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Posts Tagged ‘native art’

Mitch Adam’s “Dancer” is an example of how art keeps surprising me. I first picked up the piece (which fits comfortably in the palm of my hand), while having a late breakfast at the Northern Motor Inn in Terrace, and it immediately changed my mind about what an argillite piece could be.

Before seeing “Dancer,” I would have said I had firm ideas of what an argillite piece should be. It would be unpolished. It should be in a traditional style, and as detailed as possible.

Almost immediately, I saw that “Dancer” was none of these things. Yet, just as quickly, I realized that I wanted to buy it.

However, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Adams’ “Blue Moon Mask,” which is among the favorites in my collection, is an unusual piece as well. Moreover, Adams regularly produces surprises. Miniature masks in which laminated woods take the place of paint, functional carved pipes, yellow cedar sculptures with more detail than you would imagine the wood could take – through all these pieces, Adams has shown a knack for innovative designs and uses of media. I expect the unexpected but apt from him.

So why does this piece succeed against my expectations? Since I received the finished piece a week ago, it has been sitting just below my computer monitor, where I’ve been studying it at odd moments when my fingers pause on the keyboard, trying to figure out the answer.

The answer I’ve come up with is that the piece is sculpture reduced to its essential lines. The flight feathers are represented by three feathers that differ only in size and position, the feathers on the head to overlapping circles reminiscent of scale armor. Simple, unadorned ovoids join the wings to the body. Turn the sculpture around, and it is mostly unfinished, except for an ovoid with four tail feathers, each decorated by a simple T-shape.

Left to themselves, such decoration would be unexceptionable. However, they are not what the eye notices. Instead, what viewers notices is the strong lines of the piece – particularly curves – that I’ve noticed before in the best of Adams’ work. The top of each wing is matched by the curve of the beak on each side, forming strong but obvious crescents on each side. The shape of the head is an approximation in miniature of the half circle formed by the shoulders and the wings, and the bottom two wing-feathers on each side diminished echoes of the top one.

In addition, there is a strong center line. Initially established by the beak, it remains so strong that you still see where it should be in the empty space below it. Cleverly enough, that empty space forms an arrow, pointing up to the beak, and drawing the viewer’s eyes with it.

In the end, these lines and the negative spaces they create are what makes “Dancer” work. Like a successful formline, they draw the eye around the sculpture, keeping it moving. Since the polishing emphasizes them, it, too, is justified. A natural finish would de-emphasize both. Instead, by polishing, Adams has made the curves stand out, and the negative spaces look darker, to the benefit of both.

“Dancer” is a strong piece at its size. However, over the week that it has graced my townhouse, I find myself repeatedly wondering how it would work at a much larger size. My guess is that, with its lines, it would be an outstanding piece at any size.

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At First Nations art galleries in Vancouver, Mitch and Diana Adams have a reputation as an effective sales team. Being the artist, Mitch does much of the talking, but because Diana at one remove from the discussions with gallery owners, she is an astute observer of what is happening, and is actively involved in strategic planning.

Several weeks ago when I was in Terrace for the Freda Diesing School graduation ceremony, I asked her what advice she would give young artists about dealing with galleries. Diana responded in detail as we had dinner at Boston Pizza, with Mitch throwing in the occasional comment.

Diana is able to contribute because of her own lengthy experience in sales. “I grew up in a family restaurant business,” she says, “So selling comes naturally to me. As a waitress, my job was to sell the meal. My favorite situation was when people would go, ‘I don’t know. What do you recommend?’ I’d find out what don’t they want to eat, what’s their budget, what they are allergic to, and take it from there.”

Some of what she knows about sales comes from observing her father. However, Diana has been selling her own bead work for several decades. She still remembers her first effort at a Tupperware-like party, where she sold $450 worth of merchandise, confounding her parents’ expectations.

Since then, Diana and Mitch have sold regularly at music and craft festivals through northern British Columbia. For seventeen years, they have been regulars at the Terrace farmers’ market, during which time they have fine-tuned their partnership in sales.

Preparing and handling anxiety

Some artists, especially established ones, can sell to the major galleries in southwest British Columbia without ever visiting Vancouver or Victoria. However, the business of First Nations arts remains very much a face-to-face proposition, and young artists in particular are more likely to make sales when they talk to a gallery’s buyer directly.

