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Posts Tagged ‘Northwest Community College’

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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This was only the second year that I attended the Freda Diesing School’s year end exhibition, but the show has become a must-see for me. For one thing, it is one of the largest exhibitions of Northwest Coast art in any given year. For another, I never know what I might find, either because a student is unknown, or has taken a giant leap forward in their understanding of their art.

The 2010 show was slightly smaller than the previous year’s, and emphasized carving more than design, although a few limited edition prints and drawings were available up in the loft, as well as a sampling of giclee prints by second year student Mitch Adams. But in compensation, the level of carving was higher than last year, probably because, instead of specifying that each student submit three pieces to the show, the teachers urged students to focus on producing their best work, and starting it early (even so, there were many groans about last minute all-night sessions).

Close to the door were masks by people whose work I have bought in the past. John Wilson contributed his hawk woman mask to the show, which I had seen pictures of, but was glad to see in person:

Wilson also contributed a large spoon, whose beaver handle included more detail work than I had seen before in his work:

Besides Wilson’s mask hung Colin Morrison’s second mask, whose red design made the wood look like a sun-tan, and contrasted with the white hair he used:

Moving on from Wilson’s and Morrison’s masks, I quickly discovered work from artists I remembered from 2009. Previous YVR award winner Shawn Aster, whose main interest seems to be design rather than carving, contributed a mask whose interest is largely in the painting:

Second year Metis artist Mathew Daratha was one of the more prolific contributors to the show, displaying several masks, such as this one:

Still another second year student, Latham Mack, the two-times recipient of the YVR Award, was allowed to carve in his family’s traditional Nuxalk style, producing a strikingly different Thunder Mask:

Mack also danced a similar mask after the graduation ceremony.

But perhaps the most development among the second year students was shown by Sheldon Dennis, whose carving showed a considerable advance over his work last year, as well as a strong sense of originality:

Female students continue to be a minority at the school, but those enrolled in the first year class this year made a strong showing. Cherish Alexander showed a talent for combining feminine faces with bold designs:

Carol Young, the winner of the first Mature Student Award, showed a similar interest in women’s faces, and added a traditional labret to indicate high status in one of her masks:

Another first year female student, Nina Bolton chose a more traditional shape for her mask, but gave it a strong, contrasting design when she painted it:

Some of the most striking work in the show was created by Chazz Mack, Latham Mack’s cousin. Chaz Mack include two pieces in the show: a small print, and a mask whose painted design shows a strong sense of line in its curves:

However, if the show had a single outstanding piece, it was Mitch Adams’ “Blue Moon Mask.” The piece was the despair of at least one of the school’s teachers, all of whom work in the northern style and favor masks with much less paint than “Blue Moon Mask,” but its clean lines and carefully selected palette made it a crowd favorite, with at least half a dozen people clamoring to buy it:

When Adams agreed to sell it to me, several other would-be buyers frankly expressed their jealousy, and cursed their lack of initiative; apparently, I was the only one who actually asked Adams if he was firm about the Not For Sale label.

In fact, if the show had a fault, it was that most of the best pieces were labeled as not for sale for one reason or the other. If I had had my way, I could have returned home with another three or four pieces from this years’ show.

However, that’s a selfish wish. Many of the pieces marked as not for sale were reserved for the upcoming Northern Exposure show at Vancouver’s Spirit Wrestler Gallery. For many students, the show is their first chance to display their work to a large audience, so I can hardly blame them for withholding their work from sale. All of them thoroughly deserve that chance, and I hope that I will have many chances in the future to buy their work.

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On April 23, I did something I had been waiting to do for ten months: I stood up at the graduation ceremony for the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art at Northwest Community College in Terrace, and gave out the first Mature Student Award. Trish and I hope it will be the first of many, and I think the award got off to a good start by having Carol Young (Bagshaw) as the first recipient.

A member of the Haida Eagle side, Young did not grow up with traditional culture, but absorbed much of it indirectly from her mother. Later, as a single mother of four, she began selling a variety of handicrafts and art pieces loosely based on Northwest Coast design on eBay. Although she says she never thought of herself as an artist, she sold over a hundred pieces of every description imaginable. Masks, rattles, miniature canoes, and, most of all, Haida-inspired dolls – all of these and more she managed to produce as a way of bringing in extra money.

