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Posts Tagged ‘Nisga’a’

Which upcoming First Nation artists in the Pacific Northwest are worth having a look at? Giving an answer is not easy, because traditional art forms and contemporary variations are thriving as never before.

Still, if I had to give answer, these are the seven artists I would tell people to look for. Many post their work on Facebook, or somewhere else on the Internet:

  •  Mitch Adams (Haida): Adams has made a specialty of miniatures – everything from masks to combs and usable pipes – and of exploring different kinds of woods – including ebony and laminated blocks in which the layers substitute for paint. However, his best work so far has been in carving sculptures about thirty to forty centimeters high.
  •  Morgan Green (Tsimshian): Many Northwest Coast artists show versatility, but few can match Green. Her work includes cloth and leather design, wood carving, ceramics, and, more recently, metal work. Although in the past she seemed more interested in experimenting with new media than in developing her art, for the past couple of years, she has focused on jewelry and metal sculpture.
  •  Latham Mack (Nuxalk): Mack first attracted attention at the Freda Diesing School for his design work. However, since graduating, Mack has continued to apprentice with Dempsey Bob, and his discipline and carving is starting to reach the same standards as his designs.
  •  Kelly Robinson (Nuxalk, Nuchunulth): Robinson began as a painter, but since branched out into jewelry and carving. His work in both of his traditions has a strong sense of individuality, but in Nuchunulth style, he has the distinction of being one of the first to treat his subject as high art, rather than historical re-creation.
  • Todd Stephens (Nisga’a): As a carver, Stephens still needs practice, but few artists of any experience can match him as a designer. Study the details of his paintings, such as the different ways that the join of two formlines is thinned out, and you will soon know most of what you should be looking for.
  •  John Wilson (Haisla): Primarily a carver, Wilson is known for the speed with which he can finish high-quality masks. More recently, he has landed commissions for corporate logos and artwork. He is rapidly becoming the best Haisla artist since Lyle Wilson, but, right now, his work is extremely reasonably priced.
  •  Carol Young (Haida): The first winner of the Freda Diesing School’s Mature Student Award, Young first emerged as an artist to watch during her second year at the school, when she started doing naturalistic, unpainted masks. Since then, she has gone from strength to strength with more traditional carvings, some painted, some not. Once or twice, she has introduced female themes into her work.

Other artists who are less successful (so far) but still worth searching out include:

  •  Sean Aster (Tsimshian): Aster is one of the strongest designers who has graduated from the Freda Diesing School. Unfortunately, he does not seem to have marketed his work as well as it deserves.
  • Cody McCoy(Salishan): McCoy has won two YVR art awards, but he is marketing his work in both First Nations galleries and in mainstream shows as surrealism. The best of his work is strikingly original, with traditional forms half-hidden in the thick, restless brush strokes.
  •  Colin K. Morrison (Tsimshian): Morrison is an outstanding carver. However, he only produces a few pieces a year, so the danger is that he might eventually choose another way to earn a living.
  •  Chazz Mack (Nuxalk): Well-known for his design work, Mack seems to do much of his work for family and friends, instead of making many attempts to develop his reputation.
  •  Nathan Wilson (Haisla): Wilson’s high-standards of craft are obvious, but his design sense is sometimes no more than adequate and could use more individuality. However, sooner or later, I expect consistently strong work from him.

Neither of these lists is anything like complete. There are always promising artists whose work does not appear in Vancouver or Victoria, or in galleries anywhere, so I am sure to have missed some. If so, my apologies – chances are, my ignorance explains any omissions, not any judgment of quality.

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Once a year, I teleconference with the instructors of the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art to decide who will receive the Mature Student Award. We discuss candidate’s financial situation, and weigh their artistic skills and leadership, whittling down the list until we have this year’s recipients and – funds permitting – honorable mentions.

But this year, the discussion was short. Kelly Robinson, one of this year’s leading students, was quickly chosen as one of the honorable mentions. After a brief discussion, the second honoable mention was awarded to Stacey Calder, who was technically underage for the award, but judged someone who could make best use of it. Then, unanimously, the instructors urged Sam McKay as the main recipient, a nomination to which I quickly agreed.

In barest outlines, McKay’s story is one that sounds all too common for First Nations people of his generation. A member of the Nisga’a wolf clan, he was forced out of his culture to go to residential school. He ended up on skid row, addicted first to alcohol, and later to crack.