Asked how she approaches selling Mitch’s work to a gallery, Diana emphasizes a strategic approach. “I take it on as though I’m applying for a job,” she says. “I do my background homework. I’ll look at a store or a gallery that I want to deal with. I will go in, and not tell them that I’m looking to sell to them. I will observe how they treat their customers. I’ll also see the quality of what they sell. If they have a pamphlet, I will take one, or Google them on the Internet.” She does not worry much about prices, figuring that is not her concern, but she will note at the quality of what is sold, and how staff treats customers.

The point of this research is to decide whether they want Mitch’s work in that gallery. “What a lot of artists don’t understand,” she says, “is that they have an option of deciding whether this is a gallery to deal with or not. I want to know that I’ll be dealing with someone who is dependable, approachable, fair to deal with, and able to give criticism. If I offer them something they’re not interested in, I want to be able to dialog about it. As much as I might want to be a client of theirs, or leave works on consignment, I need to know that I can have a professional working relationship with them.”

Before approaching a gallery’s buyer, Diana and Mitch discuss what pieces to show, their prices – both the price they want, and a bottom-line figure that they will accept as a last resort – and what to say about each piece. This preparation, she stresses, is absolutely essential. “Gallery owners have told us that’s one of their pet peeves, when artists approach them and they don’t know the price of an item. That’s a death-sentence, right there.”

She also notes that, on an introductory visit, artists can expect a lot of questions. Galleries “want to make sure that you are the artist, and not someone else. If you’re the artist, you would know the answers right down to the details.” Forgery and theft are regular events in local First Nations art, so galleries want an indication that the seller truly is the artist.

Another reason for preparation is that it helps to reduce nervousness. “It’s always nerve-wracking. I’ve done it countless times, but there’s still that excitement and anxiety, because you want to do well. But you can’t be overly anxious or insecure, or you’re going to fall flat on your face.”

Another way to reduce anxiety is to take someone with you. However, Diana immediately adds, “Don’t take anyone who’s going to undermine you. Don’t take anyone who doesn’t know anything about your art or will second-guess you.”

Instead, the second person should be either silent, or an active partner. “There’s been times when Mitch has forgot something,” she says, “but I always give him a chance to speak first. But if he forgets something, I’ll come forward. I’ll look at him, and if I know that he’s done talking, I will say my piece.”

According to Diana, planning not only relieves anxiety, but also helps to present yourself as a professional who is easy to deal with. She suggests role-playing the presentation of your artwork, and even approaching galleries you do not plan to deal with so that you can rehearse and prepare yourself for visits to the galleries you hope to work with.

Making the visit and the first impression

“We don’t expect a sale on first visit,” Diana says. “We hope we make a sale, but the whole point is making contact.

Her emphasis is on professionalism throughout. “Dress as though approaching a job,” she advises, “as though leaving a resume. Make sure that the work is well-presented, not carried in a garbage bag. Because if we have no respect for the art, it’s going to show. We use an artist’s portfolio, because presentation is everything. Some of the people we’ve approached have been quite reserved, but we still put on a professional smile, and say what our purpose is.”

Diana also suggests that body-language is important. “Smile,” she advises. “Have good eye contact [with the buyer]. “Don’t cross your arms. Remember to breathe.”

After the introduction, the actual presentation of the pieces is left to Mitch, on the grounds that as the artist he is the one best qualified to talk about them.. “I try to be halfway through explaining the piece as I hand it to them,” he says.

He also gives some thought to the order of presentation. “What I like to do is not give them my best piece right off the bat. Instead, I lead up to it. And I think they see it, too, that the best piece is still to come. But they’ll be lining the pieces up, and hopefully they’ll be being wowed by the pieces that aren’t the best ones.”

If the discussion turns towards the price of any of the pieces, the Adams’ policy is to hold firm to their original asking price, falling back slowly to their minimum only if they strongly want the sale.

“You can’t be desperate,” Diana says, adding as a warning, “never say to anyone, ‘I’ve got bills to pay.’ Never say that because, really, it has nothing to do with the gallery owner. That’s a form of manipulation. It’s a really poor sales technique, because the person who’s being spoken to feels bad and put on the spot. It leaves a bad taste in their mouth, and makes them want to avoid you in the future.”

