort of fell into place for me.” A few weeks after his family moved into a house in Victoria, he met Dempsey Bob’s son and his family at a children’s birthday barbecue. A couple of weeks later, he met Bob himself, “and it changed everything.”

Bob invited Heron to Manawa – Pacific Heartbeat, an event sponsored by the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver featuring Maori and First Nations artists from British Columbia. There, Heron says, “I realized just how rich the culture was, and just how much I’d been missing.” Near the end of the event, Bob mentioned that the Freda Diesing School was about to open at the Terrace campus of Northwest Community College, and invited him to enroll and learn to carve.

Finding roots in the north

Deciding to accept Bob’s offers “was a giant leap of faith for me,” Heron recalls. His children were six and one, and both Heron and his wife had jobs in the provincial Ministry of Health. “But I never looked back. I think it was the best decision I ever made.”

Killer Whale Comb

After Victoria, life in Terrace “was a huge culture shock. We had everything in Victoria. That’s probably what I miss the most – having a good theater and good restaurants to choose from,” Heron says.
However, the adjustments in daily life soon seemed unimportant compared to what Heron was learning about his ancestral culture and art. Suddenly, Heron was being taught by Dempsey Bob, Stan Bevan, and Ken McNeil – three artists he had admired for years.

Today, Heron praises them for their commitment towards art, their professionalism and work ethic, and their dedication. “Although established artists, they are always learning and pushing themselves forward – and thus pushing the art forward,” Heron says. “As well, they share all their knowledge with their students. Dempsey always says, ‘Why wouldn’t I share it? If I did not, we could lose all that we have gained in a generation – it is why I am here.’”

In the new environment, Heron found his relationship to traditional culture and art changing.

“Back when I was working on art on my own, I didn’t know the rules completely. Working with Stan and Ken and Dempsey, the whole idea is that you learn the rules and make them your own. Then, you can star innovating. But you have to work from a base of tradition, which the school does.

“The first eight weeks of school, all we did was draw ovoids and U forms and secondary figures. And they break down the components of the design, so they do wing design one week and they do head designs another week. Then they’ll do feet designs and tail designs, and then you put the pieces together. The first year, there were only seven [students], so it was a really tight group of friends.

SmallTlingit Portrait Mask

“Another thing that Stan and Dempsey have really convinced me of is [the value of] collecting books. At the time I was working on my own, I was looking at galleries and contemporary works of artists like Robert Davidson, Joe David, and Art Thompson, and I never really gave any validity to the old works that are in museums and collections. That was my mentality – that’s a long time ago, that’s history. But I think everybody’s who’s doing the art and is a professional will look at the old art. [The old artists] are still pertinent today. Their advantage was they lived the art. The art was around them all the time. They used the spoons, they used the bowls, and they saw the regalia all the time.”

The result of this discipline and re-evaluation, according to Heron, is that “I’m starting to realize that there’s a lot more rules involved in creating pieces. You can’t just go out and create a frog headdress without getting permission from chiefs or elders. I’m starting to learn a lot more of those rules, where before I just drew and painted what I wanted without any thought of the culture itself. Now, I’m more careful with what I’m creating.”

Killer Whale Plaque

This new attitude created a crisis of faith when Heron, perhaps motivated by his new sense of traditional culture, looked for his birth family. Although his biological mother declined to contact him, Heron did learn that he was part Kaska, not completely Tlingit, as he had assumed.

“I remember the day I found out, my first thought was, ‘I can’t practice the art. I’m tied to those Kaska roots.’ But I found digging into my family history that there was more of a Tlingit side. So I paint particularly in the Tlingit style.”

Today and Onwards

Now, Heron thinks he might explore the Kaska side of his heritage. “I’m starting to think that as a person I have the right to know where I’m from,” he says. “So I’m looking more into the Kaska side.” In the summer of 2010, he hopes to take his family to Watson Lake for Kaska Days.

However, whether he will explore Kaska art remains uncertain. “It’s much different from the coastal art. A lot of it is beading, and moose antler carving, drumming and singing. I think they were a more nomadic people [than the Tlingit]. There’s not a lot of information out there.”

Meanwhile, Heron is keeping busy. In the fall of 2009, he completed a mural for the Snowboard Pavilion at Cypress Mountain for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. “I’ve had lots of people comment on it, via email and letters,” he says.

Snowboarding Mural, Cypress Mountain

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In addition, for much of the last year, he has been painting designs for a longhouse on the grounds of the Terrace campus of Northwest Community College. Stan Bevan is doing the formlines, and Heron and student Shawn Aster are doing the secondary elements. Currently, the interior screens are done, and the house front is being completed. The longhouse is scheduled to be completed in early May.

