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Posts Tagged ‘Raven’

In the renaissance of Northwest Coast art, the story of how Raven stole the light is the equivalent of the Madonna and Child in classic European art: sooner or later, most artists produce at least one version of it. Several years ago, I bought Bill Hudson’s version of the story, which shows Raven opening a box labeled Sun Crispies as he sits down at a kitchen table. Now, in James Crawford’s “Raven Steals the Lightbulb – Unscrewed,” I have found another modern updating of the story.

If anyone knows one story from the local First Nations, it is the story of how Raven stole the light from the chieftain who held in locked in his chest. Raven turns himself into a pine-needle and has himself swallowed by the chieftain’s daughter so he can be born as her son. The chieftain dotes on his grandchild, and one day gives him the light as a toy – and Raven promptly flees with it, burning himself black as he escapes through the smokehouse of the longhouse, and scattering the sun, moon, and stars, accidentally creating the world as we know it. With variations, the story is told in many different cultures. Usually, the depiction has Raven holding a sphere of light in his beak as he flees.

Crawford gives a modern rendering of this familiar scene. It is evidently a supernatural light bulb, since it appears to be still radiating light after being unscrewed, and in the upper left is what might be the rising sun. Raven looks mischievously pleased with his theft, or perhaps with the updating of the well-known scene.

However, the print is more than a one-punch piece. Instead, it is one of Crawford’s experiments with lino block prints: images that are carved, then inked and used as a stamp. It is a seldom used technique, although Stan Bevan, one of Crawford’s instructors at the Freda Diesing School, released at least one block print of his own. The effect is totally unlike any other medium, with irregular lines, and an often blocky appearance. It reminds me of the woodcuts in books from the 16th and 17th Centuries, which used a similar technique. The result gives Crawford’s print the eerie impression of being an artifact from some alternate universe in which the local First Nations had European-style printed books.

Needless to say, block prints require tremendous care when they are printed, especially when more than one color is used. Consequently, the print is small, roughly 12 by 25 centimeters. However, the effect is so appealing to my eye that I plan to buy some of Crawford’s other block prints – and to keep an eye on his work in other media as well.

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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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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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Shawn Patrick Aster’s “Raven Turns the Crows Black” has a longer history than most of the art in my townhouse. Aster took over two years to deliver it, but I consider it well worth the wait.

Aster’s work was brought to my attention by another artist in late 2008, as someone whose work was admired even by master carver Dempsey Bob. I immediately commissioned a piece from him, wanting an early piece from an already skilled artist who seemed sure to make a name for himself.

A few months later in April 2009, when I attended my first year end exhibition for the Freda Diesing School, I was amused to see that others gave Aster’s work no special attention – until he won two awards. Moments later, all his work in the show had sold.

But the commission had progressed little. Aster seemed nervous (I believe it was his first commission outside his family and friends) and couldn’t satisfy himself with the design. A month later, I bought “Raven Heart” from him, but I was still waiting for the commission.

By the next year end exhibition, Aster was looking distinctly apologetic when he saw me. Jokingly, I started referring to him as “the most promising artist” I knew, since he had promised the piece for over sixteen months – although I made clear that I was more than willing to wait. Secretly, though, I had decided he was unlikely ever to deliver. I was disappointed, although I bought other pieces from him.

Then, last March, Aster told me on Facebook that he had finally completed the design. It had apparently changed since he first started designing it, but I was happy to see it. I paid indirectly at the 2011 year end exhibition, and it was delivered by Aster’s fellow Freda Diesing graduate Todd Stephens at the YVR Art Foundation’s reception in May – a good deal of which I spent showing the piece to others and worrying that food might be spilled on it.

“Raven Turns the Crows Black” depicts an episode from the Haida epic “Raven Traveling,” a work that  many now consider the common heritage property of all First Nations people on the northwest coast. In the story, Raven the Trickster sees crows roasting a salmon on the beach. They agree to share the food, and Raven falls asleep while he waits for it to cook.

Unwilling to share, the crows devour the salmon. Belatedly worried at what Raven’s reaction is going to be, they put crumbs of the salmon meat on his clothes and between his teeth. When he wakes, they try to convince him that he ate before he slept, but Raven in his anger throw them into the fire, from which the survivors emerge forever singed and black.