Some buyers, according to Diana, will claim to find flaws as a tactic for lowering the purchase price; they should be ignored and not cause you to waver in your price. Others may mention what they perceive as flaws as explanations as to why they are not buying; their criticism can be considered later. In fact, once or twice, Mitch has gained credibility by acting on such criticism and taking a piece back to the criticizer for another look.

Revisiting

Many inexperienced artists are disappointed when they fail to sell after a first visit. Many will give up and avoid that gallery. However, as Diana emphasizes repeatedly, you shouldn’t count on making a sale after a first visit.

In fact, at one gallery, the Adamses visited three times before making a sale. “But we kept going back, introducing ourselves, and reminding the purchasing agent who we were. We didn’t take [rejection] personally; we just thought they weren’t able to purchase.”

The truth is, you may never know why most sales fail. Often, the reason will have little to do with you or the artwork, or only in the most indirect way. For example, “there’s some galleries that only buy big items, and Mitch does only miniatures. We needed to keep that in mind, and not take it personally. There’s no reason to be rude, even when they’re rude; we just stay professional, and thank them for their time.”

After an initial visit, Diana and Mitch discuss the experience, and decide whether they want to continue trying to sell to a particular gallery. Sometimes, they may decide not to return, even if the buyer seemed interested in Mitch’s work, because they have decided to deal with only a limited number of galleries so that they can focus on building long-term rapport.

If they do return for another visit, they prepare for subsequent visits in much the same way as the first. The main difference, Diana says is that “we’re not so tense.”
Also, the introduction may become more personal and friendly. “I try to remember something about that person that they shared with me,” Diana says, such as the birth of a grandchild or a trip they have recently taken. But “the contact is still professional. It’s intimate, but it’s not stepping over a line.”

Trying to sell your work to a gallery can often be difficult and full of anxiety. Unsurprisingly, mistakes can be made. For instance, Diana recalls “one time when Mitch got so nervous that he put his hand over his mouth, and what he was saying came across as very muffled. All I could do was reach over and pull his hand down, and he kind of looked at me like, ‘What are you doing?’ Then he realized what he had done.”

Diana continues, “Some people beat themselves up about moments like that, but there’s nothing you can really do except laugh.” She advises other artists not to dwell on such circumstances, but to focus on being prepared and professional, focusing not just on a first sale, but on a long-term relationship that will also eventually produced a second and a third sale, and many more over their career.

That is the approach that Diana and Mitch are taking, and so far it seems to be working. Listening to their war stories, it is obvious that it hasn’t always worked exactly as they hoped. However, it has worked well enough that Mitch is well on his way to establishing himself as an artist.

Much of the credit is due to his finishing skills and original designs – but at least as much should probably go to the successful sales strategies and partnership that Diana and Mitch have developed. Watch them even once, as I have done, and you’ll know how professionals deal in the world of First Nations art.

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When Angelo Cavagnaro was completing his projects for his second year at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Arts, senior adviser Dempsey Bob stopped by his work bench.

“What’s that?” Bob joked. “A flounder?”

Cavagnaro says that he had intended the bowl to be a halibut, as its shape and the two eyes on one side suggests. However, remembering Bob’s comment, he named it“ Supernatural Flounder.” It’s a fittingly whimsical title for what I consider a whimsical piece.

“Supernatural Flounder” reflects not only the importance of fishing to traditional Northwest Coast cultures, but of grease. While the northwest coast of North America historically supplied the abundance of food necessary for cultures centered on status and art, the diet was low in fat, or grease as it was generally known.

Just as in medieval Europe, people craved grease incessantly. In fact. stores of grease – usually from the oily oolichan or candle fish, whose season was in early spring, when supplies would be at their lowest – were a sign of wealth. To this day, it remains a traditional delicacy. Historically, it was a treat at feasts and ceremonies, where it would be served to guests in highly decorated bowls. Some of these bowls were about the size of Cavagnaro’s piece, holding enough grease for a single serving. Others were a couple of metres long, and must have served dozens.

“Supernatural Flounder” is a transformation piece, like many that I have bought. The human face in the tail suggests that the fish – whether halibut or flounder – is one of those supernatural creatures that can assume human form. Many depictions of such creatures show them in the moment of transition, which is often shown as dramatically agonizing, like some of the computer-generated transformations of werewolves in modern horror films.