But unlike many versions of this story, McKay’s has an upbeat ending. After thirty years on skid row, in 1991 McKay started to turn his life around. He went to university, and started doing social work with the homeless in Victoria. Eventually, he took a job in the Terrace area, and rediscovered his culture, becoming a dancer and a carver and holding a major chieftainship.

Speaking in a soft, hesitant voice, McKay recalls that “I was well into my fifties” when he changed his life. “I remember when I was getting my driver’s license, and there were all these sixteen year olds waiting for their tests. I told my instructor, ‘All those kids must think I’m a road hazard.’”

McKay had always admired his namesake grandfather, and remembers watching him carve spoons and bowls. At various times, he had also also studied with master carvers like Henry Robertson and Tom Dawson. However, just like getting his drivers’ license, learning to carve was part of the process of the last twenty years.

“I always wanted to learn how to carve a bowl, how to carve a paddle and a totem pole,” he says, adding that he appreciates the talent of the young students in the class, and the school graduates who occasionally drop by to help with the classes.

He finds art essential to both his re-discovery of his cultural history and his personal journey, saying, “When I feel out of place, I just pick up a pencil and start sketching. I’m an artist. It’s natural.

“I always say that I’ve come full-circle. It’s funny, because when I was younger, my grandfather told me my story. It didn’t dawn on me until a few years ago. ‘Be careful,’ he said, because somewhere in your life you will run into trouble. But you are going to realize the situation and get out of it. And when you do, you’ll come full circle.’”

With all the efforts he has made, McKay is exactly the kind of person whom the Mature Student Award was meant to help. I wish him continued success when he returns next year to complete his studies.

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Todd Stephens is one of maybe a dozen First Nations artists whose work I watch closely. A graduate of the Freda Diesing School and two-time winner of the YVR Art Foundation Scholarships, he paints in a style that is traditional, yet displays his technical skill and individuality. “Jorja and I,” a painting of Stephens and his young daughter, remains one of my favorite pieces in my collection, hanging above my workstation. So, a couple of months ago, when Stephens was selling another major painting, “Txeesim’s Escape,” (“Raven’s Escape”) I jumped at the chance to buy, also purchasing two smaller pieces, “Midiik” (“Bear”) and “Ganaa’w” (“Frog”).

To my surprise, I’ve heard another art buyer dismissed Stephen’s work as scholastic, suggesting that he hadn’t evolved a style of his own. However, that description confuses classicism with lack of originality. In a classically oriented piece in any field of art, what you look for is discipline, and originality within the tradition. By these criteria, Stephens’ work sets a high standard – in fact, it often shows a surprising amount of variation, even with the same piece.

Look, for example, at “Ganaa’w.” Even in this relatively simple piece, the formline varies from the length of the back to the thinness of the hind leg, parts of which are half, or even a quarter the thickness of the back. As you trace the formlines, you will also find variations in how they are joined, with most tapering long and dramatically in the primary black formlines, and often hardly at all in the secondary red formlines. Notice, too, how often the black formlines create a T-shape out of negative space, especially at the throat and the base of the back, reducing the overall weight of the forms. The contents of the ovoids shows a similar variation in their contents, although the feet, naturally enough, are nearly identical.

Many of the same things happen in “Midiik.” In this piece, though, the thick black formlines are used together with the ovoids and U-shapes to create a sense of the bear’s powerful legs – in fact, there is a distinct impression of musculature in the upper legs that, more than the claws or the rough outlines of the teeth, convey a sense of the bear’s strength. Another interesting aspect is that the asymmetry of the eye leaves the impression that the bear is looking out at the observer, possibly in a menacing way.

However, of these three pieces, “Txeesim’s Escape” is by far the most accomplished. The title refers, of course, to the story or raven causing himself to be born as the grandson of the chieftain who keeps the light in a chest so that he can steal it (you can see the light at the tip of his beak, and the shape of the grandson in the tail). It’s an old story, and one that I sometimes think is depicted too often at the expense of equally interesting stories, but one that can always be renewed by originality or craft, as Stephens proves.

The design of “Txeesim’s Escape” is a bold one. It makes me think of house-fronts, the decorative boards that the northern First Nations of British Columbia brought out of storage to decorate their longhouses during celebrations. Evidently, that is what Stephens had in mind as well, since the painting is not only just short of three feet by two, but also so busy that many of the details are lost at a smaller size.

