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Posts Tagged ‘Ron Telek’

Every piece of art, several collectors have told me, comes with a story. Gradually, as I’ve bought art, I realized that this statement is true, so on my spreadsheet for insurance purposes, I’ve created a column where I can type the story of how the piece was acquired.

I have no trouble remembering the first piece of serious art I bought. It was a three inch copper bracelet by Tsimshian artist Henry Green. I’d wanted such a piece for years, and suddenly realized I could afford one. I still remember my breathlessness as I approached the gallery to pick it up, and my sigh of relief when it proved more awe-inspiring than I could ever have hoped.

A couple of months later, I saw that the Bill Reid Gallery was selling canvas banners from a set that had been stored in Bill Reid’s house since 1991. Trish and I bought one, realizing that it was our best chance of affording any work by Bill Reid, then quickly bought another to balance the wall where the first one hung. Soon after, we bought our first mask, a moon by Ron Telek that is both eerie and strangely modernistic.

More soon followed. There was a Beau Dick sketch of a mask, unusual in that, with his carver’s eye, he depicted planes, not lines. The Lyle Wilson pendant Trish won in a raffle at an exhibit – the best $5 that either of us had ever spent. The small Telek mask that I fetched from the South Terminal of the Vancouver airport by walking from the end of the bus line and back again. The Gwaii Edenshaw gold rings we bought for our anniversary. The miniature argillite transformation mask by Wayne Young that I trekked over to Victoria for after Trish’s death and repaired and remounted because it was so magnificently unique. The wall-hanging commissioned by Morgan Green to help her through goldsmith school. And so the stories accumulate, so far as I’m concerned, as innate as the aesthetics of the piece.

For instance, there’s Mitch Adam’s “Blue Moon Mask,” which I saw in 2010 at the Freda Diesing School’s year end exhibit. It was labeled NFS, bound for the Spirit Wrestler show for the school’s graduates a month later. I happened to mention to Mitch that I would have written a cheque right away had it been for sale – not hinting, just praising – and a few hours later he came back and said the piece was mine if I were still interested. I was, and immediately became the envy of half a dozen other people who also wanted to buy it, but had never had the luck to ask. One of them still talks enviously when we meet.

Then there’s Shawn Aster’s “Raven Turns the Crows Black,” a painting that we had discussed in 2009, but didn’t seem to gel in his mind. After a year, I had stopped expecting him to finish it, and took to calling him a promising artist, because he kept saying that he was still working on it. But he did complete it – making it a Chilkat design (which I had not expected), and showing a promise of a different kind.

Two other pieces were commissions in memory of Trish after her death: John Wilson’s “Needlewoman” and Mike Dangeli’s “Honoring Her Spirit.” I made “Needlewoman” a limited edition of twenty, and gave it to family members for Christmas 2010. Mike’s painting, more personal, I kept for myself, carrying it up Commercial Drive from Hastings Street on a chilly January Sunday, because cabs wouldn’t come to the Aboriginal Friendship Center where I picked it up.

Other pieces were gifts from friends: a print of “January Moon” by Mitch Adams in return for some advice on galleries I gave him; a bentwood box Mitch Adams made and John Wilson carved and painted in memory of Trish; a remarque of Ron Telek’s “Sirens” print, and an artist’s proof by John Wilson and another print by Shawn Aster, both apologies for the late delivery of other pieces.

Of course, such stories mean that I can never sell any of the pieces I buy. The associations have become too much a part of me. But since I never buy to invest, only to appreciate, that is no hardship – my appreciation is only deeper for the personal connections.

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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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With few exceptions, the collecting of Northwest Coast Art did not begin until the 1970s. That means that pieces from those collections are just now starting to appear in estate sales – sometimes at bargain prices, if the heirs are more interested in quick cash than obtaining the full value. Consequently, when a copy of Lyle Wilson’s 1980 limited edition print “Shaman’s World “ showed up at the Inuit Gallery during the summer, I quickly snapped it up.