However, Cavagnaro takes a somewhat different approach. The body of the bowl is simply carved, with fins indicated by rough shapes scored with a couple of lines apiece. That leaves the human and fish faces to be emphasized, their lips and nostrils painted with the same red, and their eyes with the same black. There are differences in the shapes of the eyes and their sockets, but if you look at the piece long enough, the resemblance is undeniable. Both have the same blankness, inviting a comparison which explains why I call the piece whimsical – in the end, the human face ends up looking not that different from the fish’s. The result is a creature that looks at home with its dual nature, whose stomach just happens to be where the bowl is.

As a carving, “Supernatural Flounder” could stand more attention to finishing details. The interior of the bowl is rough, and there are many places on the carving where the artist’s working against the grain is still obvious. On a piece that is so minimally painted, such details stand out, and need to be thought about. But the general shape and proportions is well-thought out, and Cavagnaro shows the same steady hand on the paint brush as in his other works.

In the end, the bowl turned out to be the only piece I bought at the graduate show. As I write, it sits on a sideboard a few paces away, where I can enjoy by turning my head a few centimeters.

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Last weekend, I flew north to Terrace to give out the Mature Student Award at the Freda Diesing School graduation. This was the fourth year I have sponsored the award, and the third in which one main recipient and two honorable mentions were named. The award honors students twenty-five and older, recognizing that returning students face challenges in returning to school that younger students don’t, yet often contribute grreatly to a class.

The main recipient was Steven Wesley, a member of the Eagle side of the Haida Nation. Wesley fished for many years, then returned to school in 1997 to earn his high school diploma. “I wanted to be a role model for my daughters,” he said. “I wanted to show them that even their Dad could get his Grade Twelve.

Wesley went on to become a bus driver and trucker. However, he relates that, in 2002, “A friend handed me a knife and a block of wood and asked if I wanted to carve. And ever since I kept pursuing my dream of becoming an artist,” he says.

Although mostly self-taught and learning by observing others, Wesley was accepted at the K’san School in 2004. However, he had to turn down the position due to lack of funding. When he applied to the Freda Diesing School in 2008, he was luckier in finding support.”I just wanted to learn everything,” he says. “I taught myself how to do the ovoids and U shapes but I wasn’t sure they were the way they should be. So, coming back, I wanted to learn from the beginning again. “

However, for Wesley, the most satisfying part of his first year was learning about negative space in carving: “how deep, how high, how wide. I knew the forms, but I didn’t know how to use negative space in my designs.”

He plans to return for his second year in September, and to carve and paint over the summer. “The more you carve, the less you forget,” he says.

One of the two honorable mentions was given to Roberta Quock, a Tahltan from Telegraph Creek who grew up in Merritt and Kamloops. Long interested in painting and beadwork, she says, “I’ve always wanted to go to this school to study more and to learn carving and study more of the culture.”

Besides beginning to learn how to carve, Quock found the first year class a friendly place to learn. “We really bonded together, and we helped each other out,” she says. “We looked out for each other like a family.”

Quock also plans to return for her second year, studying beside her brother Lyle.

The other honorable mention went to Lorretta Quock Sort, a Tahltan of the Crow Clan. An experienced textile artist, for some time Sort has been making fire bags (ammunition pouches) that the president of the Tahltan nation has been distributing as gifts.

Sort’s first ventures into carving will all be given away to her parents and three children. She explains, “My Mom always told me that when you do something for the first time you should give it away. You’re not supposed to keep it or sell it. But, coming from such a large family, it was hard to decide who got what.”
Like the other winners, Sort plans to keep busy over the summer. She has already set herself the task of doing a mask and bowl over the summer, as well commissions for two button blankets and more fire bags, which these days are popular as women’s purses.

Wesley, Quock, and Sort were all among the more accomplished students in this year’s exhibition. I look forward to seeing them develop in their second year, and I’m pleased to have played a small role in their development as artists.

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Six weeks ago, Haida/Tsimshian artist Mitch Adams and his wife Diana were in Vancouver on a selling expedition. We sat on the shaded porch of a Starbucks, and Mitch unwrapped the pieces he hoped to sell to one of the galleries. They included a variety of pipes (“They’ll make you look taller! Cooler!” Mitch claimed), several miniature masks carved from ebony, and a couple of sculptures I would have bought on the spot if I’d had the money. Then Mitch brought out a framed painting from the back of the car.