With her children grown, Young decided to do something for herself, and enrolled in the Freda Diesing School last September. Her teachers and fellow students tell me that at first she seemed to have trouble feeling comfortable in the dorms or the class room, and that learning formline design didn’t come easily to her after years of doing things her way.

However, in the second semester, especially after hearing that she had won the Mature Student Award, Young started to hit her stride. Her design took on a new discipline and maturity as she absorbed what the teachers had been telling her, and she found a place among the other students, most of whom were far younger – although at times, she told me with a smile, she felt that her role was that of den-mother in the dorms.

By the end of the school year, Young had become the speaker for the first year students, announcing them at the graduation ceremony, and appearing with fellow student Sheldon Dennis on a CBC podcast about the school. She also took it on herself to present me with a school cap and T-shirt, and, when I requested one for Trish (who was unable to attend the graduation), gave me hers, claiming that she didn’t wear T-shirts anyway – a kindness that I was grateful for, although I wondered if it was true.

During the podcast, Young said that attending the school had given her “a whole new life.” Previously, I had only contacted her briefly via email, but when I met her during the graduation ceremony and exhibition, she seemed like a person who was happy about the direction she was heading. Not only was she in the middle of preparations and cleanup for the weekend, but she talked about how she hoped she could present a female perspective in her carving, which she felt – despite the name of the school – had been under-represented or explored. She said, too, that she would like to establish an award for women at the school, and would like to teach after she graduated next year.

My impression is that Young is the sort of self-starter who can get where she wants to be under her own power and on her own terms. But I would like to think that the Mature Student Award made her self-development a little easier and quicker than it might otherwise have been.

As the first recipient of the award, she sets a high standard. If next year’s winner is even half as deserving, I will feel that our ongoing involvement in the school through the award has been worthwhile.

Carol Young, First Recipient of the Mature Student Award at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art

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Last year, when I attended the Freda Diesing School Student Art Exhibition in Terrace, I noticed that most of the awards were for students 25 years old or younger. The school has some fine younger artists, but I thought that the older students deserved some recognition, too. To fill the gap, Trish and I decided to sponsor a Mature Student Award of $1000 per year, and to work towards making the award self-funding.

The official description of the award reads:

This award is given annually to a mature student (25 and over) from the
Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art who has demonstrated
leadership and mentoring qualities in the classroom. Faculty from the
School of Northwest Coast Art will select a student after confirmation of
enrollment in the second semester of the certificate or diploma program.

The award recipient must; be a First Nations Freda Diesing School of
Northwest Coast Art student; identify and work with a mentor to facilitate
the ongoing learning process; reside in British Columbia; demonstrate
potential in visual arts in the Northwest Coast style; and display
mentoring and leadership qualities in their relationships with other
students in the school both inside and outside class.

The award will be given for the first time in January 2010.

I have two main reasons for starting the award. First, as a late bloomer in my own craft of writing, I sympathize with the mature students. Being a student is hard enough when you are twenty, but when you are thirty-five or fifty, returning to school is even harder, because you probably have a family, and you are more set in your ways. Often, it means giving up a steady income when you’ve been used to one for years.

At the same time, I know from years as a university English instructor that older students are worth encouraging. They add a maturity to the discussion, and often serve as role-models and mentors to younger students.

Second, I am a buyer and lover of northwest coast art, especially art in the northern style taught at the school. I am not one of those people descended from Europeans who feel personally responsible for the wrongs against the First Nations that began before I was born, but I do believe in paying my debts and in doing the little I can to alleviate current problems. Northwest Coast art has given me hours of pleasure and learning, and I want to repay those hours with more than simple payment for each piece. I’d like to think that the award would help a student a little in the short term and in the long term maybe help them to launch their careers.

Compared to the other awards that the school gives, the Mature Student Award is starting off slowly. But I hope that it will eventually match the other awards, and become self-perpetuating.

If you are an artist, an art dealer, or someone who appreciates Northwest Coast art, please consider donating to the Mature Student Award. But don’t contact me. Instead, please contact Jill Girodat, the Associate Registrar at the Terrace campus of Northwest Community College at 250-638-5477 or jgirodat AT nwcc DOT bc DOT ca.

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