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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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Thanks to the Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibit, I not only have a greater appreciation of Charles Edenshaw as an individual artist, but a greater understanding of his key role on the Renaissance of First Nations Art in the Pacific Northwest. But, increasingly, I wonder about the man behind the art. What was his inner life like?

Glimpses of his life do exist. In During My Time, his daughter Florence Davidson mentions how her father used to say a prayer, then sit himself down on the low chair he preferred and work for the next twelve hours. I believe, too that Davidson tells how he once said that he was tired of art, and wouldn’t do any in his next life; a great nephew who showed no interest in art but died early is suspected to have been his reincarnation. Haida friends also tell me that a lively oral tradition about Edenshaw continues to exist on Haida Gwaii, and from his art, I infer a man with great powers of concentration and attention to detail who took pride in his work.

But such glimpses are tantalizingly few, especially for such a man and such times as he lived in. Almost immediately, the reliable information trails off into surmises. He was said to have been sickly in his youth, and even in his prime, he looks small and fragile in the pictures that have survived, and possibly not too steady on his feet. His early ill-health is often surmised to be the reason he turned to art to make a living – he simply wasn’t rugged enough to earn a living by fishing and logging, like other men of his generation.

Yet what he thought about his life is completely unknown. Did he ever feel resentful at having to live a sedentary life? Or was he quiet man, content to stay close at home and perhaps see more of his family than most of his generation of men? We simply don’t know.

Nor do we know how he felt about the great events happening around him. How did he feel about the epidemics that wiped out most of his generation among the Haida? Was he grateful to survive, or did he sometimes brood at his work bench, wondering how he survived? Was he proud of the titles he accumulated due to the gaps in the successions? Or did he see himself as a caretaker of the titles, assuming them in trust for future generations?

Similarly, I wonder why he accepted baptism in middle age. Did he hope that Christianity might preserve him and his family from other epidemics? Did he see his culture as ending, and Christianity as a way into the future? Or did he see baptism as a way of hedging his bets, an accommodation that allowed him to preserve more of his culture than opposition would? Perhaps as the leader of his people, he converted to maintain his authority over the increasingly Christian Haida clans and houses. Or perhaps he was genuinely drawn to Christianity.

But we do not know any of the reasons for what he did. We do not even know what he thought of the art that such a central feature of his art. I would give a lot to know whether he ever thought of his life’s work as anything other than a way to feed his family. Did he see himself as an individual artist, the way that those from European and American cultures do? Did he hold himself responsible for preserving parts of Haida culture that the epidemics had left abandoned, or was Haida culture just a commodity that he could sell to make a living?

I wonder, too, whether the man who was known in his lifetime as Charlie among English-speakers be proud or embarrassed to be addressed in tones of respect as Charles. I imagine that a man who had taken on so many names as his importance as a chief increased would have taken taken yet another name in his stride. Still, what would he have thought about his influence on the modern art of not only the Haida, but their hereditary enemies the Tsimshian and all the other nations up and down the coast. Did he ever imagine such a role, even for a moment when talking to Franz Boas and the other ethnographers? Or was he too busy going about his life to ever imagine that anyone else would take take such an interest in his work?

At this point, the only answer to all these questions is that at this point we will never know. Fortunately, we do not have to know, because his art is eloquent by itself. But, historically, the man himself remains laconic, and frustratingly close to mute.

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The Charles Edenshaw exhibit currently at the Vancouver Art Gallery is a rare opportunity to understand not only one of Canada’s greatest artists, but also his influence. The odds are against these two hundred pieces being shown together again any time soon, but, while they are together, they allow visitors to observe the elements of Edenshaw’s style, such as his growing awareness of negative space as part of the design. Just as importantly, the exhibit shows the importance of Edenshaw in the development of not only Bill Reid, but of the entire revival of Northwest Coast Art in the last sixty-five years.

This is an outcome that Charlie Edenshaw (as he was known during his lifetime until a more formal version of his name started being used as a sign of respect) could hardly imagine. We know little of his inner thoughts, but, as he started his day’s work with a prayer, preparing to hunch for hours over his latest work, he seems to have had little concern beyond making a living for his family. In fact, he once said that he was so tired of carving that in his next life he planned to avoid it altogether. When a descendant was one of the few of his generation not to experiment with art, he was widely believed to be Edenshaw’s reincarnation.