I remembered the painting. I’d seen it when I was in Terrace the previous April, sitting at the back of Mitch’s workshop. It was a design that he had done while a student at the Freda Diesing School. An injury had left him temporarily unable to carve, so, rather than sit idle (or more like, kibbitzing with the other students, if I know anything), he began to do designs on paper.

At the time, I asked him if he would sell it, but he was unsure of the price, and I had enough to carry back on the plane already. “Throw it in the trunk next time you come to Vancouver,” I said, but, to be honest, I’d forgot all about the piece until I saw it again. However, once I got over my surprise, I was happy to buy it.

As you might guess from the story about its origin, “Haida Box Design” is a formal exercise, but no less interesting for that. Like Celtic knotwork, abstract Northwest Coast designs fascinate me in their intricacy. When you know a bit about the artistic tradition, you can appreciate the breakdown of the figures in a series of basic shapes, each of which is varied by such details as how the thickening of the formlines where they meet is minimized, or the designs inside the U-shapes. At its best, the result is a strong sense of individualism within a detailed tradition – which is certainly the case here.

Adams’ individual touches are numerous. To start with, rather than designing primarily in black, he balances red and black almost perfectly. The design puts round shapes, rather than the more common ovoids, in the center where they can hardly be missed. Many of the lines are straight, rather than curved, as you would expect in most designs on paper, although that would make them ideal for carving. Tapering of the lines is minimal, and Adams makes wider use of thin lines than most artists would.

However, what fascinates me most about the design is how, despite being symmetrical, it manages to avoid some of the stiffness usually associated with symmetry – especially to a modern eye, trained to consider asymmetry of design the norm. Day after day as I’ve done my morning stretching exercises, I’ve watched the piece and considered the elements that undermine the potential symmetry.

First, there’s the easy interchange of figure and ground between the black and red that changes depending on what you focus on. Then there’s the mild variation of rounded shapes in the center of the design. Most of all, however, what really offsets the symmetry are the shapes positioned on an angle.

All things considered, I’m tempted to say that I’d appreciate seeing “Haida Box” design carved in yellow cedar and painted. The only thing that keeps me from doing so is the fear that, the next time we meet, Mitch will present me with exactly that, and I won’t be able to resist pulling out the cash to buy.

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Gwaai Edenshaw was long overdue for a solo exhibit. Both a goldsmith and a traditional carver, he is an artist’s artist, and his work is in popular demand. However, for his first exhibit, he has chosen to emphasize another aspect of his work: his graphite and ink drawings, and their role in his artistic process. “Sounds Good on Paper,” currently at the Petley Jones Gallery, does include some his work in gold, but largely to illustrate the importance of his preliminary drawing in his jewellry.

With this theme, the show’s catalog inevitably chooses “The Dreamer” as the piece on the cover. The piece is not only an obvious choice for the theme of the artistic process, but for Gwaai himself (to use the name with which he signs his work). The cartoon style is a reminder of his animation prototypes for teaching the Haida language, and the rings on the hat, a sign of high status in traditional culture an indication of the importance of art among the Haida today. At the same time, the doodles around the margin, as rough as they are, have a non-traditional look. Also, to anyone who has sat down with Gwaai for any length of time, they are a reminder of his constant doodling.

Other pieces in the show emphasize Gwaai’s different traditions and influences. Some, like “Kagan Dajangwee,” are slightly stiff exercises in the northern First Nations style, with their formline and cross hatching:

Others, like “Nanasimget,” a depiction of an Orpheus-like figure in Haida mythology, look like a two-dimensional rendering of a metal casting (and, perhaps not coincidentally, are reminiscent of some of the sketches of Bill Reid, Gwaai’s mentor when he was a teenager):

At the opposite extreme are more mainstream pieces. “Ts’aahl Girl” (Eagle Girl), for instance, combines realism with a touch of whimsy:


Similarly, the two studies of Gagiid, the Haida wildman whose lower face is pierced by the spines of the sea-urchins he is forced to eat after being castaway, bear a distinct resemblance to Gollum as portrayed by Andy Sirkis in The Lord of the Rings:

This movement between traditional Haida culture and urban industrial life – so effortless that it includes analogies – suggest the position of the modern First Nations artist. For those of us who have met him, it also seems very typical of Gwaai’s wide-ranging mind.

