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Posts Tagged ‘Haisla’

Several years ago, Haisla carver Nathan Wilson was one of the standouts at the Freda Diesing School graduation exhibit. Unlike most of his classmates, he was already regularly selling masks to the galleries. They were well-finished, but, I thought them lacking in individuality. However, his masks also suggested that very soon he would manage that individuality – and I when I saw “ Tagwa” on Facebook, I knew immediately that he had. I immediately offered to buy it, nipping in ahead of several other buyers.

The only catch was that Wilson had done the panel for his YVR scholarship. That meant I would have to wait a year to take it home, while it hung in the Vancouver airport for a year. Then, ominously, when the year was up, Wilson said he wanted to make some adjustments to it.

Knowing something about carvers and perfectionism, I joked that the octopus would probably come back as a grizzly bear. Mercifully, on closer examination, Wilson decided to restrict himself to minor corrections, and the panel arrived at my front door fourteen months after I had reserved it.

“Tagwa” is an abstract piece, with the shape distorted to find the shape of the panel. In fact, the body of the octopus is upside down, with its beak at center left. The abstraction is heightened by the body, which – fittingly – resembles a loose sack of random shapes in which only the beak and eye are visible.

At first, only a few tentacles are visible, the others, presumably, being hidden by the octopus’ body. However, if you look closely, you start to realize that what at first appears to be the formlines for the body could actually be another two tentacles. You also realize that although four tentacle tips are visible in the right half of the panel, they twist in such a way that more tentacles may be present. Stare long enough, and the exact count becomes difficult to decide, because the tentacles seem to start twisting as you try to make sense of them.

The tentacles, they contrast with the body by having a contemporary design. Instead of the ovoids that many artists would have used to indicate the tentacle’s suckers, Wilson contents himself with plain ovals. Instead of a formline design, the tentacles themselves form the center of interest, twining and showing their two sides, one painted red and the other left unpainted cedar. If you look closely at the picture, you can see that the wood mimics the rubbery texture of an octopus’ skin.

This contrast between the two sides of the panel is heightened by its colors. The body reverses the traditional formline colors, making red the primary color and black the secondary one. In addition, as often happens in Haisla works, blue is added as a background color.

The result is a piece that immediately catches the eyes. It now hangs prominently in the center of one wall of my living room, where it catches my eye several times a day, and where in the last nine months it has become one of my favorites pieces. Wilson himself, I am happy to say, has continued to show his own sense of style in his more recent works, consistently proving himself the artist I always suspected he was.
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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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Any exhibit by Haisla artist Lyle Wilson is worth seeing. With a career spanning thirty-five years, in media varying from wood to metal and from jewelry to sculpture, Wilson is one of the major figures in Northwest Coast Art, deserving to be mentioned alongside names like Robert Davidson and Dempsey Bob. However, “Paint,” his current exhibit at the Maple Ridge Art Gallery, is more worth lingering over than most.

For one thing, paint is not a medium that is popular in Northwest Coast art. Its place has largely been taken by limited edition prints, despite the fact that many artists experiment with it. Wilson in particular is not known for it, and went so far at the reception as to say that it was a medium that he disliked. However, given that Wilson says in the program book that he has done over seventy paintings in his career – forty of which are on display in “Paint” – and has stored many unsold for decades, this professed dislike should probably be received with some skepticism.

When Wilson talks about painting, especially the superiority of wood rather than canvas or paper, his tone is calm but clearly engaged, so perhaps the lack of a market has more to do with his claim than any personal preference. Wood, as he pointed out when I talked to him, is the traditional medium for most of the painting on the coast, and he agreed that “warmth” was a suitable adjective for describing its effect compared to canvas or paper.

Which brings up another point: unlike Wilson’s “North Star” exhibit three years ago, which was mostly a display of Wilson’s versatility in different media, “Paint” is about tradition and its role in modern art as much as media. This concern is highlighted in pieces like his illuminated map of traditional Haisla territory, or in his word paintings or his designs that include the major crests of the Haisla nation.

Less obviously, it shows in his attempts to trace ovoids and other elements from the northern style of design to the anatomy of local wildlife; for instance, he suggest that ovoids originate in the eyes of the skate fish.

Tradition, shows, too, in the marine life that crowds Wilson’s work. Skate, halibut, octopi, red cod, salmon – always salmon, the mainstay of traditional life – cluster in much of his work, like “Raven and the Fisherman.”

