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Kelly Robinson is one of my favorite First Nations artists. I live with two of his paintings and three of his masks, all of which are strikingly different. Partly, his versatility is explained by the fact he works in both the Nuxalk and Nuu-chah-nulth traditions, but, whatever the reason, he is always trying something new. “Shamed Spirit” is no exception, although I have put off writing about it for several months, waiting for him to tell me more.

Until the other week, the mask didn’t even have a name. Robinson himself seems reluctant to talk about it, suggesting it is highly personal.

I recognized, of course, that it is a ridicule mask. Ridicule masks are a tradition on the Northwest Coast, a public display reproof of someone’s behavior through the destruction of artwork. This gesture is, perhaps, comparable to the breaking of a copper, as Beau Dick did a few years ago on the grounds of the British Columbia legislature and later at the Canadian Parliament Buildings – a gesture of contempt emphasized by the destruction of something personal and beautiful.

Modern ridicule masks generally feature the marring of half a mask. Often, they make a similar statement to Dick’s breaking of a copper; I remember Mike Dangeli, for example, contributing a ridicule mask that was an overt comment about the treatment of the First Nations to the opening show at the Bill Reid Gallery.

However, I still don’t know whether Robinson intends a similar comment. From a couple of hints, it might be a comment about sexual abuse, although how personal or how political it might be, I am no means sure.

Still, no matter what the target of the mask might be, it remains a powerful symbol. From the right side of the mask, you can see that the design is a mature display of skill, simple yet striking and well-finished. The left side, which Robinson tells me actually spent some time in a fire (and still smells like it did) is both a tragedy for lovers of art, and an expression of strong emotion. After all, who destroys such a piece of art without a strong motivation?

The whole idea of a ridicule mask seems the ultimate example of passive-aggressiveness, a gesture whose sincerity is undeniable, yet comes at a tremendous cost, both personally and aesthetically. I can only hope that one day I get to hear the story behind “Shamed Spirit,” because as a statement, it seems important – even to my limited understanding. But, then, who says that art is supposed to be easy?

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I always appreciate recognizing talent before anybody else. What interests me is not so much the potential for a piece done early in an artist’s career to increase in value (since I never sell what I buy) so much as the satisfaction of recognizing talent before anyone else. So when Kelly Robinson, one of my favorite Northwest Coast artists, told me in December that he was teaching his brother Randall to carve, I was immediately interested in the results. And, given his selection of materials and the finish on “Rainwater,” in Randall James Robinson’s case I am already experiencing that satisfaction in the reactions of those who see the mask.

“Rainwater” is one of Robinson’s first masks. The carving is relatively simple, but a good choice for the material. The mask is carved from spalted alder – that is, alder infected with a fungus that discolors the wood. The discoloration apparently does not photograph well, and is actually much smoother-looking than it appears to be in the photo below, but the point is that the spalting is so interesting in itself that too-elaborate carving would be a distraction, especially since the spalting’s long lines of discoloration suggests long trails of rain running down the mask.

Robinson tells me that he got the wood from Gordon Dick, the carver and owner of the Ahtsik Gallery near Port Alberni, who produced the spalting, but found that it set off allergies when he tried to carve it.

Robinson is carving in the Nuxalk style. The Nuxalk have traditions that are vastly different from those of the northern first nations, such as the Haida, Nishga’a,Tsimsian, Tahltan. If I understand correctly, one of the major Nuxalk ceremonies is the thunder dance, which celebrates “the greatest of the supernatural beings in Nuxalk culture.” The thunder dance tells of four brothers’ encounter with the spirit of thunder on a lonely hillside, and is apparently the origin story of a major Nuxalk family.

I have seen the thunder dance performed several times by Latham Mack, who has carved a couple of thunder masks. However, I have never seen the rain-water dance, which is performed before the thunder dance. During the rainwater dance, the dancers sprinkle those watching with water as cleansing ritual. “It’s the bringer of rain before the thunder,” Robinson tells me, meant “to cleanse the earth before thunder.”

Since the entire coast is a rain forest from the American border to Prince Rupert and beyond into Alaska, a rain spirit seems only appropriate to a local culture. In the same way, “Rainwater”’s use of spalting to portray that rain spirit is a choice that speaks well of Robinson’s developing artistic sensibilities. Like any newcomer, Robinson has endless hard work and learning ahead of him in order to have an artistic career, but this early effort suggests that he has the talent to succeed if he chooses.

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I first became aware of Nuxalk artist Latham Mack when I visited Terrace for the Freda Diesing School graduate exhibit. He had already won one YVR scholarship, and would go on to win another, and his paintings and drawings were among the best in the class – so much so that the teachers gave him the privilege in his second year of working in the Nuxalk rather than the Northern tradition. In fact, when he showed me a sketch for a painting of the Four Carpenters, I said I would buy it sight unseen. However, that painting was never done, and at the time his sculptural work was no more than competent, the best feature of his masks being the painting.

