Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Haida’

Last summer, I contributed to Haida Raid 3: Save Our Waters, an environmentalist animation. I couldn’t resist, given the cause and the perk of a print: Jaalen Edenshaw’s “K’alt’side K’aa” (“Laughing Crow”).

Edenshaw is the brother of Gwaii Edenshaw, one of the foremost jewelers on the coast. Much of his work is on poles and other community art, with only an occasional piece making it as far south to Vancouver. So I was happy when, a few weeks after the Haida Raid fundraiser closed, I received this small sample of his work. Many people assume that Haida art has no humor, and I’m glad to have a piece that proves otherwise.

What particularly interests me about this piece is its resemblance to some of the figures on the ring I bought from Gwaii Edenshaw five years ago. I had asked Gwaii to do a ring illustrating the story about how Raven turned the crows black. Not wanting to share their salmon with Raven, the crows put crumbs in the dozing Ravens’ mouth, then try to convince him that he already eaten when he wakes up. But Raven is not deceived, and throws the crows into the fire, singeing them so that their feathers turn from white to black.

bruce-ring3

On the ring, Gwaii depicts the crows in the middle of sprinkling Raven with crumbs of salmon, rolling them into his mouth and along his back. The crow figures resemble the ones on Jaalen’s print, and I mean to ask him which came first the next time I see him.

Meanwhile, the print is a good example of how I can enjoy a hundred dollar piece as much as a ten thousand dollar one. With a print run of 270, the print is unlikely ever to be valuable, but I admire it for its unusual posture, as well as the lines indicating movement on both sides of the figure. Compared to most prints, it is a cartoon – but that, I suspect, is exactly what was intended.

laughing-crow

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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

 

 

Read Full Post »

I have been meaning to buy from Haida artist Carol Young for a couple of years, but, until now my spare cash and opportunities haven’t coincided. Not only was Young the first recipient of the Mature Student Award that I fund at the Freda Diesing School, but she is also one of the strongest women carvers currently at work on the coast, with an awareness of line reminiscent of her teacher Dempsey Bob, and a realism uniquely her own. In less than five years, she has gone from an adequate beginner to a carver with a style that promises to make her one of the great originals in Northwest Coast art.

“Wind-Rider” seems an appropriate place to begin buying from Young. Before Young attended the Freda Diesing, she sold Haida dolls on the Internet, and continues to give classes in doll-making. A couple of years ago, she placed a similar figure on a mask for an all-woman show at the Steinbreuck Gallery in Seattle. With its removable hat and cedar bark hair, the figure seems to embody the entire span of her career, so much so that I suggested to her that she should use it as a logo if she ever prints business cards or sets up a web site.

One of the things that makes the carving unusual is that human forms – especially naked ones – are rare in the Northwest Coast Renaissance. Classical works and oral tales sometimes show a decided earthiness, but, by the time of the local Renaissance, Christianity had changed the standards of what was appropriate. As I write, the Bill Reid Gallery is about to host a show of native erotica, featuring younger and avant-garde artists, but in general, the current artistic tradition approaches the human form cautiously, if at all.

By contrast, “Wind-Rider” depicts a semi-realistic naked female form, with a sensuous appreciation of the curves of its spine, buttocks, and thighs. Yet, at the same time, I would hesitate to describe it as erotic, and not just because the figure suggests a young girl rather than an adult woman. This is not a figure poised for the male gaze in some impossible contortion – nor for any other gaze at all, for that matter, considering its wild array of hair. The posture suggests that the rider is absorbed with the act of balancing and holding on, while the upward tilt of the head conveys a sense of wonder, with the eyes – the only part of the sculpture that is painted – fixed on something that only the rider can see. Meanwhile, the blank expression suggests concentration and determination. Sensuousness and innocence are not usually thought of as going together, yet somehow in “Wind-Rider” they seem to co-exist without any difficulty. In fact, you might say that the figure is sensuous because she is self-absorbed. But, however you parse it, the depiction is original in a way that nudes rarely manage.