The print would be unusual today, but, when it first appeared, it must have seemed utterly unique. I tag it in my mind as a Northwest Coast Gothic, a kind of predecessor of Ron Telek’s work. It is also Gothic in a modern sense: monochromatic, macabre, and, quite possibly, self-consciously over the top.

The shaman’s world, apparently is actually two worlds, one the mundane world of light, and the other the dark world of the supernatural and other realms like the sky and the depths of the ocean. In the mundane world is the head of an eagle – perhaps a tutelary spirit to judge from the hand above it – while below it is a figure that may be a man terrified of the shaman, but which I suspect is a masked dancer, trying to make sense of reality through his dance. Meanwhile, in the spirit world, a man transforms into an eagle while below it swims a killer whale, another figure of power.

Neither world has much in common with the other except the shaman, who stands in the middle like a sort of ying-yang symbol, half of him in each world. Both worlds are contained in a frame of human figures (whose formline shapes suggest that they are intended as skeletons), birds and monsters that are apparently wolves. The tops and bottom of the frame are mirror images, perhaps adding the additional dimension of life and death to the cosmology contained within the print.

The shaman’s position, clearly enough, indicates that the shaman mediates between all aspects of the world, as well as their different methods of understanding. It might also be significant that the shaman is less skeletal than the human figures in the outer frame and has a differently shaped-head; perhaps the suggestion is that the shaman is the only piece truly alive.

The formlines in “Shaman’s World” are wonderfully simple, defined largely by interior elements to indicate knees and hips and chests. They flow from one shape to another, as good formline should, but so do the elements of the design. For instance, although the shaman’s arms are held in front his chest, the body of the human transforming into a bird and the first sprouting feathers look, at first, like an additional arm. Similarly, the twisted body and tail-flukes of the killer whale suggest a third leg. Together with the formlines, these flowing shapes help assure that the viewer’s eyes are never still, picking out a detail here and there, but always moving around the design.

Another obvious element is the use of blank space. Although much of the design is symmetrical, especially in the frame, the blank spaces on both sides of the shaman are highly irregular, being open and broad on the mundane side, and narrow and twisting on the spirit side. In this way, both the traditional symmetry of most Northwest Coast art and the asymmetrical preferences of modern design appear in the design – yet another set of elements that the shaman mediates between.

By restricting himself to black and white, Wilson relinquishes whatever a secondary or tertiary formline color might have brought to the print, but probably it is just as well – had he added red or blue or green, the design might have collapsed under its own weight. As things are, it is still a restless piece, full of contrasts and new elements to discover as your eye travels around it again and again.

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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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Earlier this week, we received “Master Shaman on His Throne of Power,” the latest sculpture by Ron Telek. We had been waiting for it since last December, so I consider it an act of supreme will power that we did not scream with frustration as we unwrapped the layers of paper, towels, cardboard and duct tape protecting it.

But the result was worth the wait, and then some. We had some photos of the work in progress courtesy of John Wilson, and were impressed enough then, but the finished piece goes beyond anything we could have expected.

The unfinished sculpture

The unfinished sculpture

“Master Shaman” is a carving in African wonderstone, with a black finish that makes it resemble argillite. In fact, Telek told me that he consulted an argillite carver about how to apply the finish. Back in December, I had no idea how he would finish it, but, recently we have started to look more closely at argillite, so his decision was a bit of serendipity so far as I was concerned.

The finished sculpture

The finished sculpture

The subject of the sculpture is self-explanatory: it depicts a shaman on a throne imbued with the spirits he controls transforming into a raven. You can see the spirits in the seat on the supports for the chair’s arms, while on the back, one of the shaman’s enslaved spirits presides over four confined spirits.

The sculpture depicts the shaman in mid-transformation. The spirit of the raven is erupting from his chest and the back of his head has started to sprout feathers while his feet and hands are half-turned into claws. His nose is hooked, suggesting that it is becoming a beak.