Bill Reid never hid the debt he owed to Edenshaw. I suspect, for example, that Reid’s love of deep carving may have come from seeing Edenshaw’s argillite carving, whose cutbacks are so deep that you can often stand to one side and see daylight on the other side. If you are know Reid’s work, you cannot spend ten minutes at the Edenshaw exhibit without being haunted by a sense of familiarity. Reid was not being the least bit humble in his comments about Edenshaw; he was only stating the truth about his own development.

Two exhibits make that influence especially clear. Near the start of the exhibit is Edenshaw’s famous sketch of Dogfish Woman – done, if I remember correctly, at the request of anthropologist Franz Boas. Although acknowledging that we no longer know the story of Dogfish Woman, Reid adapted the design many times in his career. Not only that, but dozens of other First Nations artists, both Haida and non-Haida, have copied the same basic pose and design in the last half century.

The second exhibit is in a display case of bracelets near the end of the exhibit. In the middle of the case are two bracelets, one by Edenshaw and one done by Reid in 1956. They are supposed to be of two different animals, but the use of negative space and even most of the features are identical – and Edenshaw’s has the strongest sense of line. Early in his career, Reid clearly not only studied Edenshaw, but, as developing artists often do, copied him almost exactly – just as dozens have studied and copied Reid since. The next time I go to the exhibit (which is so overwhelming as to be impossible to comprehend in a single visit), I mean to watch for other evidence of the influence.

Besides an appreciation for Edenshaw’s work by itself, the exhibit is important for understanding modern Northwest Coast Art. I do not think that I am detracting anything from Reid’s reputation to notice such signs of influence; one reason that Reid is so fascinating as an artist is that he began as a copyist, and the depths of his talent only blossomed fully thirty years later, in the last two decades of his life. To see what Reid owes to Edenshaw does nothing except to offer more insight into the process of his development.

Just as importantly, as a key figure in the Northwest Coast revival, Reid himself continues to influence dozens – possibly hundreds – of artists. Considering his debt to Edenshaw, it would not be too much to say that, without Edenshaw, the revival either would have been stunted, or else not happened at all.

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Gwaai Edenshaw was long overdue for a solo exhibit. Both a goldsmith and a traditional carver, he is an artist’s artist, and his work is in popular demand. However, for his first exhibit, he has chosen to emphasize another aspect of his work: his graphite and ink drawings, and their role in his artistic process. “Sounds Good on Paper,” currently at the Petley Jones Gallery, does include some his work in gold, but largely to illustrate the importance of his preliminary drawing in his jewellry.

With this theme, the show’s catalog inevitably chooses “The Dreamer” as the piece on the cover. The piece is not only an obvious choice for the theme of the artistic process, but for Gwaai himself (to use the name with which he signs his work). The cartoon style is a reminder of his animation prototypes for teaching the Haida language, and the rings on the hat, a sign of high status in traditional culture an indication of the importance of art among the Haida today. At the same time, the doodles around the margin, as rough as they are, have a non-traditional look. Also, to anyone who has sat down with Gwaai for any length of time, they are a reminder of his constant doodling.

Other pieces in the show emphasize Gwaai’s different traditions and influences. Some, like “Kagan Dajangwee,” are slightly stiff exercises in the northern First Nations style, with their formline and cross hatching:

Others, like “Nanasimget,” a depiction of an Orpheus-like figure in Haida mythology, look like a two-dimensional rendering of a metal casting (and, perhaps not coincidentally, are reminiscent of some of the sketches of Bill Reid, Gwaai’s mentor when he was a teenager):

At the opposite extreme are more mainstream pieces. “Ts’aahl Girl” (Eagle Girl), for instance, combines realism with a touch of whimsy:


Similarly, the two studies of Gagiid, the Haida wildman whose lower face is pierced by the spines of the sea-urchins he is forced to eat after being castaway, bear a distinct resemblance to Gollum as portrayed by Andy Sirkis in The Lord of the Rings:

This movement between traditional Haida culture and urban industrial life – so effortless that it includes analogies – suggest the position of the modern First Nations artist. For those of us who have met him, it also seems very typical of Gwaai’s wide-ranging mind.