Sensibly, Young has left most of the spoon unpainted, leaving the lines of the sculpture to speak for themselves. With most of the attention focused on the rider, she has also left the spoon plain. Yet the spoon, too, is well-proportioned, with a graceful curve to the handle and a ladle that is deep enough and wide enough to serve as a visual counter weight to the rider.

One viewer on Facebook immediately thought of witches riding broomsticks (to which Young immediately replied that the Haida have no concept of Witches). Personally, though, my first thought was of Whale Rider, a film whose protagonist is a Maori girl who is determined to break with tradition and become a chief. Not only does the Maori culture resemble that of the local first nations, but, like the film, Young’s sculpture seems all about following dreams and female empowerment.

From any perspective, “Wind-Rider” is a powerful and unusual work. Examining it, I wonder why I took so long to buy from Young and I’m determined not to wait too long before I do so again.

1077994_10151516927180264_1214331885_n

Read Full Post »

Mitch Adam’s “Dancer” is an example of how art keeps surprising me. I first picked up the piece (which fits comfortably in the palm of my hand), while having a late breakfast at the Northern Motor Inn in Terrace, and it immediately changed my mind about what an argillite piece could be.

Before seeing “Dancer,” I would have said I had firm ideas of what an argillite piece should be. It would be unpolished. It should be in a traditional style, and as detailed as possible.

Almost immediately, I saw that “Dancer” was none of these things. Yet, just as quickly, I realized that I wanted to buy it.

However, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Adams’ “Blue Moon Mask,” which is among the favorites in my collection, is an unusual piece as well. Moreover, Adams regularly produces surprises. Miniature masks in which laminated woods take the place of paint, functional carved pipes, yellow cedar sculptures with more detail than you would imagine the wood could take – through all these pieces, Adams has shown a knack for innovative designs and uses of media. I expect the unexpected but apt from him.

So why does this piece succeed against my expectations? Since I received the finished piece a week ago, it has been sitting just below my computer monitor, where I’ve been studying it at odd moments when my fingers pause on the keyboard, trying to figure out the answer.

The answer I’ve come up with is that the piece is sculpture reduced to its essential lines. The flight feathers are represented by three feathers that differ only in size and position, the feathers on the head to overlapping circles reminiscent of scale armor. Simple, unadorned ovoids join the wings to the body. Turn the sculpture around, and it is mostly unfinished, except for an ovoid with four tail feathers, each decorated by a simple T-shape.

Left to themselves, such decoration would be unexceptionable. However, they are not what the eye notices. Instead, what viewers notices is the strong lines of the piece – particularly curves – that I’ve noticed before in the best of Adams’ work. The top of each wing is matched by the curve of the beak on each side, forming strong but obvious crescents on each side. The shape of the head is an approximation in miniature of the half circle formed by the shoulders and the wings, and the bottom two wing-feathers on each side diminished echoes of the top one.

In addition, there is a strong center line. Initially established by the beak, it remains so strong that you still see where it should be in the empty space below it. Cleverly enough, that empty space forms an arrow, pointing up to the beak, and drawing the viewer’s eyes with it.

In the end, these lines and the negative spaces they create are what makes “Dancer” work. Like a successful formline, they draw the eye around the sculpture, keeping it moving. Since the polishing emphasizes them, it, too, is justified. A natural finish would de-emphasize both. Instead, by polishing, Adams has made the curves stand out, and the negative spaces look darker, to the benefit of both.

“Dancer” is a strong piece at its size. However, over the week that it has graced my townhouse, I find myself repeatedly wondering how it would work at a much larger size. My guess is that, with its lines, it would be an outstanding piece at any size.

dancer0

dancer-sideways

Read Full Post »

The more I see of Gary Minaker Russ’ work, the more I consider him the leading argillite carver working today. His attention to detail, his variety of designs, and his restrained use of inlay all combine to put him in a category all by himself. So, naturally, when he was in town a few weeks ago with two mid-sized carvings, I jumped at the chance to buy. Not being able to afford both, I narrowly turned down “Raven and Frog Inside Of a Halibut,” a formal piece squared into an upright rectangle, in favor of “Thunderbird Capturing Killer Whale.”

haida-thunderbird-capturing-killer-whale

I’m pleased with my purchase, although part of me still wonders if I should have bought the other piece – or, better yet, found a way to buy both. But, having narrowly missed buying a cedar sculpture of the same subject a few weeks previously, I still half-feel that karma was urging me to the one I chose.

