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For many modern Northwest Coast artists, improving their skills means discovering their culture. Kaska/Tlingit artist Dean Heron is no different, except that he came to his art and culture later than most of his peers – and, that, in pursuit of both, last year he moved north to Terrace, instead of staying in the south where many NorthWest Coast artists now spend at least part of the year.

“I was adopted as a child,” Dean explains, “and grew up in a non-First Nations family,” mostly in Whitehorse, Kitimat, and Powell River. “I had grandparents who lived in Victoria, so we’d often go down to Victoria in the summer time. My parents always used to drag me to the Royal British Columbian Museum to look into my culture, but at that point I was six or seven, and I was more interested in riding my bike, playing street hockey – being a kid.”

Creating the Watchmen

Then, when Heron grew up, he worked as an assistant manager at a Milestones restaurant, and later in the IT department of the British Columbia Ministry of Health in Victoria.

Heron did have a general interest in art of all sorts, and he remembers a two-week survey of First Nations art when he was in Grade Seven in Kitimat. However, it was only after he met his wife Therese that his interest in his ancestral culture and art began to take shape.

“She was very inquisitive, always asking me questions about Tlingit culture,” Heron recalls. “We’d go down to the Royal BC Museum and she’d ask me all sorts of questions. And I was just blank. I didn’t really have any idea.”

Then, one Christmas in the early 1990s, when they were both students and short of money, Heron was pondering how he could give presents. “I had no idea. So Therese said, ‘Why don’t you create something?’ I think I laughed out loud, actually. I didn’t think I had an artistic bone in my body. But she went out and bought a book on First Nations art, and that was the beginning.”

Returning Sockeye

Making the artistic connections

Even then, for years art was more a hobby than anything else. Heron know no artists, but he received encouragement from Victoria gallery directors such as John Black and Elaine Monds. “I would take my early paintings down to Elaine or John Black, and get criticisms on them and come back and produce something else.”

At the time, Monds’ Alcheringa Gallery was displaying the works of master carver Dempsey Bob and his star pupils Stan Bevan and Ken McNeil, although most of them sold quickly. Heron also remembers visiting Vancouver to see the Inuit Gallery.

“But what really did it for me was a book that Dempsey Bob had produced with the Grace Gallery called Dempsey Bob Tahltan Tlingit – Carver of the Wolf Clan. It was this little catalog, way out of print now – I don’t know if you could even find it. There was a picture of a wolf forehead mask, and I had never seen anything like it. It was distinctly Dempsey Bob’s style – it was brilliant. And I just went, ‘Wow! That’s exactly what I want to be doing’ – although at that time I didn’t really know how I was going to do it.”

Moon Mask

Then, somehow, “it all just sort of fell into place for me.” A few weeks after his family moved into a house in Victoria, he met Dempsey Bob’s son and his family at a children’s birthday barbecue. A couple of weeks later, he met Bob himself, “and it changed everything.”

Bob invited Heron to Manawa – Pacific Heartbeat, an event sponsored by the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver featuring Maori and First Nations artists from British Columbia. There, Heron says, “I realized just how rich the culture was, and just how much I’d been missing.” Near the end of the event, Bob mentioned that the Freda Diesing School was about to open at the Terrace campus of Northwest Community College, and invited him to enroll and learn to carve.

Finding roots in the north

Deciding to accept Bob’s offers “was a giant leap of faith for me,” Heron recalls. His children were six and one, and both Heron and his wife had jobs in the provincial Ministry of Health. “But I never looked back. I think it was the best decision I ever made.”

Killer Whale Comb

After Victoria, life in Terrace “was a huge culture shock. We had everything in Victoria. That’s probably what I miss the most – having a good theater and good restaurants to choose from,” Heron says.
However, the adjustments in daily life soon seemed unimportant compared to what Heron was learning about his ancestral culture and art. Suddenly, Heron was being taught by Dempsey Bob, Stan Bevan, and Ken McNeil – three artists he had admired for years.

Today, Heron praises them for their commitment towards art, their professionalism and work ethic, and their dedication. “Although established artists, they are always learning and pushing themselves forward – and thus pushing the art forward,” Heron says. “As well, they share all their knowledge with their students. Dempsey always says, ‘Why wouldn’t I share it? If I did not, we could lose all that we have gained in a generation – it is why I am here.’”

In the new environment, Heron found his relationship to traditional culture and art changing.

“Back when I was working on art on my own, I didn’t know the rules completely. Working with Stan and Ken and Dempsey, the whole idea is that you learn the rules and make them your own. Then, you can star innovating. But you have to work from a base of tradition, which the school does.

“The first eight weeks of school, all we did was draw ovoids and U forms and secondary figures. And they break down the components of the design, so they do wing design one week and they do head designs another week. Then they’ll do feet designs and tail designs, and then you put the pieces together. The first year, there were only seven [students], so it was a really tight group of friends.

SmallTlingit Portrait Mask

“Another thing that Stan and Dempsey have really convinced me of is [the value of] collecting books. At the time I was working on my own, I was looking at galleries and contemporary works of artists like Robert Davidson, Joe David, and Art Thompson, and I never really gave any validity to the old works that are in museums and collections. That was my mentality – that’s a long time ago, that’s history. But I think everybody’s who’s doing the art and is a professional will look at the old art. [The old artists] are still pertinent today. Their advantage was they lived the art. The art was around them all the time. They used the spoons, they used the bowls, and they saw the regalia all the time.”

The result of this discipline and re-evaluation, according to Heron, is that “I’m starting to realize that there’s a lot more rules involved in creating pieces. You can’t just go out and create a frog headdress without getting permission from chiefs or elders. I’m starting to learn a lot more of those rules, where before I just drew and painted what I wanted without any thought of the culture itself. Now, I’m more careful with what I’m creating.”

Killer Whale Plaque

This new attitude created a crisis of faith when Heron, perhaps motivated by his new sense of traditional culture, looked for his birth family. Although his biological mother declined to contact him, Heron did learn that he was part Kaska, not completely Tlingit, as he had assumed.

“I remember the day I found out, my first thought was, ‘I can’t practice the art. I’m tied to those Kaska roots.’ But I found digging into my family history that there was more of a Tlingit side. So I paint particularly in the Tlingit style.”

Today and Onwards

Now, Heron thinks he might explore the Kaska side of his heritage. “I’m starting to think that as a person I have the right to know where I’m from,” he says. “So I’m looking more into the Kaska side.” In the summer of 2010, he hopes to take his family to Watson Lake for Kaska Days.

However, whether he will explore Kaska art remains uncertain. “It’s much different from the coastal art. A lot of it is beading, and moose antler carving, drumming and singing. I think they were a more nomadic people [than the Tlingit]. There’s not a lot of information out there.”

Meanwhile, Heron is keeping busy. In the fall of 2009, he completed a mural for the Snowboard Pavilion at Cypress Mountain for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. “I’ve had lots of people comment on it, via email and letters,” he says.

Snowboarding Mural, Cypress Mountain

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In addition, for much of the last year, he has been painting designs for a longhouse on the grounds of the Terrace campus of Northwest Community College. Stan Bevan is doing the formlines, and Heron and student Shawn Aster are doing the secondary elements. Currently, the interior screens are done, and the house front is being completed. The longhouse is scheduled to be completed in early May.

Dean Heron at work in the longhouse

When the longhouse is complete, Heron plans to continue carving his own work. In addition, “I have lots of images that I’d like to get printed.” He would also like to begin doing clothing designs, and learning jewelry-making.

Dedicating himself to art and moving into a community that was strange to him was a huge gamble, but Heron clearly feels that it has paid off for him.

“Growing up, I always felt that I was at the front door, but not right inside – always looking through the window and looking at these sculptures and not understanding the whole of them. I mean, I still don’t. And I think that’s part of the experience of being adopted and being First Nations. I’m at the point now where I’m straddling two different cultures, really. I have a non-first Nations family, so I’m getting an outsider’s point of view, but now I’m living in the community and understanding a lot more of it.”

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Mostly, I know the work of Salish artists John and Luke Marston from pictures. These days, they seem to be working largely on commissions, and such smaller work as they do is displayed mostly in galleries in Victoria. The few I’ve seen have been mostly at the Inuit Gallery, which has now taken the next step of hosting a show with some two dozen pieces entitled “Honouring the Ancient Ones.” I attended the opening of the show last Saturday, and I was appreciative of the skill I saw there, but a little taken aback by the prices.

The two Marstons are often spoken of in the same breath. Even if they weren’t brothers, that would be inevitable, because both begin in with the Salish tradition, often base works on historical artifacts, and show considerable promise as carvers. However, if you see “Honouring the Ancient Ones,” you are unlikely ever to mistake them again.

Assuming the show is any indication, John Marston favors boxes and rattles.

jm-box

jm-rattle

When he does a mask, it is generally on a stand.

jm-mask

Throughout his work, he shows a strong sense of line – something that loosely resembles the formlines of the northern first nations on the coast, but which follows few of its rules with any consistency.

jm-formline

The result is a body of work that is hauntingly familiar, yet fresh at the same time.

By contrast, Luke Marston seems interested in carving household goods, such as bowls and ladles.

lm-bowl

lm-ladle

He is also the maker of the only two bracelets in the show, although his metalwork skills seem less advanced that his woodcarving ones.

lm-bracelet

He also seems more interested in masks than his brother, including a transformation mask and a contemporary piece called “First Woman,” whose depiction of a woman’s face in the flames was for me the highlight of the show.

lm-first-woman

None of his work shows the same focus on line that his brother’s does, but – at least in this exhibit – he seems more interested in the historical roots of his art, citing several times in the catalog that various works are his rendering of a museum piece.

Both artists are worthy of admiration, but I know that the prices they are charging are causing some concern among Northwest Coast artists and galleries. There is an unspoken understanding that artists’ prices reflect their experience, and many people feel that neither Marston has paid enough dues to justify their prices. When I say that Luke Marston’s “First Woman” mask is in the same price range as master and elder carver Norman Tait, you will understand what I am talking about. I even know one gallery that decided against trying to host a show of the Marston’s work because its curators decided it could not afford the initial outlay of buying such expensive pieces.

On the one hand, this criticism has some justification. John and Luke Marston are outstanding carvers, but they are still relatively young and, for all their promise, they are still perfecting their skills. Not that anything is wrong with their finishing skills, you understand, but when you compare them to those of someone like Ron Telek or Stan Bevan, you can see that Marstons still have things to learn. For example, neither shows a strong sense of the grain, and their matching of abalone inlays while adequate, is not always as close as it should be.

On the other hand, the Marstons can obviously receive the prices they are asking. Despite the recession, sales were brisk at the opening. As I write, three days into the show, two-thirds of the works on display have sold, including some of the most expensive.

Judging from the crowd, I suspect that one reason they can charge as they do is that they are breakout artists – ones whose appeal extends beyond the usual Northwest Coast collectors and enthusiasts and appeal to the local mainstream art crowd. You might wonder if their work will increase in value as quickly as other artists’ given its initially high prices, but what are they supposed to do – deliberately undercharge what the market will bear? That seems too much to ask of anyone.

In the end, I decided the question of their pricing was secondary (especially since most of their work was beyond my bank balance). The way the Marstons are developing, the issue is likely to become moot in another five to ten years as their skill is generally recognized.

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In January, we missed by hours buying a dragonfly frontlet that Nisga’a master carver Norman Tait and his carving partner Lucinda Turner sold through the Inuit Gallery. The gallery told us that its staff would ask the team to do another frontlet, but we had heard nothing for a couple of months and were just concluding that a second one would not be available when we received email notice that it had arrived.

Did we snap it up quickly? somebody asked me via chat. Put it this way: We received the notice at 3:10. I replied that we would buy it at 3:12 – despite the fact that we prefer not to buy sight unseen, and are saving to pay our taxes. Some opportunities you just have to take when they arise, and, having missed the first frontlet, we were determined not to miss this one.

You see, Norman Tait is one of the four artists we most wanted a carving from (the others were Beau Dick, Stan Bevan, and Tait’s nephew Ron Telek). Tait is one of the most acclaimed Northwest Coast artists alive – and rightfully so, given his attention to detail and his careful finishing. In the last two decades, these distinguishing features have been supplemented by Lucinda Turner, who brings the same qualities to carving.

The only problem is, Tait’s acclaim means that their masks start at about $12,000. While this price is more than deserved, it means that their work is largely out of our price range unless we do some extremely careful financial planning over a year or more. By contrast, the frontlet is more within our price range.

More importantly, the frontlet is a miniature masterpiece in its own right. While in many ways the frontlet’s depiction of a beaver is traditional, it is full of small finishing details — the flare of the nostrils, the roundness of the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, the roundness of the tail, the prominence of the front teeth and the curled lip – that lift it out of the mundane.

I like, too, the contrast between the heavy lines and planes of the figure and the lightly inscribed shapes along the border, to say nothing of how the beaver’s ears are incorporated in the border so as not to interrupt the line of the head. All the elements in the border are traditional, yet they are so lightly carved that they almost look like the letters of some unknown alphabet.

In short, everything about the frontlet indicates that it is the work of someone who is as comfortable with carving tools as I am with a keyboard or pen. Although it is undeniably a minor work, it displays Tait’s skill so completely that you can easily extrapolate from it what his poles and larger sculptures are like. As a friend said, having the frontlet in our home is bit like having a cartoon from Picasso.

We hung the frontlet near a similarly-sized piece by Ron Telek. That position gave us the additional pleasure of comparing the work of the master and his former apprentice. We could see that the same attention to detail and finishing was present in both works, but there was nothing you could call imitative in Telek’s work. He had learned the craft from Tait, but each carver has an imagination and style all his own.

Norman Tait: Beaver Frontlet

Norman Tait and Lucinda Turner: Beaver Frontlet

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As part of my recently renewed interest in Northwest coast art, I’ve been making the rounds of the local galleries, trying to get a sense of their specialties and whether I want to deal with them. This afternoon, I made the rounds of the Gastown galleries, which are conveniently within a few blocks of each other.

Here are my impressions – partly for my own sake, but also for anyone else who might be interested in Northwest Coast art. I say nothing about the galleries’ Inuit collections, which I am even less qualified to judge:

  • Hill’s Native Art: Coming from the Skytrain, this was the first gallery I came to, and also the one I spent the least time in. It’s basically a high-end tourist shop, and so crowded that the main impression I took away was of art as a commodity. You could probably find some reasonably decent work if you searched, but, you would have to make an effort. Hill’s has a number of two or three meter high totem poles, but if you’re willing to spend over ten thousand, you would be better off spending a little more and buying one from a name artist elsewhere.
  • Spirit Wrestler Gallery: With over two decades of experience and a number of well-regarded shows and books behind it, Spirit Wrestler is at the opposite extreme from Hill’s, appealing to the serious collector with money to invest in art. Its selection of artists is small, but carefully chosen, and it has a varied selection of work from top artists such as Robert Davidson, Norman Tait, and Susan Point. Currently, it has more Tlingit work than any other gallery that I’ve seen, and a small but select collection of bracelets. The gallery also sells (but does not always display) pieces that have just come upon the market again, so a serious collector might want to keep in touch to hear what is available. The gallery also contains a few Maori works, which should interest many people who have a passion for Northwest Coast art, since the two cultures have a lot of similarities. It’s perhaps the premier gallery in the field in Vancouver, and deservedly so.
  • Inuit Gallery of Vancouver: This gallery has no more than a fifth of its space devoted to Northwest Coast art. It does not carry jewelry, but does include a collection of Northwest Coast masks and prints, as well as some other forms of carving mostly from the Nuu-chah-nulth and Salish nations. Although the selection of artists is comparatively small, you can find some interesting pieces without searching hard.
  • Coastal Peoples Gallery: In many ways, Coastal Peoples is the most interesting of the galleries in Vancouver. In both its Yaletown and Gastown locations, it carries everything from high-end tourist pieces to work that will appeal to museums and connoisseurs. To make things even more interesting, Coastal Peoples has by far the broadest range of artists of the four galleries mentioned here, with up-and-coming artists as well as established ones represented. The newer artists are especially interesting if you have any understanding of what you are buying, because their work is reasonably priced and some of it will undoubtedly rise rapidly in value. The jewelry on display is especially fine, especially in gold, and so is the sculpture, including everything from desktop pieces to bentwood boxes and three meter poles. The sheer variety at Coastal People’s is amazing, and is one of the reasons why the gallery is my current favorite.

There are, of course, other galleries that carry Northwest Coast art outside of Gastown in Vancouver. But they will be a subject for another day.

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