Some of the most interesting pieces in the show offer a glimpse of the creative process.For example, “Detail: The Two Brothers Pole” shows the precision-drafted plans for a pole that Gwaai recently completed with his brother Jaalen, and a view of the raised pole. The pole is located in Jasper National Park, and was a replacement for a repatriated pole that was appropriated from the Haida in 1907 and that is often attributed to Charles Edenshaw:

A more personal glimpse of the relation between sketches and other media is provided by “Sons of Djillaquon” and the gold pendant “Sons of Djillaquons:”

Both the sketch and the pendant are powerful works in their own right, but together they illustrate what is gained and lost in the transfer between media, as well as the limitations of each. It is this relationship that makes the oxymoron title of “Sounds Good on Paper” a suitable title for the exhibit.

Casual observers might be tempted to to describe “Sounds Good on Paper” as a minor show. And, in one sense, they would be right: most of what is displayed are not the pieces for which Gwaai has rightfully gained his growing reputation.

Yet such a view would also be short-sighted. More than anything else, “Sounds Good on Paper” is a very personal show. It displays many different aspects of Gwaai’s personality – probably not all –and offers a tantalizing hint or two of his creative process and his interest in different media.

My only regret is that the show couldn’t include some examples of Gwaai’s argillite prototypes for his jewellry. Placed beside the finished jewellry, these prototypes could have provided yet another perspective on the concerns of the show.

However, even without this touch, “Sounds Good on Paper” remains interesting both aesthetically and psychologically. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an exhibit that shows so much of the artist without a hint of arrogance.

Asked the day after the opening what I thought of the exhibit, my first response was, “It’s very Gwaai.” Having had a few more days to think, I still that response the most accurate I could have given.

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Haida/Tsimshian artist Mitch Adams seems to be making a career out of smaller pieces. Not that he avoids larger pieces; his “Blue Moon Mask” is one of my favorite pieces on the walls of my townhouse. However, in the last year or so, he has done masks from laminated blocks of wood about the height of my finger, a brass magnifier, a couple of combs, and, most recently, a briarwood pipe, filling a niche shared by few other artists. With a length of ten centimeters, his “Raven Rattle” is another of his miniatures – and one of my favorites among his work.

Contrary to what you might think, rattles of this size are not a recent development. Although modern tools makes carving at smaller sizes much easier, rattles the size of this one appear in artifacts of a century and a half ago. Some might have been used, concealed, in the magic and theatrics of the winter ceremonies. More likely (since the sound doesn’t carry far), small rattles might have been used by shamans, working up close with sick patients.

Aside from the obviously modern paint, Adam’s main innovation is his material – boxwood. The stand is a piece of driftwood, or (as I like to think of it), two-thirds the price of a Special Platter at The Afghan Horseman, where I last had dinner with Mitch and his wife Diana and took the rattle home with me. Unpainted, the base provides a contrast with the largely painted rattle. The rattle can be left on the base, in a position in which it resembles a rocket, or else lifted free and used, in which case it gives a delicate, half-hissing sound.

Like the size, the subject and composition is also traditional. The rattle depicts Raven the trickster, the face in his belly representing the light that he has stolen from the chief who hoarded it. On his back is a red human figure facing a raven’s head, their tongues intertwining to suggest communication, and a reminder of Raven’s ability to change from human to bird shape. You might also take the quasi-sexual posture of the two figures, as well as the round belly containing the face in the light of some of the details of the story: Raven has impregnated the chief’s daughter with himself to be reborn as the chief’s grandson, so he might have a chance to get close to the light.

As for the composition, it, too, has a long tradition. For instance, just before writing this entry, I came across a picture of this two centuries-old Haida piece in the McCord Museum in Montreal:

The subject is different, but the composition similar, although Adam’s piece was never meant to rest on its bottom, and has a more streamlined look. With a few minutes’ research, I could easily turn up another two of three similarly arranged rattles.

None of these comments are meant to suggest in any way that Adams lacks originality. Rather, I’ve made them to point out that the rattle is a piece within a tradition. Its shape and intricate painting of details are more than enough to establish Adam’s ability – and to make me curious about what he will do next.

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