Some of the most interesting pieces in the show offer a glimpse of the creative process.For example, “Detail: The Two Brothers Pole” shows the precision-drafted plans for a pole that Gwaai recently completed with his brother Jaalen, and a view of the raised pole. The pole is located in Jasper National Park, and was a replacement for a repatriated pole that was appropriated from the Haida in 1907 and that is often attributed to Charles Edenshaw:

A more personal glimpse of the relation between sketches and other media is provided by “Sons of Djillaquon” and the gold pendant “Sons of Djillaquons:”

Both the sketch and the pendant are powerful works in their own right, but together they illustrate what is gained and lost in the transfer between media, as well as the limitations of each. It is this relationship that makes the oxymoron title of “Sounds Good on Paper” a suitable title for the exhibit.

Casual observers might be tempted to to describe “Sounds Good on Paper” as a minor show. And, in one sense, they would be right: most of what is displayed are not the pieces for which Gwaai has rightfully gained his growing reputation.

Yet such a view would also be short-sighted. More than anything else, “Sounds Good on Paper” is a very personal show. It displays many different aspects of Gwaai’s personality – probably not all –and offers a tantalizing hint or two of his creative process and his interest in different media.

My only regret is that the show couldn’t include some examples of Gwaai’s argillite prototypes for his jewellry. Placed beside the finished jewellry, these prototypes could have provided yet another perspective on the concerns of the show.

However, even without this touch, “Sounds Good on Paper” remains interesting both aesthetically and psychologically. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an exhibit that shows so much of the artist without a hint of arrogance.

Asked the day after the opening what I thought of the exhibit, my first response was, “It’s very Gwaai.” Having had a few more days to think, I still that response the most accurate I could have given.

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Last week when I was in the Lattimer Gallery, I received my copy of the book for the 2010 Charity Bentwood Boxes. It’s a small but well-designed book, and it reminded me that I hadn’t blogged about the box I bought in the auction.

2010 was the fourth year of the auction, with the proceeds going to Vancouver Aboriginal Health. The concept is simple: James Michels makes and donates the boxes, which are decorated by Northwest Coast artists, and the boxes are sold in a silent auction. In 2010, $10,850 was raised – more than double the amount raised the year before.

Over the last couple of years, the decorating of the boxes has become increasingly competitive as artists try to outdo each with their concepts. In 2010, for example, Landon Gunn added copper moon faces to his box, and Jing painted his in a Chilkat design. Steve Smith made his box a rattle. Even more extravagantly, Ian Reid (Nusi) crowded his with Tibetan pray flags and images of the Buddha, while Rod Smith chopped up his box and reassembled it. Perhaps the most ingenious box was Clinton Work’s “The Shop Thief,” a little man with the box for a body and the lid for a hat surrounded by the tools he had stolen – a theme that proved especially popular with the artists. If anything, the competition to be original promises to be even fiercer next year, with some artists already planning their designs for 2011.

I bid on several boxes, but, as I expected, the bidding soon got out of hand (even if it was for a charity). In the end, I was pleased to bring home “Hawk,” by Haida artist Ernest Swanson, a traditional piece that many people overlooked.

Part of the reason “Hawk” was overlooked may have been that it was on the bottom shelf of the display case, so you had to get down on your hands and knees to see it properly. But a larger reason, I suspect, was that it was a traditional piece with none of the embellishments of the more extravagant designs. When I contacted him online, even Swanson sounded like he thought he should produced something more original.

For my part, I have no complaints. Although I own a number of contemporary Northwest Coast pieces, I appreciate a traditional piece, too. Moreover, despite the fact that Swanson is relatively young, he has a reputation for traditional design, and for several years he has been on my short list of artists whose work I wanted to buy some day. I was delighted to get a sample of his work for a reasonable price – a sentiment that may sound unsuitable to a charity event, but I would be less than honest if I didn’t state it.

Much of Swanson’s work seems to be jewelry, a medium in which he is rapidly reaching the stage where his prices are soon likely to take a big jump upwards. That makes “Hawk” a bit of an exception in his work.