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Mack’s patience and hard work, though, mean that his story today is very different. Under the mentorship of Dempsey Bob, Mack has become one of the outstanding carvers of his generation, and the prices of his work should soon edge beyond my affordability. So when he showed me his relatively inexpensive “Grizzly Bear Spoon” outside Dempsey Bob’s “North” exhibit in 2014, I jumped at the chance to buy. I had to wait six months while the spoon was on display at the Richmond Art Gallery, but in early 2015 I finally carried home an example of his work.

My understanding is that Mack began the spoon while still at the Freda Diesing School and finished it in 2014. Certainly its quality and execution is closer to that of his current work than his student masks. If I didn’t know Mack’s connection to Bob, I might have guessed it by the minimal paint job, although Mack does use what I mentally tag “Nuxalk Blue” around the eyes and ears. The wood is soft to the touch, and the lines of the paint completely straight, both signs of a highly-finished work (and, in the case of the paint, a steady hand. What I especially like is that, with the minimal paint, the contours of the grain because as much a part of the result as the carving.

Adding to the piece are the proportions and curves of the spoon’s bowl. They are framed by the legs, with the knees marking where the bowl begins to widen, and the descent of the bowl’s curve by the calves. Further up the handle, the start of the bowl is framed by the claws.

Most of the body is simply carved, with the roundness of legs and arms emphasizing the wood’s grain. But what really catches the eye is the depth of the carving on the head. Typically, deep carving is a sign of excellence in northwest coast carving, and this spoon is no exception. The tip of the chin is at least three centimeters from the base of the neck, and the inside of the mouth slightly more. The lips are half a centimeter thick, the eye-sockets symmetrically about the same. The result is dramatic, especially when painted, and even more so in dim light.

Currently, “Grizzly Bear Spoon” sits on a tea trolley in my living room, where I pass it twenty times a day and my glance can hardly help but linger on it. I suppose it is a minor work compared to Mack’s larger pieces, but between the curves, the grain, and the depth of the carving, I consider it every bit as much an accomplishment.

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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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In April, I flew up to Terrace for the Freda Diesing School’s graduation show. I entered from one end of the modern longhouse where the exhibit was set up, and wound my way through the display panels and cases to the opposite end. As I rounded the last panel, Kelly Robinson’s “Nuxalk Box Design: Four Carpenters” caught my eye.
Immediately, I knew two things:

First, from the amount of red and the particular shade of blue, and the looseness (or non-existence) of formline, it was a Nuxalk piece.

Second, it was such an eye-catching piece that, if I could, I was taking it home with me. At the time, I already owned Robinson’s canvas, “Mother of Mischief,” but this was a contemporary piece that was, if anything, even more striking.

As things turned out, I didn’t take the painting home with me that weekend. I bought it, but both Robinson and I were worried that the glass might not survive the flight home, and that the painting might be damaged. As things were, it was only six weeks later, when a somewhat different version of the show was displayed by the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver as Northern Exposure that I finally took delivery.

The Nuxalk, sometimes known as the Bella Coola (although not by them) are a nation about midway up the coast of British Columbia. Like the neighboring Heiltsuk and Haisla, their art shows hints of both the northern formline style and that of the Kwakwaka’wakw to the south, but with bold lines and colors that make it unique.

Unfortunately, Nuxalk art has not been extensively studied in comparison to, for instance, that of the Haida or Tsimshian. However, in the last half century of the local First Nations revival, the Nuxalk have never lacked for artists. My own familiarity with the style – such as it is – comes mainly from the Nuxalk who have graduated in the last few years from the Freda Diesing School, such as Latham Mack, Chaz Mack, and Lyle Mack, all of whom are related to Robinson.

Nuxalk mythology has been neglected by academics almost as much as the art. So far as we know, we have no transcriptions of how Nuxalk stories might have been told a hundred and fifty years ago. Nor has anyone collected the stories. But, from the little I know, the Nation has some unique traditions.

Foremost among these traditions are the Four Carpenters. These are the supernatural beings charged by Atquhtam the Creator to prepare the world for the Nuxalk. Sometimes, the Four Carpenters are loosely glossed as being arch-angels, but a better analogy is probably heroes like Prometheus, who are responsible for the foundations of culture.

If I have the stories correct, the Four Carpenters created the Sun, which is often depicted as a canoe, as a vehicle for the Atquhtam. By some accounts, the Four Carpenters created the Raven specifically to steal the light, as he does in other first nation cultures. But the Four Carpenters also designed the Nuxalk language, as well as the ceremonies and dances of each of the Nuxalk clan; each of the Carpenters may also be the founder of a clan. When they left Atquhtam’s house, they descended to earth on the sun’s eyelashes.

“Nuxalk Box Design: Four Carpenters” shows the subject surrounding the sun, with the bottom two, perhaps, starting to descend to the earth. As the name suggests, Robinson’s painting is a study for a design that might be painted or carved on a box. That description sounds like a formal, academic study, the kind of rigidly traditional work that might be done by a student artist, and there are, in face, objects in the painting such as the faces that remind me of other Nuxalk work I have seen. There is also a regular layout that suggests the careful measurement that might be expected in such an exercise.