The design is economical. The raven’s body is hardly shown at all, except for a thick formline. Instead, the design is dominated by the head, wing, and tail, with a single foot whose main purpose is to balance the design. These body parts are shown in a profile that would be almost impossible to hold for any bird to hold for more than a second in reality. Here, though, the position suggests startlement, as though the raven has heard or glimpsed something behind him, and is flashing a quick glance over his shoulder to check for pursuers.

But the most outstanding feature of the design is the sheer amount of variation in the ovoids, U-shapes, and other elements within the form lines. The amount of variation seems almost disorganized in the tongue and upper beak, but Stephen keeps it partly in control in the wing and tail feathers by having the design elements in the outer feathers match. As for the many faces in the ovoids – or appearance of faces – they serve as a reminder that the raven is a master shape changer, capable of assuming many forms. The overall impression is a pleasing confusion that seems not only suitable to a creature being chased, but completely appropriate to a being that is, in many ways, the embodiment of chaos.

I have no idea how conscious Stephens is about such things – some artists are very conscious of the effects they create, while others are either unaware or wary of examining the process too closely. However, these comments should be enough to show why I consider Stephens an artist skilled in working in a classic mode. He displays his work regularly on his Facebook page, and is currently selling glicée prints of the four main clan crests at a surprisingly affordable price.

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I’ve been interested in Mike Dangeli’s work since I saw his ridicule mask in the Continuum show at the Bill Reid Gallery. The idea of taking a traditional form of commentary and applying it to modern relations between the First Nations and industrial culture seemed far wittier – and ultimately, more meaningful – than the other post-modern statements in the show. Later, when I heard Dangeli lecture about his efforts to live his culture in a modern context, I became even more interested. But it was only in October 2010 that I got around to commissioning a piece from him.

Whenever I commission work from an artist, I like to suggest only broad guidelines, and encourage the artist to experiment and maybe do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do. Accordingly, I told Dangeli that the painting was to be in honor of my late partner Trish Williams – the second piece I had commissioned in her memory – and could have up to four raised canvases. We discussed the primary colors, and I left him the pamphlet from her memorial service and some of the feathers I had collected over the years from our parrots. Remembering, too, Mike’s association of the north wind as a messenger between this world and the creator that might appear at a funeral, I also suggested that the north wind might be part of the design.

When I came to pick up the painting three months later, it had grown in its creation, with two side panels added to give room for Dangeli’s design.

The central panel of “Honoring Her Spirit” depicts Trish in raven form, with me represented by the red face on her wing. Around her are four ravens, for the four nanday parrots in our household during her lifetime, their bodies painted in the colors of nandays.

To the right, is a panel showing the north wind in the spirit realm. Where the central panel is made of definite lines in a more or less traditional formline design, the north wind is painted with thinner and less definite lines, its breath curling in non-traditional designs. The implication seems to be that we can only see hints of the spirit world – that nothing in it is as definite to our senses as the world around us.

On the four raised canvases, the birds sit poised between the two worlds, which suggests that they are part of both, or can move between them. The red lines on the raised canvases are roughly reminiscent of traditional northern designs, and spill over into the central panel, as the feathers do, both perhaps suggesting the interconnections between the two worlds.

However, the north wind is also blowing into the central panel, suggesting the coming of death. Trish’s transition into death is shown on the left hand panel, where her image is mirrored imperfectly, simplified and disjointed and drained of color to reflect our imperfect understanding of what happens after life.

This is a simple but powerful idea, ingeniously strengthened by the different styles in the panels. Yet what is eerie is that, although Dangeli did not know while he was painting, one of our four parrots died before he completed the paining – and only one of the birds is looking into the other world. The other three, who are still alive, are facing towards the everyday world. And if that is not enough, the feathers at the top center are from the dead parrot, although Dangeli no doubt picked them out at random. Whether these touches are serendipity or an example of the heightened perceptions of an artist, I won’t say, but they do add to the already highly personalized subject matter.

The painting now hangs in my bedroom, below two examples of Trish’s needlework. That seemed the most appropriate place for it.

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Ron Telek is primarily a carver and a sculptor. He has worked in everything from wood and stone to cloth and bone, but most of his work is three-dimensional. Consequently, I was curious to see what his first print would look like. I expected a sort of two-dimensional equivalent of film noir, full of shadows and vaguely glimpsed forms, but instead the print was “The Siren: The Keeper of Drowned Men’s Souls,” an intricate piece that more than one viewer has compared to a tattoo design (I envision it stretching across someone’s back).

