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Kelly Robinson is one of my favorite First Nations artists. I live with two of his paintings and three of his masks, all of which are strikingly different. Partly, his versatility is explained by the fact he works in both the Nuxalk and Nuu-chah-nulth traditions, but, whatever the reason, he is always trying something new. “Shamed Spirit” is no exception, although I have put off writing about it for several months, waiting for him to tell me more.

Until the other week, the mask didn’t even have a name. Robinson himself seems reluctant to talk about it, suggesting it is highly personal.

I recognized, of course, that it is a ridicule mask. Ridicule masks are a tradition on the Northwest Coast, a public display reproof of someone’s behavior through the destruction of artwork. This gesture is, perhaps, comparable to the breaking of a copper, as Beau Dick did a few years ago on the grounds of the British Columbia legislature and later at the Canadian Parliament Buildings – a gesture of contempt emphasized by the destruction of something personal and beautiful.

Modern ridicule masks generally feature the marring of half a mask. Often, they make a similar statement to Dick’s breaking of a copper; I remember Mike Dangeli, for example, contributing a ridicule mask that was an overt comment about the treatment of the First Nations to the opening show at the Bill Reid Gallery.

However, I still don’t know whether Robinson intends a similar comment. From a couple of hints, it might be a comment about sexual abuse, although how personal or how political it might be, I am no means sure.

Still, no matter what the target of the mask might be, it remains a powerful symbol. From the right side of the mask, you can see that the design is a mature display of skill, simple yet striking and well-finished. The left side, which Robinson tells me actually spent some time in a fire (and still smells like it did) is both a tragedy for lovers of art, and an expression of strong emotion. After all, who destroys such a piece of art without a strong motivation?

The whole idea of a ridicule mask seems the ultimate example of passive-aggressiveness, a gesture whose sincerity is undeniable, yet comes at a tremendous cost, both personally and aesthetically. I can only hope that one day I get to hear the story behind “Shamed Spirit,” because as a statement, it seems important – even to my limited understanding. But, then, who says that art is supposed to be easy?

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Many people don’t realize the fact, but the Northwest Coast art market is flooded with forgeries. Made in Asia, these forgeries sell are imported by the hundreds, selling for a fraction of genuine pieces. Often, they are low quality, and show little knowledge of local traditions, but a few of them show a reasonable level of skill, and even include forged signatures of well-known artists.

So how can you know if the art you are buying is genuine? Here are a few basic precautions:

  1. Spend some time in galleries to see what regular prices are, both for the kind of work and for a particular artist. Forgeries will usually be 20–50% of the standard prices. Although you can sometimes find genuine bargains – for instance, the work of new artists — in most cases if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  2. Buy directly from reputable galleries or artists. Someone selling on the streets is unlikely to be genuine, and, the further removed from the artist a sale is, the greater the chance of forgery.
  3. Talk to the seller about the piece. Be suspicious if the seller cannot talk knowledgeably about what it represents or how it was made. Beware of simple, general explanations about the piece, such as the claim that a depiction of a wolf symbolizes courage or an eagle soaring ideals.
  4. Ask the seller where they studied the art, and with whom. Traditionally, Northwest Coast art has been passed down from teacher to student, and genuine artists are quick to mention their teachers. By contrast, be skeptical of people who claim to have been adopted by a First Nations group, or to have received a blessing – claims that appeal to the stereotypes of First Nations, but have little to do with the realities of the cultures.
  5. Check what materials are being used. For instance, although legitimate First Nations artists sometimes experiment with other types of wood, the most common types are ones found on the northwest coast, such as red or yellow cedar, alder, and yew. By contrast, the forgeries are usually made from Asian hardwoods, such as mahogany. Argillite pieces are usually legitimate, because the Haida control the supply, although a few pieces are sometimes sold to others.
  6. If you don’t know who is reputable, ask around galleries and online for recommendations. If you are buying privately, ask for some indication of authenticity.
  7. When you can, see the signature on a genuine piece and compare it with the signature on a piece you are considering buying. If it looks totally different, it is a forgery. However, beware of it looking too much the same, too, because no one ever signs their signature exactly the same each time.
  8. If you have a picture of a piece you want to buy, use it to search online to see if a similar design exists from another artist.
  9. Educate yourself about the art by spending time in galleries or reading books like Hilary Stewart’s Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast. Although the art is intricate, it is also stylized, especially the formline tradition of the northern First Nations. Asian carvers copying from pictures rarely have the knowledge to follow the tradition accurately. Not only does knowing the traditions teach you what to look for, but, if you know the tradition, you can also tell when the seller is using phrases like “transformation mask” incorrectly in an effort to impress you.

A single one of these precautions may not be enough to help you avoid forgeries, but several together should be. The sellers of forgeries count heavily on the ignorance and prejudices of buyers and the wish for a bargain. Respond with caution and common sense, and you have a better chance of seeing through their deceit and of not buying a worthless fake.