At the same time, a strong sense of style is obvious at a glance. “Bold” was the first word that came to my mind when I first saw the painting, and it remains the best description I can think of. With the thickness of the red lines, it could almost be intended for a housefront ten metres long, and not just a box. And, while the painting may be generally symmetrical, the difference in positioning between the upper two and lower two Carpenters strikes me as a touch that a modern artist would be more likely to add than a traditional one, or one just learning the style.

Still another individual or modern element is the large amount of cross-hatching in the design. So much cross-hatching might appear in metal or wood, but from my limited knowledge seems rarer in Nuxalk painting. Perhaps, like many local First Nations artists today, Robinson has been influenced by other traditions of painting, such as the Tsimshian’s, which sometimes uses cross-hatching heavily.

I rate the painting as Robinson’s best to date, and have hung it in the living room, facing “Mother of Mischief” on the opposite the wall. I suspect that, on that fast-approaching day when I have so many paintings and prints that I need to rotate them on my wall, “Nuxalk Box Design: Four Carpenters” will be one of the few than hangs permanently.

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I have read about and seen something of the culture of the Haida, Tsimshian, Nisga’a and other First Nations of the northern British Columbia coast. However, I know little about the Nuxalk of the central coast beyond the fact that the nation prefers not to be referred to as the Bella Coola, as they once were. For that reason, when Latham Mack, one of this years’ graduates of the Freda Diesing School danced a Nuxalk mask, I was an attentive member of the audience.

I am used to thinking of Latham Mack, who twice won the YVR Art Foundation scholarship, as a designer more than a carver. Certainly, he has done far more designs than masks to this point, including a limited edition print. However, as part of his final work in the Freda Diesing program, Mack finished two Thunder masks, a blue one for the year end exhibit and the upcoming  show at the Spirit Wrestler gallery, and a black one that he has announced that he will keep in his private collection.

Both masks reflect the story of the four brothers who saw a dancing figure on the mountain who created the thunder – an important story in the Nuxalk tradition. The hooked nose and flaring nostrils are a traditional part of the figure’s depiction.The small branches attached to the head, presumably to suggest lightning, are also traditional, although Mack’s mask makes greater use of them than several others that I’ve seen pictures of. This tradition, as Mack emphasized to me, is separate from the Thunderbird of the Kwakwaka’wakw or other First Nations, with the central figure representing the spirit of the storm.

Latham Mack tells me, “Two major dance rituals make up our winter dance ceremonies, the Sisaok (ancestral family dances) and the Kusiut (secret society ceremonies). The Thunder dance is performed by members of the Kusiut society. According to Bella Coola belief, the supernatural ones in the upper land resemble human beings in performing Kusiut dances. Corresponding to the prowess of his patron, the dance of his human protégé is one of the most important Kusiut rituals. Only the strongest of course danced the Thunder because of the movements and physical fitness you had to be in to actually dance it. Only the families who owned the story actually danced it, but as the years have gone by, we have lost the identity of those owners. So now it’s basically owned by the whole Nuxalk people.”

Mack goes on to say that, “The dance of Thunder can be performed with four, two or one masked dancers, depending on the prerogative of the protégé. When the dance is done with four Thunders, these represent the four brothers in the oral tradition. Numerous dances lead up to the Thunder dance, the Herald introduces the dance of Thunder. He beats his stick on the floor and announces the impending Thunder dance.”

Many dances can lead up to the Thunder dance, but, in this case, the performance was divided into three sections, each introduced and narrated by a member of Mack’s family who also provided a rattle accompaniment.

Since the mask had never been used before, the ceremony began with a blessing of the mask by sprinkling down over it.

Then, before Mack’s actual dance, three female members of his family prepared the area in which he would dance with their own dance. It was a stately dance, done with upraised palms and constant circular steps. The narrator explained that this preparation was a traditional role for women in Nuxalk dances.

Then Mack danced. He wore an apron threaded with loose pieces of wood that he shook for percussion, and wooden clappers on his back.

Frequently, he threw himself down on his knees and climbed to his feet again.

His hands and lower arms made constant flickering gestures, as if to shoo people away, but actually to bestow blessings upon the audience.

It was an energetic dance, enough to scare several young children at the front of the audience, who quickly moved away. He also wore cuffs around his ankles and wrists and the modern innovation of knee pads (which was wise, since he was dancing on a concrete floor, and would have otherwise damaged his knees). It was an obviously exhausting performance, powerful and contrasting sharply with the graceful motions of the women’s dance a few moments before

All too often, those of us who are not directly involved in First Nations culture can forget that the masks that we admire have a ceremonial purpose — or are supposed to have. Mack’s dance was a small reminder of this basic fact, and left me wondering where I could find more about Nuxalk culture.

(Note: Ordinarily, this dance is not photographed, but Latham Mack’s grandfather, Lawrence Mack (Lhulhulhnimut), a chief of the Grizzly clan from the ancestral village of Nusq’lst gave permission for those in attendance to photograph it. He also graciously gave me permission to post the pictures I took on this blog. Needless to say, any mistaken cultural references here are due to my ignorance or to lapses in my memory, and not to his kindness. Should anyone see any mistakes, please let me know so that I can correct them.).

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