Aster’s rendering of the story makes for a unusual design in what is already a tradition apart. Shared by several northwest coast nations but possibly Tsimshian in origin, the Chilkat style is based on weaving patterns. The style is constrained by the limits of weaving, so it tends to consist of discrete blocks of design, rather than the flowing formline found in painting and carving. This tendency makes it both geometric and highly abstract.

Aster’s design shows Raven in the center, his teeth bared (and if you ask why Raven has teeth, I can only reply, why does the parrot in Aladdin? Although, probably, Raven was in human form in the story, shape-changing being his most common power). I interpret the design as showing Raven in two states: in the middle, hungry and asleep, with his wings folded, and at the top center, angry and awake with his wings outstretched.

On the left are the white crows, on the right the black; like the raven, their wings and other features are abstracted into blocks of forms. The designs on each side are not quite symmetrical, with only the outlines of the heads to suggest the transformation in the story.

The background includes the characteristic Chilkat blue and yellow. However, to suggest the fire – and, perhaps, the salmon meat and Raven’s anger – Aster adds red to his design. Although I am far from an expert in Chilkat design, I have never seen any other Chilkat design use red. However, Aster’s innovation succeeds, largely because the red is relatively dark and sparingly used.

The result is one of the most bold-looking pieces of art in my collection. And while I admit that I grew impatient while waiting, I’d gladly wait another twenty-eight months for another work that is equally striking.

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In the fall of 2010, Tshimshian artist Morgan Green set out to raise the money for her tuition in goldsmithing. In return for my donation, she agreed to do a small wall-hanging. Near the end of April, 2011, she delivered “Raven and the Grouse” to me downtown, considerably brightening up an otherwise dismal evening for me.

The story is one of the lesser-known Tsimshian stories of Raven – or Txamsem, as he was known to the Tsimshian. In fact, Green had never heard the story, despite the fact that she probably has a stronger background in traditional culture than most First Nations artists in their mid to late twenties. My only source for it is the two-volume reprint of Tsimshian Narratives by Marius Barbeau, William Beynon, John J. Cove, and George F. Macdonald. There, it is listed as “Raven and the Grouse Prince,” and as being told to Beynon by Emma Wright of the village of Gitlaxdamks in 1954.

One of the things I like about the story (apart from the fact that is not the worn story of Raven stealing the light) is the glimpse of traditional life that it gives:

Txamsem was very hungry and could not catch any more salmon as these had all left with the salmon women. He left his little canoe and went into the forest to see if he could get any game. As he went into the woods he saw a large house ahead of him. He went to it and looking in saw that there was a man and his wife with many small children. He saw there was food in the house and he was very hungry.

Seeing three ravens in a tree he immediately called them, “One of you will pretend to be my wife and the other two will be our children.” He transformed these ravens to human form. They approached the house of the Prince of Grouse. When they were near the house, the Grouse Prince saw the man and woman with their two children approaching, so he called to them, “Come my friends, come and rest in my house.” Leading the way he led Txamsem and his raven wife and children to the rear of the house. “Bring food for my guests who are tired,” he called to his servants. Then he made a place for his guests to rest and sleep.

The Grouse Prince began to make a great many arrows which he piled by his sleeping place. He arose very early and was not gone for long when he returned with the carcasses of many mountain goat. Txamsem still pretended he was very tired and was resting all the time. He go up when the Grouse Prince went out with all his arrows and followed behind him.

After traveling some distance into the woods the prince came to a high steep bare rock mountain. It was impossible to climb this, so the prince took his arrows and shot three from his bow. When he had shot all his arrows, he called out, “Come great Supernatural One, come to the aid of the arrows you gave me.” Almost immediately a man appeared and waved his spear up at the mountain and at once a great many mountain goat came falling off the steep sides of the high cliff. These the prince took down to his house.

Txamsem had seen all this and had returned to the house. He asked the prince, “Do you go every day to hunt?” “No,” the prince replied, “tomorrow I shall rest and prepare all the meat I have got.” Txamsem said, “I will go tomorrow as I feel rested now.” He made a large number of arrows and next day he set off early to go to the cliff where he had followed the Grouse Prince.