Besides the medium, another unusual aspect of the print is that its subject and execution includes only one hint of Telek’s Nisga’a background: the design on the back fin of the smaller siren.

Instead, the piece draws on Classical Greek and Roman mythology. At first, the subject is surprising, but, on second thought, why not? Although Telek has a First Nations background, he has mentioned several times the influence of Japanese,African, and South American art on his work and such influences can sometimes be seen in his work. Nor is this the first time he has done a non-aboriginal piece. All things considered, it is not surprising that other cultures should be visible in his work, especially since the siren is not that far removed from several figures in local First Nations mythology, such as the Otter Woman.

At any rate, despite its unusual aspects, many of Telek’s characteristic elements are in “The Siren,” such as the figure in the mouth and spirits in the form of faces erupting all over the body. What is unusual, though, are the suggests of sexual aggression or predation in the breasts, each of which is made of a single spirit with teeth where the nipples should be, or the open mouth with teeth where the vagina should be. This sense is reinforced by the waves of hair, which instead of being seductive become a Medusa-like mass of writhing spirits.

Aggression is also suggested in the heavy shoulders and the reaching left hand, whose size suggests that it is reaching out to the viewer.Telek’s siren does not merely lure men to their doom, but actively preys upon them.

Then, too, the relation between the siren and men she captures is ambiguous – but menacing no matter how you interpret it. Some of the spirits seem resigned, but far more of them appear to be angry or in pain, leaving you to wonder how, exactly, the siren is keeping them. Does she only gain substance and the power to act through the drowned souls? Is the fact that she seems composed of lost souls an indication that she only exists in people’s minds? However you interpret the piece, the siren is not the supernatural beauty that you sometimes encounter in Classical mythology. Instead, she seems a supernatural dominatrix, overwhelming and perhaps luring the drowned men through sheer force of presence.

This is a remarque of the limited edition print – that is, a copy with an additional element not found in the original. Usually, a remarque consists of a quick doodle, but, Telek has added the second siren, adding almost as much detail as in the original image, and increasing the size of the print by nearly half.

The second siren reinforces the impressions hinted at by the first. Its face is more shark-like than that of the original image, evoking the figure of other powerful female figures in various First Nation mythologies, such as the Haida Shark Woman and Dogfish Woman.

In addition, the second figure gives a perspective through the drowned man still wriggling in its hand. The sirens, clearly, are huge.

The idea that the sirens gain substance from the capture of drowned men is further reinforced by the facts that the second figure’s body includes fewer spirits, and that it is somewhat smaller – perhaps a juvenile or teenage siren. Perhaps it is not even sexually mature, since it is much more slender and lacks the mass of flowing hair of the main figure.

Psychologists could go wild on the implications of these images (I know at least one who is sure that Telek was abused as a child on the evidence of his carvings). Personally, though, I prefer to simply enjoy the imaginative possibilities – and to thank Telek for this present, and for adding the remarque before giving it to me.

Thanks, Ron!

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Finishing details, a carver once remarked to me, are what makes a mask. Our latest acquisition, Ron Telek’s “Coming of the Winter Storm” is a perfect illustration of this basic truth.

Stripped to the basics, the mask is a standard Telek face. The nose, with its short length and separate cups for each nostril, is visible on any number of Telek’s previous works. So are the lines of the cheek, the even width of the lips, and the broad forehead. The eyes are somewhat unusual, since each wraps around two sides of the face, but not their shape. All in all, the basic face is so characteristic of Telek’s work that it could have been roughed out by an apprentice (and by some accounts, it might have been).

However, what makes this piece are the finishing details. For example, the hands raised to the face suggest the depiction of the winds on old European maps. Yet, if you look closely, you see that they are much smaller than the size of the face would make you expect. Either the wind spirit is a dwarf like the Bukwus, or its proportions are altogether non-human.

Then there is the paint. Like his uncle Norman Tait, Telek does not often use color, and, in the few instances I’ve seen where he does, the color is not especially subtle. But on “Coming of the Winter Storm,” Telek manages a delicate blending of red and blue to suggest cold and chafed skin that is completely unexpected. When I say that the blending is worthy of Beau Dick or Simon Dick, followers of Northwest Coast art should understand how subtle it is.