As always with the transformations that Telek depicts, you cannot say whether changing shape is an ecstatic or agonizing effort (I tend to think both). However, it is unquestionably intense. The shaman and most of the spirits seem to be screaming, and the shaman’s fist is clenched and his eyes bulging. His erect posture seems more an act of will, as though he would be doubled over in pain if he let himself relax.

Even more ominously, the shaman seems on the verge of losing control. Although the spirit on top of his head seems serene, screaming spirits seem to be erupting from his arms, in contrast to the close-mouthed on his rigidly-positioned knees. Meanwhile, his left hand has been replaced by another spirit that, considering the half-transformed shape of his feet and other hand, might well be an intruder. The overall impression is that the shaman is at best only partially in control of the process he has begun, and that, if he relaxes or allows himself to be distracted, he will lose control entirely.

telek-back

Turn the sculpture around, and you get another dimension – not only literally, but figuratively as well. The face on the shaman’s forehead has a more or less neutral expression, suggesting at most the shaman’s disciplined state of mind. However, the back of his head is hollowed out and contains a figure ripping its abdomen open in direct reflection of the raven spirit erupting from his chest. This figure grimaces in pain, revealing the true state of emotion beneath the shaman’s efforts to remain calm. It also raises the question of whether the transformation is real, or only happening in the shaman’s mind, a question that some of Telek’s other works, such as “Transformation Make: Human to Eagle” also raise.

All these aspects are enhanced by Telek’s usual attention to details. For example, although you cannot see from the pictures, the shaman’s back is separate from the back of the chair far more deeply than strictly necessary, while the feathers sprouting on his head are each individually carved. Similarly, the abalone on the sides of the seat are carefully matched, and both include dark lines in their pattern that complement the black finish of the rest of the sculpture.

telek-right-side

In some ways, “Master Shaman” is a typical Telek piece, balanced uniquely between traditional design and modern sensibilities. A seated figure is reasonably common in traditional argillite carvings, and so are transformation themes, but who other than Telek would add such a modern sense of ambiguity or such a psychological edge? It also has the three-dimensionality and amount of detail that I have come to expect from his work.

However, I know of no other piece by Telek that carries these tendencies to such an extreme as “Master Shaman.” The piece has a Gothic quality that combines traditional roots with the sensibility of the best dark fantasy novels; in fact, I would love to see a graphic novel or piece of animation done in the same style (although I wonder if it would be possible to depict more of the world than the sculpture does).

Phoning to tell me that the piece was ready, Telek commented that he thought the piece was his best yet. Maybe that was just an artist high on having finished a major work, but I’m not about to argue.

“Master Shaman” is an intense, unique work, and I haven’t tired of looking at it after three days of living with it. It sits a meter away from me as I type, and my eyes keep straying to it, even when I’m not writing about it.

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In January, we missed by hours buying a dragonfly frontlet that Nisga’a master carver Norman Tait and his carving partner Lucinda Turner sold through the Inuit Gallery. The gallery told us that its staff would ask the team to do another frontlet, but we had heard nothing for a couple of months and were just concluding that a second one would not be available when we received email notice that it had arrived.

Did we snap it up quickly? somebody asked me via chat. Put it this way: We received the notice at 3:10. I replied that we would buy it at 3:12 – despite the fact that we prefer not to buy sight unseen, and are saving to pay our taxes. Some opportunities you just have to take when they arise, and, having missed the first frontlet, we were determined not to miss this one.

You see, Norman Tait is one of the four artists we most wanted a carving from (the others were Beau Dick, Stan Bevan, and Tait’s nephew Ron Telek). Tait is one of the most acclaimed Northwest Coast artists alive – and rightfully so, given his attention to detail and his careful finishing. In the last two decades, these distinguishing features have been supplemented by Lucinda Turner, who brings the same qualities to carving.