Other designs are closeups of marine life, or designs made from their intertwined bodies. Their predators, such as the raven, eagle, and the heron also appear. More than most local First Nations artists, Wilson is always mindful that the traditional culture was one that harvested the ocean and depended upon it.

Another way to look at “Paint” is from a personal level. A miniature Tsimshian-style house front and moon reflect Wilson’s personal studies.

One or two small paintings are studies for larger works, such as “Orca Chief,” which was the model for the sculpture “Orca Chief” at the Vancouver airport.

The exhibit shows, too, how Wilson mixes contemporary life with his artistic tradition, as in his alphabet or maps – the closest, perhaps, in contemporary culture that he can come to the role of art in Haisla tradition – and in his traditional orca spouting rainbows of color.

Circle the exhibit several times, and you can also start getting a sense of his preferred palette, a muted selection of colors far less vivid than, for instance, that of Robert Davidson. In fact, much of Wilson’s strongest work is black and white, where his control of contrast is as subtle as it is effective.

“Paint” is a show that is as intellectual as it is personal. Thankfully, it is accompanied by a sixty-six page catalog that combines Wilson’s artistic statements with personal memories and the sometimes fragmentary remnants of his culture past, as well as a strong plea for a revival of interest in the Haisla language, which is quickly approaching extinction. Far from being the usual collection of glittering generalities, this is a catalog rich in personal and cultural biography that adds genuine aesthetic and intellectual appreciation to the exhibit itself.

In fact, ideally, anyone interested in Northwest Coast art should attend the exhibit, then take the catalog home and read it slowly and carefully in preparation for a second, more informed visit (which is what I hope to do myself, even though Maple Ridge is a ninety minute bus ride away). But even if you can only manage one trip, “Paint” is a major show by a major artist, and you are sure to come away with a stronger sense not just of the artist and his art, but also of the culture behind them.

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Over the last few years, I’ve received four masks and three prints from Haisla artist John Wilson, as well as a bentwood box carved and painted by him. The masks in particular are among my favorites hanging in the townhouse, and show Wilson’s increasing expertise as an artist. My latest purchase from Wilson, “Blind Shaman in a Trance,” illustrates the level he’s reached – one that makes his work stand out among the artists who have established themselves in the last five years.

“Blind Shaman” depicts a common theme in historical Northwest Coast art, and one popular among many modern artists: a shaman going about his business as the mediator between different aspects of reality. A blind shaman was thought to be compensated for his lack of sight by greater inward vision, and this one has the additional support of frogs as spirit helpers. As creatures who change form as they grow, and as adults move freely between the water and the land, frogs are especially suitable as helpers, because they embody exactly the freedom of movement between planes of existence that the shaman tries to develop. Unsurprisingly, the placement of spirit helpers like mice or frogs on the cheeks and forehead are a common feature in shamanistic masks in the northern tradition, particularly among the Tlingit.

Like much of the work that Wilson has done this year, “Blind Shaman” is more complex than the portrait masks that comprise the bulk of his work. Although his past work shows that a face alone can be interesting, “Blind Shaman adds additional figures, making for a more complex composition, even before painting. In fact, in some ways, a picture of the mask in progress that Wilson posted on Facebook is more interesting than the final version, because the lack of paint emphasizes the carving more, as well as the shadows it creates.

However, the mask has an effect when painted that it could never have when unpainted. By rising to the top of the nose, the blue triangle that covers the lower face allows an easy reversal of figure and ground. At first glance, the mask appears to be a face surrounded by frogs, all much smaller than the face. But if you focus on the mouth of the figure on the forehead, then suddenly the frogs on the cheeks look like hands, and a much larger figure is looming over the shaman’s face, consisting of mostly uncarved wood. Focus again, and the mask appears in its original form. This reversal emphasizes the fact that the shaman’s trance involves him opening up to forces larger than himself, perhaps even inviting possession.

From either perspective, “Blind Shaman in a Trance” is an arresting piece of work. I look forward to seeing what Wilson does next – and, meanwhile, this latest mask is a welcome addition to one wall of my bedroom.

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I think of Haisla artist John Wilson as primarily a mask carver, and certainly that is where most of his efforts have gone in the last few years. However, his prints show a certain talent for two-dimensional design as well, which is why I was pleased to pick up this abstract “Wolf.”