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When I attended the Freda Diesing School’s year end exhibit last April, I was the first in the doors when the campus longhouse was opened. As I stepped in, a mask caught my attention from across the room. The closer I came, the more I admired it. Eventually, I checked the artist, who turned out to be Jamie Katerina Nole, whose “Pregnant Frogwoman” print I bought several years ago. I hovered waiting for Nole, and, as soon as she arrived, I bought it – and who can blame me? “Princess Luna” is a piece of carving that starts with solid foundations, and consistently makes an extra effort that produces an outstanding work.

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“Princess Luna.”

Of course I could not have foreseen that, through a series of misadventures that were no one’s fault, I would take four months to receive the mask. However, the delay only makes me appreciate the mask all the more.

As the name suggests, “Princess Luna” is a moon mask. Moon masks are common at the school, because the moon is not a family crest, but often they are learning exercises at best. The basic design consists of a face surrounded by a ring of U-shapes or ovoids and “Princess Luna” obviously begins with that design, although it soon heads off in its own direction.

To start with, the mask is made of alder, a pale wood that through a combination of selection and sanding seems suitable for the moon. Both the painting and the copper labret are restrained, and the face itself is more realistic than that of most moon masks, with closed eyes that create a sense of serenity and mystery that is reminiscent of standing in the light of the full moon. Like the “Pregnant Frogwoman,” print, the result is a sense of emotion that is rare in northwest coast art.

Similarly, the decorations around the rim can be viewed as covering the phrases of the moon, with the blank ovoid at the top the new moon, and the full moon at ear level on both sides of the mask.

Just these basics would be enough to make the mask more than a classroom exercise, but they are just the beginning. At the bottom, the stars are indicated, with cutouts and two loose rings cut from the same piece of wood as the rest of the mask – an impressive and seldom-seen display of skill. Turn the mask over, and the phases of the moon are shown again, although few people are likely to see it.

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The back of the mask, showing the phases of the moon. Notice, too, the smooth finish on the back.

Yet the greatest extra effort is the use of luminous paint. If, like me, your eyes see some distance into the ultra-violet, this luminous paint adds to the sense of wonder in the mask by creating a sense of something that cannot quite be seen. In the twilight, the pale wood turns almost golden, and, under black light, creates an entirely different look to the mask, transforming it into a figure of power more awake that the mask appears under ordinary light.

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“Princess Luna” by black light.

Nole is still experimenting with different styles. The Northern Exposure show included another two more of her experiments, “Trickster Flow,” which places a Modernist design across a conventional portrait mask, and “Raven – Don’t Froget Me Crest,” a frontlet painted in a non-traditional style. Neither is as successful as “Princess Luna,” but, like it, they create the impression of an innovative artist who is prepared to make the extra effort to produce original work. Nole has clearly made intelligent use of her time at the Freda Diesing school, and “Princess Luna” is proof that “The Pregnant Frogwoman” was a start and not just an accidental success.  I can’t wait to see what she carves next — or what she will be carving in another twenty years.

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In the renaissance of Northwest Coast art, the story of how Raven stole the light is the equivalent of the Madonna and Child in classic European art: sooner or later, most artists produce at least one version of it. Several years ago, I bought Bill Hudson’s version of the story, which shows Raven opening a box labeled Sun Crispies as he sits down at a kitchen table. Now, in James Crawford’s “Raven Steals the Lightbulb – Unscrewed,” I have found another modern updating of the story.

If anyone knows one story from the local First Nations, it is the story of how Raven stole the light from the chieftain who held in locked in his chest. Raven turns himself into a pine-needle and has himself swallowed by the chieftain’s daughter so he can be born as her son. The chieftain dotes on his grandchild, and one day gives him the light as a toy – and Raven promptly flees with it, burning himself black as he escapes through the smokehouse of the longhouse, and scattering the sun, moon, and stars, accidentally creating the world as we know it. With variations, the story is told in many different cultures. Usually, the depiction has Raven holding a sphere of light in his beak as he flees.

Crawford gives a modern rendering of this familiar scene. It is evidently a supernatural light bulb, since it appears to be still radiating light after being unscrewed, and in the upper left is what might be the rising sun. Raven looks mischievously pleased with his theft, or perhaps with the updating of the well-known scene.

However, the print is more than a one-punch piece. Instead, it is one of Crawford’s experiments with lino block prints: images that are carved, then inked and used as a stamp. It is a seldom used technique, although Stan Bevan, one of Crawford’s instructors at the Freda Diesing School, released at least one block print of his own. The effect is totally unlike any other medium, with irregular lines, and an often blocky appearance. It reminds me of the woodcuts in books from the 16th and 17th Centuries, which used a similar technique. The result gives Crawford’s print the eerie impression of being an artifact from some alternate universe in which the local First Nations had European-style printed books.

Needless to say, block prints require tremendous care when they are printed, especially when more than one color is used. Consequently, the print is small, roughly 12 by 25 centimeters. However, the effect is so appealing to my eye that I plan to buy some of Crawford’s other block prints – and to keep an eye on his work in other media as well.