When he got there, he shot off the arrows as he had seen the prince do and these went into the high precipice and then he called out, “Help my arrows O supernatural One.” As he said this a man stepped in front of him. “Whose arrows do you shoot?” Txamsem was at a loss and did not know the right answer. So he replied, “These are my arrows, Supernatural One.”

With that the walls of the precipice fell down and Txamsem became buried under them. His raven wife flew away as did the two raven children. Txamsem nearly died and was ill for a long while. He finally recovered and went down to where the grouse Prince’s house stood, but behold! It was gone. Then he went to where he had left his little canoe and being very hungry he set out traveling on down the river, in search of food.
(Note: I have changed the paragraphing for easier reading)

Green’s design is based on a picture of a historical house front. She has used that starting point to show Raven about to buried beneath the falling rock of the precipice. Inside Raven’s body, some of the goats are shown. The gray in the background, perhaps, might be taken as the silhouette of the Grouse Prince’s house in the distance.

What the photo cannot show is the care with which the applique has been sown on to the heavy background fabric. The stitches must number in the tens of thousands – reason enough for Green to take six months to complete the hanging, even if she wasn’t going to school and creating other pieces at the same time.

Green is a multi-talented artist, who restlessly explores different media, as the ceramic Mouse Woman platter shows that we bought a couple of years ago. But her first and most accomplished work, I’ve always felt, lies in fabric, which is one reason why I requested “Raven and the Grouse.”

I’ve hung the finished piece above my headboard, where it hides a wallpaper mural from the 1970s that one of these days has got to go. With the curtain drawn, the hanging has a somber impressiveness, with the buttons catching whatever lights I have on. During the day, with the indirect light from the window, the red outline of Raven becomes more noticeable, but the effect is no less impressive.

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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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Northwest Coast art has a new medium. It’s called forton, and it’s a mixture of gypsum, fiberglass and plastics, and has the advantages of being non-toxic, lightweight, weather resistant, and capable of imitating anything from marble to plaster or bronze. So far, you can see the largest collection of sculptures in forton in Vancouver at the Douglas Reynolds Gallery, including one cast from James Hart’s Celebration of Bill Reid pole that was officially presented to the public on December 5.

The Celebration of Bill Reid pole is a permanent fixture at the Bill Reid Gallery in downtown Vancouver. Carved by James Hart with the help of Ernest Swanson, Tyson Brown, Carl Hart, and GwaLiga Hart, the pole is topped by a raven whose chest is a stylized version of Bill Reid’s face. Through the Douglas Reynolds Gallery, eighteen copies of the raven are being made in forton – six imitating plaster, and 12 bronze, including three artist proofs.

Hart spoke briefly at the launch, arriving after the crowd had already gathered and was well into the buffet and wine. A tall man with long gray hair, he wore a bright Guatemalan jacket and carried a string of trade beads in his hands that someone gave him as he came in the door. He walked with a stoop and a slight hesitation. As he stood halfway up the stairs in the gallery, he was surprisingly soft-spoken for a well-known artist who is also a chief.

Hart spoke briefly about the pole and its intent to honor Bill Reid. He explained that he not only learned carving from Reid, but how to survive in the city, including such details as how to use an elevator, something he had rarely encountered in his rural youth. Turning to the plaster raven in the corner, he emphasized that it was a white raven, a representation of the trickster before he stole the moon and was singed black in his effort to escape with it through the smoke hole.

Afterwards, I managed to talk briefly to him as he mingled with the crowd. He said that the project was his first effort to work in forton, and that he liked the way it could be carved and was resistant to weather. He also expressed his enthusiasm for the new medium and designs that younger artists from all the local first nations were developing the traditional art forms.

Until the new raven cast, most of the works in forton that I’ve seen were done by Don Yeoman at the Douglas Reynolds Gallery. However, Reynolds mentioned the side of a house in Whistler that recently had several dozen forton panels added to one side, and I suspect that any artists who encounter it are likely to be as interested in it as Hart seemed to be.

One look at the cast and you can understand why. Made from a mold of the cedar original, the pseudo-plaster cast picks up so much detail that you can actually see the wood grain and tool marks in it. With forton offering so many benefits and no drawbacks so far as I can discover, I strongly suspect that, just as local first nations artists adopted to argillite a century and half ago and glass in the last few decades, many are going to seize on forton as yet another medium for their work.

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