Dean Heron at work in the longhouse

When the longhouse is complete, Heron plans to continue carving his own work. In addition, “I have lots of images that I’d like to get printed.” He would also like to begin doing clothing designs, and learning jewelry-making.

Dedicating himself to art and moving into a community that was strange to him was a huge gamble, but Heron clearly feels that it has paid off for him.

“Growing up, I always felt that I was at the front door, but not right inside – always looking through the window and looking at these sculptures and not understanding the whole of them. I mean, I still don’t. And I think that’s part of the experience of being adopted and being First Nations. I’m at the point now where I’m straddling two different cultures, really. I have a non-first Nations family, so I’m getting an outsider’s point of view, but now I’m living in the community and understanding a lot more of it.”

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A couple of months ago, Haisla artist John Wilson told me about a promising first year student at the Freda Diesing School named Colin Morrison. After seeing some minor pieces by him, I commissioned a painting. It turned out to be his first professional sale.

I am absolutely confident that it won’t be his last – and not just because I would like to boast ten years from now that I had the foresight to see his potential before he became well-known. “The Spirit of the Wolf” is an accomplished piece that illustrates Morrison’s potential better than anything I can say. It is all the more remarkable because it comes from a man in his mid-twenties.

On the surface, “The Spirit of the Wolf” is a traditional piece, reminiscent of Roy Henry Vickers’ work. It shows a strong interest in style, with a variety of ovoids and U-shapes used throughout and a variety of tactics used to control the thickness and joints of the formlines. The sheer number of tactics could easily result in a mishmash, but Morrison controls it by having shapes mirror and contrast each other in disciplined way. The mirroring is especially obvious when the primary and secondary formlines are adjacent to one another.

At the same time, you do not have to look very long before you realize that “The Spirit of the Wolf” has a playfulness that suggests a very contemporary outlook as well. The design is basically a play on the various interpretations of the title, with wolves spread throughout the design – everything from the physical wolf to the Wolf as a clan crest. This dichotomy is suggested by the vaguely yin-yang shape of the overall design.

There is even, Morrison says, several spirits in the metallic paint of the design. So far, I have to admit, I have been unable to detect what kind of spirits they might be, or if anything specific is intended, but I find the idea immensely appealing all the same.

You could even go one step further and say that, since Morrison himself is a member of the Tsimshian Wolf Clan, that the painting itself is a manifestation of a wolf’s spirit.

You might call the painting a kind of Northwest Coast “Where’s Waldo?” If you wanted to say the same thing more seriously, you could say that the content is as inventive as the style.

Asked to say something about himself, Morrison replied, “I’m Tsimshian, Ginadoiks tribe, Wolf Clan. I’ve been an artist since I was young; I started painting when I was 18, and didn’t take it seriously till I was 23 years old. I’ve been painting off and on since that time, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life.

“Then, one day last year, my Mom started going to a carving class in school. She wanted me to go and dragged me there. I started painting again, and liked what I was doing. My instructor (Harvy Ressel) saw the raw talent and asked me if I wanted to go to the Freda Diesing School. I said yes. Since then, I have found my calling.”

Since doing “The Spirit of the Wolf,” Morrison has completed his first mask and is in the process of finishing his second. I expect that the world of Northwest Coast art will be hearing more from him, but remember (I said, with a certain pride) – you heard of him first from me.

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When I was up at the Fred Diesing School Student Art Exhibition a couple of weeks ago, one of the main attractions was the paintings of Sean Aster. I bought one myself, and joked that I had traveled north just to see how he was coming on the commission we’d arranged a couple of months ago. However, the way that the reactions to his work changed over the afternoon taught me something about the way that people view and buy art.

Before the graduation ceremony, when people were gathering in the studio, very few of us gave Aster’s work any particular attention. However, during the ceremony, Aster won two scholarships, including one that master carver and senior advisor to the school Dempsey Bob gave out himself. Twenty minutes later, staff could barely put up the little red stickers indicating a sale fast enough. Suddenly, everybody wanted one of his works.

This change had nothing to do with the quality of the works. Aster is a promising artist, especially for someone still in his twenties, and his work deserved the awards and the attention he got. But his work was no finer after the ceremony than before. Nor were people necessarily buying the biggest or most original pieces.

All that had changed was that the school instructors had got up and said very publicly, in several different ways, that he was a young artist with a future. Apparently, most of the guests had missed the fact before, until recognized authorities had emphasized it to them. Those of us who had recognized his skill by ourselves were morbidly amused (to say nothing of pleased with ourselves that we had arrived at our conclusion unaided).