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I missed the 2016 Freda Diesing School’s graduate exhibit, so attending this one meant all the more for me. The moment I walked into the campus longhouse, with its carvings, natural light and high ceilings, I immediately felt at ease. Within moments, I was circling around the exhibit, trying to get pictures while staying one step ahead of the crowd.

This year’s show included a skillful piece by instructor Dean Heron, an alumnae of the first graduating class. I was glad to see it; focusing on his teaching, Dean does far less carving that I would prefer.

However, the emphasis was on the students’ work. The classes of 2017 were some of the stronger ones of recent years, with several outstanding graduates of the program and a promising collection of first year students. I found myself dividing the pieces displayed into those whose main appeal was their painting, and those whose appeal combined both painting and carving.

It takes a steady hand to paint convincingly – a steadier one than I have ever had – and the exhibit included several examples. Joseph Campbell, Lorraine Wolf, and Roger Smith all hung portrait masks with a steady hand and palettes of primary colors. In her moon mask, Kari Morgan took another direction with a minimalist white that put the emphasis on the finish of the wood and her carving.

More exotic were Sage Novak’s “Ghost Mask” and Violet Gatensbury’s “Fire Mask,” which blended paint skillfully into the wood and also featured rows of beads on the mask.

Among those with both strong painting and carving were Raven LeBlanc’s Dogfish mask, which rapidly went on my shortlist of possible purchases.

Similarly, Amanda Hugon showed her skill and versatility with her Tsimshian-like “Great Canadian Beaver” mask and Salish Moon Mask.”

However, the standouts in the show were Reuben Mack and Jaimie Katerina Nole. Mack submitted two Nuxalk-style masks,and only his absence from the crowd kept me from asking if they were for sale:

 

By contrast, Nole submitted three masks in three very different styles: the “Don’t Froget Me” frontlet, the “Trickster Flow” portrait mask, and the “Princess Luna” moon mask.

With an unlimited budget, I could have willingly bought most of these masks, assuming they had been for sale. However, since my parents refused to let me be born rich, I could only buy Nole’s “Princess Luna” – to my eye the pick of the show In fact, it caught my attention from across the floor as I stepped into the exhibit, and within twenty minutes, I was begging to buy it.

All these masks, and possibly more, are scheduled to be in the 2017 Northern Exposure show opening on May 27 at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver. If you have an interest in First Nations art, take the time to have a look at them in person. Even if you don’t buy, the pleasure of seeing what has become one of the biggest yearly exhibits in British Columbia is too great to miss. Believe me, I won’t make the mistake of missing it again – and neither should you.

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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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I always appreciate recognizing talent before anybody else. What interests me is not so much the potential for a piece done early in an artist’s career to increase in value (since I never sell what I buy) so much as the satisfaction of recognizing talent before anyone else. So when Kelly Robinson, one of my favorite Northwest Coast artists, told me in December that he was teaching his brother Randall to carve, I was immediately interested in the results. And, given his selection of materials and the finish on “Rainwater,” in Randall James Robinson’s case I am already experiencing that satisfaction in the reactions of those who see the mask.

“Rainwater” is one of Robinson’s first masks. The carving is relatively simple, but a good choice for the material. The mask is carved from spalted alder – that is, alder infected with a fungus that discolors the wood. The discoloration apparently does not photograph well, and is actually much smoother-looking than it appears to be in the photo below, but the point is that the spalting is so interesting in itself that too-elaborate carving would be a distraction, especially since the spalting’s long lines of discoloration suggests long trails of rain running down the mask.

Robinson tells me that he got the wood from Gordon Dick, the carver and owner of the Ahtsik Gallery near Port Alberni, who produced the spalting, but found that it set off allergies when he tried to carve it.

Robinson is carving in the Nuxalk style. The Nuxalk have traditions that are vastly different from those of the northern first nations, such as the Haida, Nishga’a,Tsimsian, Tahltan. If I understand correctly, one of the major Nuxalk ceremonies is the thunder dance, which celebrates “the greatest of the supernatural beings in Nuxalk culture.” The thunder dance tells of four brothers’ encounter with the spirit of thunder on a lonely hillside, and is apparently the origin story of a major Nuxalk family.

I have seen the thunder dance performed several times by Latham Mack, who has carved a couple of thunder masks. However, I have never seen the rain-water dance, which is performed before the thunder dance. During the rainwater dance, the dancers sprinkle those watching with water as cleansing ritual. “It’s the bringer of rain before the thunder,” Robinson tells me, meant “to cleanse the earth before thunder.”

Since the entire coast is a rain forest from the American border to Prince Rupert and beyond into Alaska, a rain spirit seems only appropriate to a local culture. In the same way, “Rainwater”’s use of spalting to portray that rain spirit is a choice that speaks well of Robinson’s developing artistic sensibilities. Like any newcomer, Robinson has endless hard work and learning ahead of him in order to have an artistic career, but this early effort suggests that he has the talent to succeed if he chooses.

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