Nonetheless, I appreciate the boldness of the design, which has relatively little variation in line thickness. At the same time, it manages to be a busy design, perhaps because of the relative lack of red as a secondary color – a design decision that is almost a necessity, since too much secondary red would be garish and overwhelming given the bright red lit.

I appreciate, too, how the fact that centering the face on corners makes the design seem abstract from most angles, with the pattern only becoming obvious as you turn the box.

“Hawk” is a piece that you have to study for a while to appreciate. It stands now on my dresser, holding spare keys (because I feel that such a practical a thing as a box should be used, so long as it is used respectfully), and I find that my appreciation has grown even greater over the months of seeing and using it.

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I never buy art unless it catches the eye or intrigues me in some other way. However, some purchases loom larger than others , and Gary Minaker Russ’ “Haida Sharkwoman” is one of them. I am not talking about price (although “Haida Sharkwoman” is one of the more expensive pieces that I’ve bought), nor size (although at fifty-three pounds, it is one of the heaviest), but about artistic integrity and excellence, both of which the piece has to spare.

Minaker is best-known as an argillite carver. Working with hand tools and preferring natural finishes, he has a tendency to go his his own way that some gallery owners think has hurt his career, but that keeps his work original. In the last few years, he has been resisting the pressure to carve for the market and produce copies of Bill Reid’s “Raven and First Men” or endless variations on Raven stealing the light. He has also been chafing at the growing tendency for inlays of precious and semi-precious stones and metals on argillite, which drives up the prices while rarely improving the actual lines of carvings.

Consequently, he has been branching out and trying to create a new market in Brazilian soapstone in the hopes of finding greater artistic freedom. He has had mixed success, he tells me: private collectors have no trouble accepting his new direction, but many galleries do. Still, he perseveres, partly because it is easier to find large pieces of soapstone than of argillite to produce such pieces as “Haida Sharkwoman.”

Forty-five centimeters long and thirty-five wide, “Haida Sharkwoman” is carved on one side and flat on the back. The asymmetrical curve on the right, Minaker says, was in the raw block, and only required refining.

Sharkwoman (not to be confused with Dogfish Woman, whom Charles Edenshaw and Bill Reid made famous) is a subject that Minaker has returned to many times in his work, just as Beau Dick keeps returning to the Bukwis and Tsonoqua. He suggests, only half-jokingly, that the subject reflects the difficulties he has had with the women in his life, adding that he tries to restrict himself to no more than one return to the subject each year.

The sculpture shows a woman half-way through a transformation into a shark. In modern northwest coast art, such a transformation is often depicted as a twisting of a person’s existing limbs, rather like the werewolf transformations seen in modern computer-generated special effects. That approach is unquestionably dramatic, but Minaker has chosen to depict the new shape as a blanket draped over the figure, as in the old stories. Here, you have the shark’s fins falling over the woman’s head like a hood, as her face, still showing her labret, is slowly transformed by the gills and flat snout of the shark.

The sculpture is dominated by the abstract carving style of the face and the fins. However, at the bottom right is a more realistic set of fingers half-covered by hair. This contrast emphasizes the transformation; it is only when your glance falls on the realistic hand that you realize that the transformation is taking place.

Notice, too, that the position of the hand suggests that the woman is propping herself up on her stomach against a rock, waiting for the transformation to complete so that she can begin to breathe the water.

The carving is further enhanced by one of the most sinuous and three-dimensional formlines that I have ever seen, beginning at the lower right of the fin, and twisting up to the eyebrows. From there, it continues around the face and jawbone to rejoin the right fin again, keeping the viewers’ eye in constant motion. And, should you detour down the nose or around the lip, the gills are on both cheeks to force your gaze back to the main formline. As a result, you soon tend to attribute the movement of your own eyes to the sculpture itself, and start imagining that its eyes are moving to watch you – not necessarily in a menacing way, but definitely an alert one.

I say “necessarily,” because the impression that “Haida Sharkwoman” makes can vary wildly. The combination of the formline and the reflective quality of the soapstone makes the sculpture look dramatically different in various lights. I have seen it a pale beige in bright sunlight, looking serene; golden in the reflected light of a flash, looking otherworldly, and dark in the shadows, looking sinister. The piece is so varied that I can get a different perspective on it simply by moving it to a different location.