The thunderbird, of course, is perhaps the best-known figure from First Nations mythology – although I would be hesitant to equate the figure found in the Pacific Northwest with similar ones in the Eastern, Plains, or Southwest cultures to any degree.

In popular modern culture, the thunderbird is simply very large, and somehow creates thunder and lightning. However, among the first nations of the Pacific Northwest, the feature that makes it stand out is simply this: The thunderbird is a creature so large that it hunts whales. Considering that the killer whale is by far the largest animal seen from shore or near it – true whales being usually found further out – that makes the thunderbird a truly monstrous size.

In “Thunderbird Capturing Killer Whale,” Russ has reduced the thunderbird’s size somewhat, making it closer to that of the killer whale, and the capture less one-sided than if the thunderbird was significantly larger. The thunderbird. It fills the left side of the piece, its head upraised in what looks like a grimace, identified by its curved beak (and, yes, those are teeth, and never mind that natural birds don’t have any). It grips the killer whale by its dorsal fin and head, almost hugging it with a wing that sweeps across the center of the piece.

Otherwise, the killer whale lies passive in its grip, bent almost double by the thunderbird’s strength, so that its tail at the top right is almost at right angles to the head at the bottom center. The thunderbird may be straining, and appears buffeted by the loose tail, but the killer whale is caught and probably moments from death.

What at first glance seems an abstract clutter of body parts becomes, on closer examination, a moment of tension, with greater violence due in a matter of seconds.

The fact that the thunderbird appears almost whole– although in profile – while the killer whale takes a moment to recognize suggests the inevitable winner of the fight. So, too, does the difference in the eyes, the killer whale’s round one suggesting passiveness, compared the thunderbird’s elongated one.

Yet this is not a formline design that keeps the eye moving around the entire composition until you have understood the various shapes. Only the wing operates in that way, the eye’s movement seemingly transferred to the wing itself, creating an impression that it is beating, another of the thunderbird’s weapon and, perhaps, helping it to hang on. On the rest of the thunderbird and all of the whale, the formline is more stiff, leading nowhere and slowing the recognition of the scene – an effect that reinforces the sense that the carving is capturing a brief moment of chaotic violence.

Although you might not be able to see clearly from the photo, Russ’ carving of the scene reinforces the struggle by the depth of carving. Most of the sculpture is in low relief, the figures looking slightly squished. But the whale’s head is carved more shallowly than any other part, barely emerging from the background surface. By contrast, its still free tail is raised almost twice as high, and the thunderbird’s head and tail three or four times.

However, for me, the master touch is that the piece is entirely in low-relief – all except for the thunderbird’s claws, which are in high-relief, and rendered realistically rather than with the usual shapes of the northern form-line. This difference literally makes the claws stand out from the rest of the design, making them identifiable when the rest of the carving is still a jumble of forms to your eye. In a very real sense, the claws are what matter most in the scene: they control the killer whale and will shortly rend it.

In the end, this reinforcement of the subject with technique that swayed me to buy “Thunderbird Capturing Killer Whale.” As I often do with sculpture, I am keeping it beside my computer desk, where I can appreciate it while I begin the leisurely process of deciding its more permanent position in my townhouse.

Read Full Post »

I love argillite. Of all the media used by the First Nations artists of the Pacific Northwest, argillite has by far the most mystique and romance, as well as the greatest visual appeal.

Argillite is a black slate found only on Slatechuck Mountain on Haida Gwaii. Similar slates have been in a few other places around the world, but have slightly different chemical compositions that make them less suitable for carving (or so I’ve been told). Only members of the Haida nation are supposed to be allowed on the mountain, and families have unofficial quarries whose exact locations they try to keep secret.