Most Northwest Coast Art is abstract to a greater or lesser extent, of course, in that it is highly stylized and uses a number of basic shapes not found in nature to achieve its effects. However, the sub-genre specifically referred to as abstract is less naturalistic than most. In an abstract piece, some of the distinguishing features of a subject are often missing or distorted and often only one or two remain. The figure is further distorted by the surface it is on. The end result is a figure far removed from the semi-naturalistic figures in the tradition – so much so that viewers either need the title or some familiarity with the art in order to know what is being depicted. These conditions open up possibilities for original self-expression that are often harder to find in semi-naturalistic figures.

All these generalities are true in “Wolf.” The bushy tail that is one of the defining characteristics of wolf figures (and often an opportunity for considerable ingenuity by artists) is squeezed into the rectangle of the figure below the jaw, so that at first you might mistake it for ornamentation. Only the short ears and perhaps the muzzle and teeth are left to identify the figure – and the muzzle and teeth might easily be a bear’s. Since the figure is turned sideways and presented upright, there is only one foot and a couple of claws, which increases the abstraction even further

What is left is mostly teeth and claws, creating an impression of fierceness, especially since the claws are outsized. This impression is strengthened further by the elaborateness of the eye with its tilt, as well as the red of the tail bisecting the image.

Technically, the print might be called a study in threes. Three parts of the wolf – the head, the tail, and the foot – are depicted. There are three black ovoids — the eye, foot and nostril – that frame the image, each with a slightly different shape as well as different interior decorations. In addition, three parallel lines –the tail itself, the bottom line of the heat and the top of the foot – cut across the picture. Three black lines form the foot, although only part of the two claws are parallel. In addition, the eye is made elaborate by three clusters of U-shapes, each with some variation of a T-shape inside it to thin it out. For variation, the patterns of three are sometimes broken, as in the red decorations around the eye, only two of which have a tripartite structure, but the grouping are enough to give the figure of “Wolf” a strong unity.

An especially interesting cluster of threes is the tail with its knick in the middle. It is minimalistically echoed in the thin red line beneath the claws, and in the mirror image that touches the ear on one side and the muzzle on the other.. I am not absolutely sure of Wilson’s intention, but the way that the top structure mirrors that of the tail suggests to me that it is part of the tail, so you have to imagine the tail wrapping around the wolf, stretching from the bottom of the image to the top behind the figure, where you can’t see it.

The formlines, too, are worth pointing out. For much of their lengths, they are a uniform thickness, and bend at almost the same angle. However, they are saved from being monotonous by their long, tapering ends, and surprisingly few other techniques. Instead, they create a sense of boldness that seems to fit with the ferocity of the wolf.

In fact, if I had to use one word for “Wolf,” that word would be “bold.” In a way, I regret that the print is so small, because “Wolf” is a design that almost demands to be blown up for a house-front or some other large-scale depiction.

(Note: Being a responsible blogger, I want to take this opportunity to strongly deny the rumor that the print is also available in a limited edition of one in pink and mauve. This alleged alternative version does not exist, and you should not ask the artist about it. Nor did you view it here if you are interrogated. Okay?.)


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With few exceptions, the collecting of Northwest Coast Art did not begin until the 1970s. That means that pieces from those collections are just now starting to appear in estate sales – sometimes at bargain prices, if the heirs are more interested in quick cash than obtaining the full value. Consequently, when a copy of Lyle Wilson’s 1980 limited edition print “Shaman’s World “ showed up at the Inuit Gallery during the summer, I quickly snapped it up.

The print would be unusual today, but, when it first appeared, it must have seemed utterly unique. I tag it in my mind as a Northwest Coast Gothic, a kind of predecessor of Ron Telek’s work. It is also Gothic in a modern sense: monochromatic, macabre, and, quite possibly, self-consciously over the top.

The shaman’s world, apparently is actually two worlds, one the mundane world of light, and the other the dark world of the supernatural and other realms like the sky and the depths of the ocean. In the mundane world is the head of an eagle – perhaps a tutelary spirit to judge from the hand above it – while below it is a figure that may be a man terrified of the shaman, but which I suspect is a masked dancer, trying to make sense of reality through his dance. Meanwhile, in the spirit world, a man transforms into an eagle while below it swims a killer whale, another figure of power.

Neither world has much in common with the other except the shaman, who stands in the middle like a sort of ying-yang symbol, half of him in each world. Both worlds are contained in a frame of human figures (whose formline shapes suggest that they are intended as skeletons), birds and monsters that are apparently wolves. The tops and bottom of the frame are mirror images, perhaps adding the additional dimension of life and death to the cosmology contained within the print.