One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that it tends to dominate a room, no matter where it’s put. After several experiments, I’ve given in and placed it on top of the TV cabinet, which most of the living room centers on anyway. As a major piece of art, it seems to belong there.

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The last time I saw a Robert Davidson retrospective was his Eagle of the Dawn show in 1993. Back then, all I knew about Northwest Coast Art was that I liked it. But, having learned a little since then, I appreciated the Surrey Art Gallery’s “Eagle Transforming: The Prints of Robert Davidson” as a chance to put my thoughts about Davidson’s work in some sort of order.

My superficial impression has always been that Davidson’s prints have changed dramatically in the last forty-two years. However, my second time around the gallery, I started to see the continuities.

For instance, from the start of his career, Davidson’s formlines have varied dramatically in thickness. He is especially fond of long tapers at the end of a line, such as the end of a feather, or at the end of elongated fingers or claws. Because of this habit, his formlines keep the eye moving far more than most artists’, which would account for the sense of movement in many of his designs.

Frequently, too, Davidson promotes red from the secondary to the primary formline color (although he uses a brighter red now than when he started), sometimes omitting black altogether, or else using it as the background for a print. When he does use a traditional black formline, he often used red as the primary formline on limbs or figures inside a larger one.

In addition, from very early in his career, Davidson has looked for unusual shapes to contain his designs. Although working in an art tradition that tends towards the symmetrical, Davidson often makes his designs asymmetrical. He is perfectly capable of a traditionally symmetrical design, as in “Eagle: Oliver Adan’s Potlatch Gift,” but his symmetrical designs have a stiffness (or perhaps a formality) that his other work does not. You might almost think that his symmetrical designs were exercises – and not wholly successful exercises, at that. Other artists succeed with symmetrical designs, but Davidson, I would suggest, is not strongly interested in them.

Accompanying the asymmetry is a search for form. A few years into his print designs, Davidson is already projecting his design on to a whale fin. Circular designs are also frequent in his work, both confining shapes and appearing as negative spaces in such works as the 1987 “Seven Ravens.” I was surprised not to see many split forms in the exhibit, but perhaps the reason is that split forms tend to be symmetrical by definition.

This interest in irregular and different shapes has served Davidson well over the years. “Butterflies,” printed in 1977, escapes the potential banality of its subject by placing the design into two circles. Similarly, a hummingbird design from a couple of years later avoids the usual cuteness of the subject by making it a stocky creature with wings attached to powerful shoulders.

Davidson’s least successful works? Those with extensive areas of cross-hatching, which work well in engraved metals or on carved wood, but tend to look unfinished in a print – especially since Davidson does little to vary them.

Nor is Davidson at his best with more than a few colors. Davidson’s palette is relatively small. In addition to red and black, it includes a royal blue and a turquoise. But, when he ventures beyond these four colors, the result can seem garish rather than bold, which may be why his color choice remains relatively cautious.

For me, one result of seeing so much of Davidson’s work side by side is that I now realize that his movement towards abstraction in the last decade is less of a break than I had previously thought. I knew, of course, that he had continued to do more traditional works while doing his annual prints, but I had tended to view the abstractions as facile works – as small ideas printed large to lend them an interest that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

I still think of these abstractions, which often take the form of closeups of a small part of a larger design, as working against themselves, because they expect the eye to linger when the basic tenets of the tradition have the effect of keeping the eye moving. However, even though I consider them unsuccessful, I can see now that they are a natural extension of interests that he has had all along.

My only complaint about the exhibit as a whole is that, by including only prints, it robs the individual pieces of part of their context. Davidson is a carver and jewelry-make as well as a print designer, and, to my eye, many of the prints in the show show the influence of these other media (for example, the cross-hatching).

However even with this omission, “Eagle Transforming” is well-worth a few hours and several trips around it. If you are like me, you will only notice some aspects on the second or third viewing.

And to those visitors who left comments saying that they don’t care much for Northwest Coast Art, all I can say is that they are barbarians who don’t know fine art when they are confronted by it. For myself, the only reason that I don’t look forward to the day when some of Davidson’s designs join Bill Reid’s on Canadian currency is that, when that day comes, he will probably be dead, and then we will have nothing new from him to admire.

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