Posts Tagged ‘Heiltsuk’

I first became aware of the work of Heiltsuk artist Kc Hall’s when I saw a tattoo he designed on Facebook. Instantly, I put him on the short list of young artists I wished to buy from.

It was not just the graffiti style. These days, half the newer artists seem to playing with similar styles, and, while I like the idea of First Nations artists doing something new, many graffiti-inspired works frankly seem to me tiresome and lacking inspiration.

However, Hall’s work is not like that. I could tell at once that he was well-grounded in traditional work. Later, I was not at all surprised to learn that he had designed the vests given to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge when they visited recently (an assignment for which he drew some sharp criticism from those who imagine that artists share the politics of their patrons), because his graffiti style – or styles, I should say, to be more exact – show a knowledge of tradition that is often missing from modernist works. Unlike many working in similar styles, Hall knows what he is playing with in h is modern work.

So, although Hall seems incredibly busy, both with canvases and tattoo designs, last summer I commissioned a work from him and took it home from the Starbucks at New Westminster station after a pleasant talk about local art punctuated by the arriving and departing Skytrains.

After some discussion, Hall painted “Happy Mess,” a colorful canvas that breaks just about every traditional aspect imaginable. To start with, it is not confined to a primary color of black and a secondary red, with perhaps a third blue. Nor is it symmetrical, as most First Nations designs are, nor even a hint of a formline.

Instead, as the title indicates, the painting is a collection of random traditional elements spill across the page at an angle. Only an analytical eye is likely to notice that it is a series of interlocking triangles, with objects at each angle, subtly structuring the apparent randomness.

The objects themselves are often traditional. The rectangles with faces are borrowed from Chilkat weaving, while the hat is a traditional cedar one, painted with what looks like a traditional black raven. Meanwhile, the central part of the painting appears to be primarily a view up a pole from directly beneath, but also doubles as the fin of a killer whale with the blowhole transformed into what could almost be the Rolling Stones’ lip logo, and is held together by  what looks like a buttoned collar halfway up. And among these elements are arrows of two different sizes that would be more at home in a flow chart. There is even a stylized black blob, as if the artist left an accident uncorrected.

Add the cartoon clouds, and the overall impression is of an artist having fun with forms. The result is completely different from almost anything else in my collection, yet, because Hall knows the traditions he plays with, one that still manages to fit with the paintings around it. I have considered one day commissioning a traditional piece from Hall to hang beside it, but, until I do, it hangs at the entrance to my living room, where it never fails to get a reaction from my visitors.


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Ian Reid (Nusi) is a Heiltsuk artist whose work I have been watching for a while. For a long time, I was determined that the first Reid piece that I would buy would be one of his Chilkat ravens, like the one that was in the Continuum show at the Bill Reid Gallery. However, when “Working Shaman” came into the Inuit Gallery last month, I leaped at the chance to buy it. The mask is a simple one in some aspects, but all the more appealing for that reason.

If you have read anything about shamanism on the Northwest Coast, you may remember that shamans typically did not wash or cut their hair. This is the main element in Reid’s mask, with its unkempt hair and mustache, its carelessly-tied topknot, and the white feathers. The blending of the red paint into the color of the unpainted wood also suggests a lack of cleanliness, or at least the chapped complexion of someone who spends most of his time outdoors.

Many shamans had a fearsome reputation (certainly, their graves were isolated, and not places where people lingered). This reputation is played upon in many modern renderings of shamans, but Reid has taken a different approach. His shaman is not so much a figure of fear as an eccentric. The unfocused eyes and slightly parted lips suggest the trance state of someone imperfectly grounded in the everyday world.

This is the first Heiltsuk piece I have bought, and I admit to knowing almost nothing of the Heiltsuk artistic traditions, mainly because they do not seem to have been studied in their own right. However, the carving and the painting suggest a tradition that I would expect from the Heiltsuk’s physical location: It mostly resembles the Kwakwaka’wakw, but also has a touch of northern formline as well.

Saying more is complicated by the fact that Reid seems to be drawing on 19th century sensibilities, rather than working as a modern artist familiar with the formal rules of formline. The formline on the mask is looser than modern artists usually draw today, and the U-shapes are independent decorations, not elements contained by the formline. In fact, such formline as appears is thin and almost overwhelmed by the red of the eye sockets and nose, and around the mouth.

Where you can see the plain wood, it looks old rather than recently carved. Add the smearing of the red, and the general impression is of an old mask – dug up, perhaps, from a shaman’s grave to put on display in a museum.

Given that much of Reid’s work is ceremonial and communal, this impression is probably deliberate. Artists who work both commercially and cultural generally make a distinction between the two types of work and, looking for a tradition for non-cultural work, what better place to find it than in a museum? That this is a mask to look at, not to be danced, is emphasized by the fact that not only are there no eye holes, but neither are there are any holes for the nostrils — not even an indication of where they would be.

Portrait masks can be hard to do well. Many carvers – and buyers – prefer bird or animal masks, that seem more imaginative. But in depicting a shaman and giving the mask a patina of historicity, in “Working Shaman,” Reid shows that a portrait mask can be as imaginative as any.

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