Rumors persist of a logging road that makes access to the quarries easier, but, generally, artists either have to carry out the argillite they quarry on their backs down a narrow trail, or else buy what others chose to sell – usually at about five dollars a pound on Haida Gwaii, and as much as twenty dollars a pound in Vancouver. The tradition has been to keep argillite out of the hands of non-Haida, although a black market makes small amounts generally available to other artists, who generally turn it into pendants.

The history of argillite carving is equally romantic in its obscurity. The standard account is that argillite carving did not begin until 1820, and that the pipes that were among the first carvings known were never actually used. However, while European tools and interest in curios made the 19th century a Golden Age of argillite carving, it seems unlikely that such a sophisticated art form could emerge suddenly without at least a few centuries of tradition. Studies of early pipes show a residue that prove that some early pipes were definitely used, but, since heat can crack argillite, most likely it was a medium reserved for shamans and other ceremonial use before the nineteenth century.

But whatever the truth of the matter, argillite carvings became a major trade good in the 1800s. Unlike other traditional art, these carvings consisted of far more than family crests and the stories that families and title holders held the right to tell. Instead, the carvers of the time also depicted the animals, peoples, and plants of everyday life. Sometimes, they imitated the patterns of the china plates carried by American traders. Other times, they made miniatures of houses and canoes. At times, they depicted the Haida viewpoint of the European traders and immigrants, offering some of the few contemporary depictions of colonization from the perspective of the colonized.

Nineteenth century argillite was not completely naturalistic. For instance, a head is generally one-third the length of the body. However, much of it is painstakingly detailed, with muscles on arms and legs or the individual strands of a rope all clearly delineated in a way that the more traditional wood carving almost never is. During its development, argillite carving also developed its own stock poses, such as a shaman holding a rattle in his upraised right hand and a knife in his left.

Like other art forms, argillite carving suffered because of epidemics and Christianization. However, because it was a trade good, argillite carving never declined quite as much as more traditional forms. Probably, it helped, too, that Charles Edenshaw, one of the first great Haida carvers whose name and career we know, was a skilled argillite carver – although this aspect of his art was omitted altogether from the recent exhibit of the works of Charles and Isobel Edenshaw at the Museum of Anthropology.

Today, argillite is a niche market. Bill Reid was influenced by argillite design, but only experimented with the actual medium. Similarly, while Robert Davidson as a teenager sold model totem poles in argillite for the tourist trade, it has never been his favorite medium. The same is true of artists such as Jay Simeon, Ernest Swanson, Gwaai Edenshaw or Marcel Russ, although all of these artists can produce outstanding argillite pieces when they take the time.

The trouble seems to be that argillite is more temperamental than wood, silver, or gold. It is dirty to work with, resistant to tools, and prone to flaws that can destroy hours of work with one misplaced stroke. Because of its water content, it can shatter in the cold. Artists like Christian White or Gary Minaker Russ who have done most of their work in argillite are essentially specialists, appealing to a relatively small and expensive market. Excluding pendants and miniatures, galleries rarely have more than two or three pieces of argillite at any one time, and prices usually begin at about $8000.

Nor has the reputation of argillite been helped by the growing practice in the last decade of inlaying pieces with gold, silver, and semi-precious stones. Often, such inlays are added before carving begins, seriously interfering with the artist’s ability to add detail, and, almost always, they are added in lieu of detailed carving. Moreover, because such inlays are expensive, they add substantially to prices, which means that buyers are being asked to pay more for inferior work that increases very little in value.

Quality argillite pieces are still being carved, but to find them buyers either have to visit Haida Gwaii or at least deal with artists directly. However, the effort to find quality can be well worth the effort.

Even when left with its natural finish, argillite has a reflective finish that makes a carving rich in shadows and highlights. These shadows and highlights change with the available light, but always adds a unique impression of depth and motion. They make argillite a medium that demands to be touched, and its carving traced over and over with the fingers – in fact, many believe that frequent handling prolongs the life of a carving, because the oils from human hands replenish the moisture that was originally in the slate.

Elegant and mysterious, quality argillite carvings are an under-appreciated glory of Northwest Coast art that never fail to capture and intrigue the eye.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »