Posts Tagged ‘moon’

Back in June, I had dinner at the Steamworks pub with Haida / Tsimshian artist Mitch Adams and his wife Diana. Mitch kindly offered me a selection from the giclee prints that he was in Vancouver to sell. Few things feel so luxurious as a choice like that, and I could have selected several from his portfolio. However, eventually I decided on “January Moon,” which was the inspiration for his “Blue Moon Mask,” which was one of the standouts at the 2010 graduation exhibit for the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art.

The connection between the two pieces would have been obvious even if Mitch had not mentioned it. But the differences are interesting, because they show the evolution from a good execution of an idea to an outstanding one. There is little in “January Moon” that is not improved in “Blue Moon Mask.”

"January Moon" (left) and "Blue Moon Mask" (right)

The most obvious differences are in the shape and color. With its perfectly round shape, “January Moon” feels relatively static, and more abstract. In comparison, the change to an oval face in “Blue Moon Mask” is more ambiguous, as well as more realistic. Just as importantly, the colors are bolder and more glossy in the mask, as well as the contrast between them. In the print, the colors are muted, and the tones are a better match, but the result is that design tends to fade into the paper.

The exception to this general observation is the blue and black design on the rim. “January Moon”’s rim has more contrast between the colors, while “Blue Moon Mask”’s uses a darker blue that is much closer to the black. This change works because it frames the face most clearly; in “January Moon,” the blue of the rim is closer to those of the face, so that the rim frames less effectively.

However, the greatest changes are in the face. Some elements remain the same, most noticeably using the same colors for the lips, nostrils, and eyebrows. But, in “January Moon,” the eyes are also the same color, which is probably one feature too many for the design, which seems much busier than the mask.

By contrast, on “Blue Moon Mask,” the design is simplified. The teeth are gone, whose black outline is mildly discordant in “January Moon,” and much of the complication of the highlighting as well. The eyes shrink from an angry glare to closed eyelids, and the lips are smaller and barely parted instead of scowling.

The only element that is added is the tear tracks from the eyes, which I suspect originated in an accidental trickle of paint, but which works brilliantly, helping to emphasize the elongation of the face and suggesting an undercurrent of suppressed intense emotion beneath the surface appearance of serenity.

Somewhere in the middle of all these changes, the gender changes as well. “January Moon” registers as masculine to my eye (and that of those who have seen it), perhaps because of the mouth and bared teeth. “Blue Moon Mask,” however, seems female, or at least sexually ambiguous. Added to the suggestion of intense emotion being controlled, this ambiguity makes most eyes keep returning to “Blue Moon Mask” in a way that they do not to “January Moon.” Despite “January Moon”’s aggressive expression – or perhaps because of it – the eye has a hard time lingering over it. Its anger has nothing of the mystery found in “Blue Moon Mask.”

None of this is to dismiss “January Moon.” Its non-traditional eyes with their crescent moon and the creation of the nose through a clever use of negative space are admirable in themselves – so much so that I could wish they could have somehow been retained in “Blue Moon Mask.” But in the end, “January Moon” could be described as a first draft for “Blue Moon Mask.” Although “Blue Moon Mask” is the superior work, very likely it would not have succeeded if “January Moon” had not been created first. Together, they show an artist taking a leap in his development – and, I suspect, learning a lot in the process himself.

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I first crossed paths with John Paul Wilson a year ago. Another artist wanted to send me pictures, and John agreed to take and send them. Since then, we have been in touch once or twice a week, and I have enjoyed watching his art move from promising to a first maturity. It is hardly surprising, then, that “Summer Moon Maskette” was under our Christmas tree this year.

The moon is a popular subject in Northwest Coast art. So far as I know, the moon is nobody’s crest, so the question of having permission to use it never arises. Perhaps just as importantly, it is a subject that requires no special knowledge of mythology to appreciate. Wilson himself describes the moon as one of his favorite subjects, and, if you look at his Flickr site, you can see several different ways that he has approached it.

What makes “Summer Moon Maskette” stand out is its simplicity. It has no complicated design, and no red, the second most important color in the northern style. Even the black paint is applied sparingly, being confined to the mouth, nostrils, and eyebrows, and not to the pupils.

This simplicity means that the piece’s carving stands out more than usual. Wilson has responded to this situation by carving with more realism than usual. He has shaped the mouth more, and made the nose fuller than usual on the sides. He has also given close attention to the cheekbones and the area where the nose, eyes, and eyebrows meet.

However, what really makes “Summer Moon Maskette” stand out is the eyes. Slanted, with an inner fold and no pupils, they are very different from most eyes in the northern style – so much so that I almost wonder if they are a portrait. They seem to be closed, suggesting a sleepiness that is appropriate to a hot summer night.

Another result of the simplicity is that, after the paint, most of what catches your eyes is the grain. Wilson has always excelled in sanding the grain until it conforms with the contours of his carving, but “Summer Moon Maskette” is an especially fine example of this practice. For example, if you look, you can see how the grain conforms to the line of the cheekbones and the forehead, or the hollow beneath the eyes. The effect is almost hypnotic in itself, relieved only by a small imperfection which is confined to the chin – and which is also a relief after your eye has been following the apparently billowing lines of the grain.

This simplicity is an indication of how far Wilson has advanced in his art. A less experienced artist would be tempted to tart up the mask with abalone or copper. By contrast, Wilson lets the maskette speak for itself, which makes it all the more powerful. That is a risky approach, but the fact Wilson succeeds is a measure of his advancing skill and confidence.

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