But of course the most striking feature of the mask is its hair and eyebrows. The difference in their color is a master-stroke by itself, emphasizing the non-humanity of the spirit. The same is true of the unusual angles of the hair, and the length and angles of the brows. The fact that the hair and brow are formed by four dozen separate plugs shows a patient attention to detail.

Another point I might have missed if we didn’t already own four pieces by Telek is the finishing. Almost all of Telek’s wood sculptures are sanded so smooth they might be ivory, with a careful consideration of how the grain might enhance the work. Here, though, Telek has left parts chipped and rough – largely where the daubs of red appear. It is a detail that seems much more appropriate to this rough figure than Telek’s usual finishing.

This attention to detail uplifts what could have been something ordinary into the extraordinary. Quite literally, it made us decide to postpone redoing the kitchen floor in order to obtain the mask while we could. Now, it sits below the clock, an eye-catching piece from any angle in our living room.

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“I’ve been doing art all my life,” Mike Dangeli, the up and coming Northwest Coast artist says. But although he identifies himself mainly as an artist, you cannot talk to him for very long before realizing that he is also many other things — a member of the Git Hayetsk Dancers, the heir to a chieftainship, and a man passionately committed to living in the culture of his Nisga’a, Tlingit, and Tsimshian ancestors within the context of modern technological society. Nor can you separate any of these things from the others, because Dangeli is at least as well known for his artistic work for ceremonies and regalia as for his commercial offerings.

Mike Dangeli

The interconnections go a long way back, although Dangeli took some time to bring them all together. He got his start in art early, making his own dance regalia when he was four or five with his grandmother, artist Louise Barton-Dangeli. He went on to learn acrylics, water colors and oils from her, as well cedar pouches, bags, and beaded necklaces.

At the same time, he learned “everything from weaving to painting to beadwork” from his mother, Arlene Roberts, both individually and as part of the yearly programs at the Chilkoot Cultural Camp in southeast Alaska.

At the camp, he learned from its organizers, Richard and Julie Folta and Tlingit artist Austin Hammond . From an old couple he only remembers as Mr. and Mrs. King, he also learned how to make drums — “that’s everything from taking a deer skin and scraping off the fat to making your own rawhide to string the drum,” Dangeli explains. He enjoyed the process so much that he estimates that by the time he became a professional artist at the age of 27, he had made “over five hundred drums.”

Beaver Drum

Another important early experience was spending the summer travelling on the Alaska ferries with his mother and grandmother, stopping at each port to sell what they made. Dangeli recalls that they did well enough to pay for their fares and his clothes for the coming school year. Through this experience, he also learned from his guardians “how to talk to galleries, to tourist shops, and cultural centers.”

Dangeli’s first training in carving came from his uncle in Prince George. “I spent a summer with him learning basic design and carving bowls and helping him with his work,” Dangeli says. “It was a lot harder than it looked, and I was a teenybopper with a lot of different interests.”

The road to an artist’s life

As a young man, Dangeli staged his own form of rebellion by joining the American army as an Air Ranger. He explains, “I’ve heard all my life that I’m in line to take a chief’s name. When you hear something like that all your life and you have to be good because of it, you decide you’re missing out and think, ‘I’m going to do my own thing.'”

The army seemed a natural choice, because he was thinking of going into law enforcement. “I didn’t see myself as an artist and living that kind of of lifestyle.”

Dangeli spent ten years in the military, rising to Staff Sergeant, but continued carving and designing in his spare time, and visiting family members when possible. It was on these visits that he started gaining a more deliberate understanding of his nation’s Angiosk –traditional territory — and Ayaawx — customs.

Adjusting our frame of reference

When he became a reservist, he attended the University of Alaska and working with his uncle Reggie Dangeli, a historian with the Alaska State Historical Commission. Eventually, he transferred to Washington state.

Matters came to a crisis when he got into a fight with another Staff Sergeant. “He said, ‘That’s the problem with you Indians,’ and of course he said effing Indians, so I smacked him up one side of his head.” At least partly because of the experience, Dangeli decided to leave the military, a move that cost him his university funding.

Finding himself in a well-paying but dead end job, Dangeli drifted towards Robert Boxley’s Seattle dance troupe and eventually apprenticed to him. He went through “a nasty divorce” due to his change of lifestyle, and headed “home to the Nass Valley to lick my wounds.”

