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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 Meanwhile, his left hand has been replaced by another spirit that, considering the half-transformed shape of his feet and other hand, might well be an intruder.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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Ron Telek, the Nisga’a carver, can always be counted on for the unexpected – anything from the disturbingly haunting to the eerily beautiful, and in every form imaginable. I’ve even seen a shaman marionette by him. Our latest acquisition, “Transformation Rattle: Eagle to Wolf” is no exception. Only a handful of other Northwest Coast artists could take a utilitarian object like a rattle and turn it into a sculpture while keeping it functional.whole-small

One of the characteristics I’m starting to associate with Telek’s pieces is an unusual degree of three-dimensional awareness in the design. Like many of his pieces, “Transformation Rattle” is impossible to capture fully with a single photo. I took five pictures for our records, and I’m not sure that I shouldn’t have taken a sixth to cover it fully.

The rattle consists of two parts: The rattle, which is the eagle, and the rattle’s base, a lean-looking wolf with a curved tail and, around its neck, a garland of cedar boughs. The rattle rests inside the tail, and can be removed from it. At first glance, you are lucky to notice that it’s a functional rattle. Your first clue is the leather wrapped around the bird’s tail as a hand grip, but even that could simply be part of the surreal sculpture.

The rattle depicts the transformation perhaps two-thirds of the way through. On the right side, the bird’s features are depicted fully, but the left side of the body is mostly blank, with the features indicated by a few indentations, and the wing by the grain of the wood.

smooth-side-eagle-small

Its feet, too, are gone, absorbed into the wolf. Perhaps to indicate the transformation’s incompleteness, the bird’s wing is wrapped around its rounded stomach, as though it is pregnant with itself.

finished-side-eagle-small

The wolf is more complete, but its lack of claws and teeth or fully-formed rear legs shows that it, too, is an unfinished figure. wolf-small

Its thinness and slightly rough carving, especially in the comparison with the eagle further suggests the wolf’s incompleteness – and, perhaps, the energy expended to make the transformation.

The fact that the two figures are the same is suggested by the spirit in the middle of the eagle’s right wing and atop the wolf’s head. Furthermore, the wolf’s garland of cedar suggests that this is not a born wolf, but a human – no doubt a shaman – going through these transformations. Supporting this idea is the much larger, more human-looking spirit erupting from the wolf’s back, as well as the fact that, if you look closely, the rear legs are more human than wolf-like.wolf-front-small

All this complexity is heightened by Telek’s characteristic attention to the direction of the grain. An employee at the Art of Man Gallery in Victoria told me last week that Telek often carves down until he finds the grain he wants, and, looking at “Transformation Rattle,” I have no trouble believing it. Although both the rattle and its base is carved from a single piece of red cedar (and stop and think about the difficulty of that for a moment), the carving is literally never against the grain. Even on the wolf’s curving tail, the grain moves with the sculpture. And, on the eagle, the round pattern of the grain not only suggests the bird’s body, but creates a semi-abstract form as simple as it is beautiful.

The overall result is a contrast with the tall, rounded shape of the eagle, and the ground-hugging, angular shape of the wolf. It’s an accomplished piece of work, which I’ve place on top the shelves on my computer desk, where I can look up at it periodically, or even take the rattle out for a shake if I feel like it. We’re seriously thinking of mounting it on a lazy susan, so that it can be viewed in its entirety more easily. Meanwhile, I’ve already switched its position around several times in the day since we brought it home so I can admire another aspect of it.

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