A week later, I repeated the story to a Vancouver director of a Northwest Coast Art gallery. He didn’t get what I was saying. How else, he asked me, would people have known what to buy?

Listening to his question, I realized, more strongly than ever before, that there were two reasons for buying art.

The first, and perhaps the most common, is based on reputation, and, much of the time, on the hopes of a profitable investment. Beyond a very limited extent, it has nothing to do with an artist’s ability. For example, it is no reflection on the ability of either artist than an original canvas by Robert Davidson can sell for seventeen times the price of one by his current apprentice David Robert Boxley; Davidson sells for so much more because of his reputation, not because he is seventeen times the artist that Boxley is (although, quite obviously, he is his elder in their craft). This was the sort of collector I saw buying Aster in Terrace – for the afternoon, at least, Aster was the one with the reputation.

The second reason to buy art is because it moves you, or because it is well-composed. This reason owes nothing to reputation; those who buy for this reason will buy a $100 sketch from an unknown as happily as a $10,000 one from a master artist if it has the right qualities, and let the potential investment take care of itself.

These two types of buyers can talk amiably, and may even wish to buy the same piece. However, the motives for buying are really quite different, and quite irreconcilable. Secretly, an enthusiast like me can’t help thinking that those whose buying decisions are based on reputation are unimaginative, even a little crass, and buying for entirely the wrong reasons. In turn, though, I don’t doubt that the reputation-buyers dismiss us enthusiasts as arrogant in our naivety.

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Six weeks ago, Haisla artist John Wilson sent me pictures from the Freda Diesing School’s mid-term show. Since then, I’ve been trying to contact the artists whose work impressed me. Eventually, I hope to buy work from three or four of them. But, so far, the only one whose work has found its way into our house is Todd Stephens.

I’ve exchanged a few emails with Stephens, but I know very little about him besides the fact that he is Nisga’a, a young father, and one of last years’ recipients of the YVR Art Foundation Awards at the school. But I do know that he is an artist with a studied simplicity of form and enough understanding of the traditional northern style that he is already showing a strong signs of a personal style.

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You can see Stephen’s simplicity of form in “Red Warrior,” the first piece of his work that attracted my attention. This small acrylic on canvas uses the barest minimum of lines to suggest a traditional maskin a non-traditional style. The thickest parts on the face – the eye and brow, the nostril, and the mouth – ate the parts most likely to be painted on a mask. On the outside, the columns of three lines, with irregular spaces between them help to break up the thickness of the line. The black background and the use of red as a primary color add a touch of innovation to a piece that otherwise is effective largely because of its simplicity. That Stephens should have reisisted the urge to elaborate is very much to his credit – generally, only a much more experienced artist would have trusted so much to simplicity.

Todd Stephens, "Industry"

In “Industry,” Stephens paints a traditional beaver in a traditional pose. He takes considerable care to avoid the thickening of formlines, mostly by tapering them and arching them where they meet.

At first, his major innovation in “Industry” seems to be in having the tail down, rather than held up parallel in front of the body. But, if you compare it to other versions of the beaver in this position (like the Richard Hunt print below), you notice thta it is a rectangular form, rather than the usual squae one. This change makes the body much leaner than in other artists’ versions, especially in relation to the head and hands, resulting in a much less-stolid figure than usual.

Richard Hunt, "Kwa-quilth Beaver"

Even more importantly, the thinner body leaves less room for secondary designs than in other people’s versions. As a result, the arms, legs, and body are decorated simply with only one or two elements apiece, which further emphasizes the outsized hands and feet – an exaggeration that fits in with the title of the piece. And, because so much of the beaver is rendered simply, the head and the tail are, too. The result is a boldness that makes “Industry” far more effective than most Northwest Coast Beavers.

Another of Stephen’s pieces that we have agreed to buy but not yet paid for is “Jorga and I,” a depiction of Stephens and his young daughter with the heads of the animals of their tribes (since the Nisga’a are matrilineal, of course, his daughter belongs to her mother’s tribe). The fact that the mythological heads are black, the traditional primary color in northern works, and the human bodies are red, the traditional secondary color makes the piece a statement of identity, saying clearly, “We are Nisga’a first” — and, because the hands are also black, perhaps “and artists” should be added to the statement.

Todd Stephens, "Jorga and I"

The protective hunching of the figure of Stephens, and the placement of his hands over his daughter’s eyes gives a modern and gently moving touch to the piece. Another modern touch is given by the overlapping of the artists’ hands and his daughter’s eyes, an element I do not recall seeing anywhere else. However, like “Industry,” much of the design of “Jorga and I” is traditional yet distinctive, with close attention paid to formlines, and the use of the distinctively Nisga’a T-shape inside forms to help further reduce their thickness.