The trip got sidetracked in Vancouver when he was asked to finish a pole in Woodland Park.

“I didn’t want to do it,” he says. “It wasn’t a very nice chunk of wood, and I didn’t want to do someone else’s work. So I said, ‘If I do it, it won’t be mine. It will be a community project.'” Hiring ten youths, he finished the pole and celebrated its completion with a potlatch — and, in the process, discovered that he had found himself a community.

“It was such a sad little pole,” he says. “It had been stolen twice, spray painted and a chunk was taken off the side, and someone took a Louisville [baseball bat] to it. It was horrible. But I look at it in retrospect as a physical manifestation of where I was in that moment in time — just beat up and kind of sad. It ended up being something very beautiful — not necessarily the totem pole itself, although it’s still up there and humbling to look at, but because it represents a massive amount of growth. What I created was a community here in Vancouver.”

Lifting up my god-son mask

While carving the pole, Dangeli found studio space at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre at Hastings and Commercial. He remains there to his day, running a program called The House of Culture. At first, the program was a cooperative, through which artists passed like Robert Davidson, Reg Davidson, Henry Green, Simon Dick, and Lyle Campbell, as well as younger artists such as Ian Reid and Phil Gray.

More recently, The House of Culture has become a rental space, because “there were a couple of people who had abused the space because they were abusing themselves in their addiction,” as Dangeli explains the situation. Dangeli now shares the space with Woodlands artist Don McIntyre, and Mari Torizane, a Japanese master painter who works as Dangeli’s assistant. Space is also found from time to time for other artists, such as Ian Reid, whom Dangeli regards as a brother.

Such experiences have left him with a strong interest in collaboration. One such result can be seen on the west side of the Friendship Centre, where Dangeli recently painted a mural with Don McIntyre.

Dangeli now works in a variety of media, including stone carving, wood carving, jewelry making, painting, and sculpture. He works twelve to fourteen hours a day and completes 10-30 pieces per month.

“I love a bit of everything,” he says. “You get lost in what you’re working in, so there is no favorite medium. It’s whatever I’m working on. but I always have five of six projects on the go in various stages. You get bored with one and you want to pick up something else. but then the clock’s ticking on a couple of pieces, and you’ve got to get going on them.”

Ceremonial, commissioned, and commercial art

“What’s become really important to me is the performance and ceremonial part of our art,” Dangeli says. “You can ask every Northwest Coast artist, and they’ll tell you that some of the best carvers and west coast artists are the ones who have an understanding of ceremony. It’s a lot different than creating something for the galleries.”

Part of the difference is that a mask intended to be danced “needs the inside to be functional. It needs to be carved to the dimensions of the face of the person who’s wearing the mask.”

Another part is the “responsibility and rights and privileges that you learn by attending ceremonies and understanding them.”

However, the largest difference, Dangeli says, is the spirituality. “In our languages, masks were naxnox— ‘beyond human power.’ These naxnox embodied the wind, they embodied the spirits, and were able to connect us to that spirit world. There’s an understanding that if you don’t treat these naxnox right, they’ll bite you.

“And I’ve seen that happen. I’ve seen a guy who played around too much with a mask and he was dancing on stage at this one event, and he fell right off the stage. It was a good five foot drop. That was part of the mask saying, ‘I didn’t appreciate that.’ I’ve seen it happen in our own dance group. I’ve even had it happen to me.”

Another consideration is the stories that are told in ceremonial and commercial art. “With a lot of our naxnox, there’s an oral history that’s owned by families that I don’t have the right to go and use. There’s even traditions that belong to my family that I would never go and openly sell. When I do art for potlatching or for individuals who ask me for things that display their clan crest, there’s always a different price. I don’t ever charge the full price in these cases, because the best payment is having one of your pieces used. It’s more of an exchange” of services or goods or artwork.

By contrast, “when I’m doing things for a gallery, there are certain stories that are universal to everybody” that can be used instead. Dangeli suggests that this is not a limitation, so much as a situation that calls upon his ingenuity as an artist. He likens the distinction to his experience of dancing, where there are some dances that are not recorded and others that are brought out for public performance.

Dangeli acknowledges that other artists do not observe the same distinctions, but seems to feel that their choices are not his business. “I find it really sad when I see artists breaking those laws [about what can be publicly displayed], but it’s up to their elders, their chiefs and their matriarchs to put them back into line, not us as artists. Although there are some things you look at and think, ‘Gosh, I can’t believe they did that.'”