The only problem is, Tait’s acclaim means that their masks start at about $12,000. While this price is more than deserved, it means that their work is largely out of our price range unless we do some extremely careful financial planning over a year or more. By contrast, the frontlet is more within our price range.

More importantly, the frontlet is a miniature masterpiece in its own right. While in many ways the frontlet’s depiction of a beaver is traditional, it is full of small finishing details — the flare of the nostrils, the roundness of the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, the roundness of the tail, the prominence of the front teeth and the curled lip – that lift it out of the mundane.

I like, too, the contrast between the heavy lines and planes of the figure and the lightly inscribed shapes along the border, to say nothing of how the beaver’s ears are incorporated in the border so as not to interrupt the line of the head. All the elements in the border are traditional, yet they are so lightly carved that they almost look like the letters of some unknown alphabet.

In short, everything about the frontlet indicates that it is the work of someone who is as comfortable with carving tools as I am with a keyboard or pen. Although it is undeniably a minor work, it displays Tait’s skill so completely that you can easily extrapolate from it what his poles and larger sculptures are like. As a friend said, having the frontlet in our home is bit like having a cartoon from Picasso.

We hung the frontlet near a similarly-sized piece by Ron Telek. That position gave us the additional pleasure of comparing the work of the master and his former apprentice. We could see that the same attention to detail and finishing was present in both works, but there was nothing you could call imitative in Telek’s work. He had learned the craft from Tait, but each carver has an imagination and style all his own.

Norman Tait: Beaver Frontlet

Norman Tait and Lucinda Turner: Beaver Frontlet

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Ask me to interpret anything – the cause of events, people’s motivations, the symbolism in a novel or a dream – and I usually opt for all the explanations that seem supported. To suggest anything else has always seemed overly simplistic to me, and so false as to be a distortion (in which case, why offer the interpretation?). For the same reason, I’m always vaguely irked by the efforts to impose banal interpretations on merchandise sold to the general public.

You know the kind of thing I mean. Buy a brooch with a Celtic knotwork design, and you’re apt to be handed a little card that insists that the design signifies the general connectedness of life. A trefoil design is a reference to the Christian Holy Trinity, and a dog faithfulness, and a ship the journey of life. Or something like that – I may be wrong on the particulars, because they’re usually too banal to remember, but you get the general idea.

People do the same thing with Northwest Coast art. The other day, for instance, I received in the mail a few pages from the gallery where I had bought a rattle by Ron Telek that depicted an eagle – the rattle – transforming into a wolf – the base. On one page, the gallery pointed out that Telek’s work, while derived from Nisga’a tradition, was intensely personal in nature. On another page, I got canned explanations about what an eagle and a wolf supposedly meant in traditional art. In other words, one information sheet clearly pointed out the inapplicability of the other.

As for the explanations themselves, each was a hundred words of meaninglessness. In brief, though, the eagle was described as being all about nobility and the wolf about savagery. To which I can only reply: Really? To all artists in all first nations? When the wolf was a clan or family crest in many cases?

And let’s not even begin to delve into the fact that no artist of any merit starts off with nothing but symbolic meanings in mind, any more than any great novelist starts off intending to write The Great Novel of Our Time. In both cases, they simply create, and leave the meaning to the critics.

But, besides the obvious falseness of such explanations, what really annoys me is that, by being handed such explanations, people are being mislead. They are encouraged to think that art is a simple and straightforward, and important only for its so-called meaning. Even worse, instead of seeing a work for themselves, they are being told what to think. And, once they are told what to think, they may never see anything else.

I suppose that there is a demand for such simple explanations. After all, many people desire simple explanations and world-views. But I don’t see why anyone should pander to this desire, especially when, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it’s a distortion of reality. Why encourage a delusion?

Look, I want to say when faced with such explanations. Life isn’t like that. It’s convoluted, and complicated, and messy. And, rather than do violence to your powers of perception, why not just accept the general untidiness and learn to enjoy it? You miss so much by denying the complexity.

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