This ability to combine a modern sensibility with a mastery of traditional design is the main reason that I think Stephens has a career in art if he wants one and is willing to work hard enough. Stephens still has things to learn, such as trusting to the power of white space enough to give wider margins on his designs, but the fundamentals are so obviously there, especially in the more complicated “Jorga and I,” that he seems likely to learn them – and fairly quickly, too.

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One reason why Northwest Coast art thrives is the strong tradition of teaching among the artists. Artists regularly take on apprentices, and many regularly assist younger artists in their struggles to establish themselves. One of the newer artists who has benefited from the tradition of teaching and plans to teach others himself one day is John Paul Wilson, a member of the Blackfish clan of the Haisla nation for whom carving masks is both personally satisfying and a means of rediscovering his culture.

john-wilson1
Wilson was born in Kitimat in 1973, but grew up and lives in Terrace, and is currently learning northern carving styles. “I have been taught little things about my culture as I was growing up,” he says, “But I didn’t go to my village. I am now really trying to find my culture as an artist.”

After what he describes as a hard-living youth, Wilson worked in a variety of jobs, including carpentry, forestry, and sales. “Now that I look back on my life,” he says, “I see that what I was doing was training myself to be an artist, whether I knew it or not.” All his work, he believes, helped him to prepare for both the techniques and business of being a carver.

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Although Wilson says that “I have always been doing art,” he only began focusing on carving in 2002, when he began studying under Tsimshian artist Heber Reece. After he “took some time away” from Reece, Wilson continued to return to him for help, and later took a course Reece taught at the local college in 2004. “He always had his doors open for me,” Wilson says of Reece.

More recently, Wilson has been receiving informal advice from Nisga’a carver Ron Telek, especially on the finer points of finishing, and attending the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art at Northwest Community College, where he is being taught by Stan Bevan, Dempsey Bob and Ken McNeill. In fact, this is the second time he has enrolled in the Freda Diesing School, after a burglary of his home forced him to withdraw the first time for lack of funds.

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Other artists whose work Wilson admires include Robert Davidson, Norman Tait, Klatle-Bhi, and Henry Green.

“The senior artists have given me the drive to to get to where I am as an artist,” Wilson says. He is particularly enthusiastic about the Freda Diesing School, which, although he has only just started the second semester, he describes as having “helped so much that I advise anybody to take the course if they want to get serious about being an artist as a living.”

Rediscovering culture

At first, Wilson admits, his interest about carving was as much about making a living as about art. However, under the influences of his teachers and education, he finds his motivations shifting. “I now realize that it is our culture,” he says. “That means a lot to me, knowing that I am going to help keep our culture alive.”

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As Wilson reconnects with his culture, one of his most personally meaningful discoveries was that his great-great-grandfather was also an artist. The discovery, he says, has made him realize that “without knowing the history, I don’t think I could go forward as an artist.”

He now plans to return to his village to familiarize himself with his culture, and dreams of one day teaching there. “Our culture is our way of telling stories to hand down to the next generation,” he says. “And art is a big part of our culture. It is something we were so close to losing, but I did not find that out until I talked to senior artists at the Fred Diesing School.”

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Learning the life and passing it on

At the same time, Wilson finds his carving, which he describes as “contemporary Haisla,” becoming central to his life. “The art is very important,” he says. “It has changed my life for the better. I have a strong feeling that [art] is the right path, like it is what I was brought on earth to do.”

Besides the technique of carving and his reconnection to his history, one of the things that bemuses Wilson about his chosen career is the need to market himself. “When you finish a piece it’s like creating a kid of your own. Sending a piece out for sale is one of the hardest things to get used to. And I’m still learning how to market myself. A lot of people think that when you’re done your piece that it’s time to rest, but they forget the time and effort it takes to sell the piece. You have to really study the way to market yourself as an artist if you want to make a living doing the arts.”

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Now selling regularly to galleries, Wilson is currently able to support himself as an artist. “Some times are better than most,” he observes, “but it still gets me by comfortably.”

All in all, art has become so central to Wilson’s identity and life that he is now starting to pass on the encouragement he received from senior artists to others. “Just try it,” he advises. “You never know what will happen. Look at Freda Diesing – she didn’t start until she was in her forties, and she won a lifetime achievement award for her efforts at learning and teaching the arts.”

(John Wilson’s work is available in the Black Tusk and Path Gallery in Whistler, The Edzerza Gallery in Vancouver, The Art of Man in Victoria, The Stonington and Steinbrueck galleries in Seattle, the Arctic Raven Gallery in the San Juan Islands, and Neo Concept in White Rock).

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