These distinctions are increasingly easy for Dangeli to observe because, while he has had work in galleries, today, commissions and ceremonial work mean that he does not rely on the commercial art market to make his living. While he praises some galleries like the Eagle Spirit and the Leora Lattimer Gallery, and speaks of their owners with respect, he is concerned that meeting the galleries’ needs can be restrictive for artists.

In fact, in some cases, dealing with galleries can be “abusive,” he says. He recalls selling a drum and a mask to one gallery, and being told by the owner, “‘Now, don’t go drinking this all up in one spot.’ So I looked at him and said, ‘I don’t need this,’ and I ripped up the cheque and handed it back, and took my pieces.”

This experience was reinforced a few years ago by an incident online in which his building and launching of a canoe received condescending criticism from an academic, and others rallied around him.

“It was really wonderful having support from my own people, indigenous people, and people from museums from all over the place, and I let go of that final fear about what people think of my art. It’s none of my business. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, that’s fine. I think [this attitude] has made me a better artist, and that taking on more commissions has helped me to focus on more personal items and concentrating more on things for potlatches. It’s wonderful to have that freedom, and I would wish it for every artist.”

Art and the community

Dangeli takes his role as an interpreter of his culture seriously. “There is a responsibility, because artists are our historians. They are people who are able to act as a conduit between our culture and our people to the outside world. They’re historians, they’re writers, they’re creators of things that will be used inside those ceremonies. So, yeah, there’s a lot of importance in being a leader and an artist.”

For Dangeli in particular, this responsibility and importance is augmented because he is heir to two chieftainships, one of which he grew up expecting to inherit and one which he has only recently become heir to. This situation, he says, “has affected me in wanting to convey more of my messages. And taking on that larger chieftainship means that I have more responsibilities, both financially and culturally. Financially in the way of making sure that I can get home to attend feasts and potlatches, culturally by being able to create things for my people. It has affected some of what I create and definitely the responsibility not to do anything embarrassing as well.”

Sunset

However, asked if artists help to restore pride to First Nations communities, Dangeli characterizes the idea as an outsider’s view. “I think that, as an outsider looking in, yeah, it could be construed that way. But are you being made aware of it because individual artists are opening your eyes to what’s going on inside those communities? Because, growing up and witnessing all these wonderful things happening within my community, there’s always been pride. There’s always been this sense of beauty and right and wrong and putting your best foot forward. A lot of artists, especially in the generation before mine, have all grown up with that responsibility.

“There’s a huge responsibility being an artists and growing up in that culture, which is why some artists choose not to be part of it. It is too much responsibility. Everyone always wants you to create things for some sort of giveaway or to do this or that. So there has to be a balance.” For instance, Dangeli will often repurpose a piece, or ask permission to make a print of an original painting, so that he can respond to a request without taking too much of his time. He cites Joe David and Beau Dick as two of the older artists who are models of how to find this sort of balance.

“We have a responsibility because we’re able to function in so many worlds, whether it be the white world, within the art world — and it’s not just the art world, it’s the First Nation’s art world as well — within our communities, culturally, and academically and with art historians. I’ve been able to walk in all these worlds, and been intimidated in all of them.

“I remember when Mique’l [his financee] had moved up here. I was looking through some of the readings she had to do for her Master’s in Art History, and I became worried because art historians analyze everything. And I was like, ‘Look, I was poor this month, and people will say, this is Mike Dangeli’s blue period because I didn’t have anything else but blue paint. That was part of my fear: Is what I’m doing now going to be analyzed and picked apart twenty, forty years down the line?. And that was something else I had to let go.”

But, for all the fears, the responsibilities, the obligations and the need for balance, Dangeli clearly remains committed to all that he has taken on. “I love what I do. It’s not a job, and it’s not a career –although it is both — it’s a passion. I absolutely love it. So to be able to have that opportunity to take what’s inside me, to make my thoughts tangible –”

He trails off for a second, then starts in a new direction.

“I’m able only to put out so much in thirty or forty years. That’s a short time in a person’s life. And I started this when I was a little older than most artists. I was 27 when I decided to become a professional artist. so I have a lot of catching up to do. And, at the same time, I’m grateful to be able to create art and to have people see value in it.”

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