The shaman’s position, clearly enough, indicates that the shaman mediates between all aspects of the world, as well as their different methods of understanding. It might also be significant that the shaman is less skeletal than the human figures in the outer frame and has a differently shaped-head; perhaps the suggestion is that the shaman is the only piece truly alive.

The formlines in “Shaman’s World” are wonderfully simple, defined largely by interior elements to indicate knees and hips and chests. They flow from one shape to another, as good formline should, but so do the elements of the design. For instance, although the shaman’s arms are held in front his chest, the body of the human transforming into a bird and the first sprouting feathers look, at first, like an additional arm. Similarly, the twisted body and tail-flukes of the killer whale suggest a third leg. Together with the formlines, these flowing shapes help assure that the viewer’s eyes are never still, picking out a detail here and there, but always moving around the design.

Another obvious element is the use of blank space. Although much of the design is symmetrical, especially in the frame, the blank spaces on both sides of the shaman are highly irregular, being open and broad on the mundane side, and narrow and twisting on the spirit side. In this way, both the traditional symmetry of most Northwest Coast art and the asymmetrical preferences of modern design appear in the design – yet another set of elements that the shaman mediates between.

By restricting himself to black and white, Wilson relinquishes whatever a secondary or tertiary formline color might have brought to the print, but probably it is just as well – had he added red or blue or green, the design might have collapsed under its own weight. As things are, it is still a restless piece, full of contrasts and new elements to discover as your eye travels around it again and again.

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The Northwest Coast art in our home includes many contemporary pieces. However, I am also fascinated by traditional pieces, particularly recreations of historical masks according to modern sensibilities. That is why, when John Wilson’s “Voices of Our Ancestors” (aka “Portrait Mask”) became available, I jumped at the chance to buy it.

John Wilson, "Spirit of Our Ancestors"

“Voices of Our Ancestors” is based on two historical Haisla masks in J. C. H. King’s “Portrait Masks from the Northwest Coast of America,” a book first published in 1979. It is a mask well worth studying for its own sake, all the more so because examples of Haisla design are relatively rare. When you do see them, you have no trouble placing the Haisla geographically, because their art often seems like a combination of Kwakwaka’wakw and Tsimshian traditions. Nor is Wilson’s mask an exception.

Artists Unknown, Historic Haisla Masks

However, what especially interests me is Wilson’s reinterpretation of the historic masks. To start with, Wilson chooses a less rounded, more northern shape for the mask. This change is accompanied by some changes in proportions, such as a wider space between the lips and nose, and a higher placement of the ears. He has also decided not to include the teeth that are in the originals, and replaced the originals’ rounded eyes with more smaller, more slanted ones. In addition, the cheekbones of Wilson’s mask are far less prominent than in the originals. The result is a less human, more supernatural look – a fitting change, considering that the mask is a work of a modern man looking back on the past.

Another noticeable difference is in the selection of colors. This difference is not just a matter of what was available; one of the older masks actually has a brighter red than the one that Wilson uses. By contrast, even allowing for aging, the historical piece has a more subdued blue than Wilson uses. Wilson also accents the red by drawing thicker formlines, and using it in places where the historical piece uses blue.

Wilson has followed the general designs of the original, including the stylized mustache and goatee, but almost always he has put his own interpretation on them. For instance, he has taken the rows of parallel lines just visible on the colored original, and added them as a design element below the nose, replacing the rather uninspired blobs of cross-hatching, and perhaps suggesting mustache stubble.

However, the largest difference between Wilson’s mask and its inspiration is in the form lines. Although formline influence is obvious in the originals, Wilson’s formlines are more disciplined, with more variation in thickness and more balance. For instance, where the formlines on the forehead in the original meets above the left eye, Wilson’s meet between the eyes. Similarly, where the original has formlines meet on on the cheeks, Wilson’s meet at the nostril.

Probably the most obvious difference in the design is on the cheeks, where the formline helps to replace the cross-hatching, and the blue u-shapes are greatly reduced in size. Even more importantly, the red formline that follows the line of the cheek curves upwards rather than downwards as in the original, doing more than any single element to make the modern mask less human and more arresting than the originals.

“Spirit of Our Ancestors” is obviously influenced by the sources that Wilson acknowledges, but clearly it is more than imitation, or an unthinking copying of a classical piece. Wilson’s mask is more balanced piece of work than either of the originals, with a stronger northern influence as well. Although somewhat of a new direction for Wilson, it more than succeeds on its own terms. Wilson has not simply copied, but repeatedly improved as well.

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