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Posts Tagged ‘Terrace’

When I travel to Terrace every April, I spend three days submerged in art. Not only is the Freda Diesing School’s graduation and year end exhibit my official excuse for the trip, but I meet other artists and view their works in progress. This year, one of those artists was Ivan Adams, a Haida carver doing some unique work in argillite.

Ivan Adams is the father of Mitch Adams, a middle-aged artist from whom I’ve bought half a dozen pieces in the last three years. Last year, I met Ivan over Sunday brunch, and several times Mitch has mentioned his father as an artist, but until this year, I had never seen any of his work.

This year, Mitch drove me up to his parent’s house, and we sat in their kitchen while his father showed what he was working on. The three or four pieces I saw were literally like nothing I had ever seen before.

They were not in the argillite style of the nineteenth century, nor were they the inlaid and embellished pieces that most modern argillite carvers favor. As Mitch said, Ivan’s work is a little reminiscent of some Inuit work, but the resemblance is mostly in the scenes of everyday life he favors, rather than the carving style.

What Ivan Adams is doing is a naturalistic, detailed style all his own. One piece is a bear with silver teeth rearing on two legs while a much small hunter attacks with a spear; the base comes apart so you can position each figure separately. Another is a legendary strong man straddling a bull sea-lion and tearing it apart with his bare hands, with the exposed muscle suggested by artfully positioned catlinite (reddish brown argillite). A smaller piece is an eagle, so ungainly that it suggests an archeopteryx. All the pieces I saw were obviously mature pieces, done by an artist with a strongly developed style of his own.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford one of Ivan Adams’ larger pieces. However, he also had a raven pendant about the size and thickness of my thumb, which I was pleased to take home with me as consolation.

I suspect the pendant was a left over piece of argillite whose shape suggested its subject. But, like Adams’ larger pieces,what makes the piece standout is the attention to detail. The shape of the beak and how the upper and lower beak fit together are absolutely accurate. Adams has even included the striations that make every raven’s beak as individual as human finger prints, and suggested the soft tissue that connects the lower beak to the body – even though that part of the carving is not seen when the pendant is hanging from a chain. Similarly, the off-white of the inlaid eyes is a close approximation of the natural color of some raven’s eyes.

Yet as if that were not enough, on the head and neck, Adams has indicated individual feathers. Most of these feathers are aligned in rows, but only roughly, with some out of alignment and skewed from the rest, and most of them not quite the same shape. On the top the head, too, the feathers grown smaller as they approach the beak. I have no idea whether Adams has observed live ravens or worked from pictures in a book or on the Internet, but the only way that the pendant does not closely reflect a living raven is that the argillite lacks the blue oil-like highlights of actual feathers.

Ivan Adams is not well-known, and you won’t find his work in any Vancouver or Victoria galleries – at least, not yet. But anyone who takes the pains he obviously does is an artist worth paying attention to. Perhaps one day I will be able to afford one of his larger pieces, but meanwhile the pendant is a very satisfactory consolation.

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Last week, I flew into Terrace to attend the end exhibit at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art.

Of the four year end exhibits I’ve attended, this years’ was the weakest, with the fewest number of pieces on display and the lowest quality, but there were compensations. The show was partly a reunion of alumni, with former students such as Mitch Adams, Latham Mack, John Wilson, and Carol Young in attendance. And, as always, Waap Galts’ap, the longhouse on the campuse of Northwest Community College in Terrace, made for a setting that was both aesthetic and relaxing.

Nor was the show entirely lacking in pieces worth lingering over.

Larry Darrick displayed an abstract panel design that was all the more striking for being in black and white:

Darrick’s “Boogie Mask- Myth of Hairy Man, Bigfoot & Boogie Mask” was also worth a second look for its use of woven cedar for its mess of hair, although its copper nostrils and eyebrows seemed more elaborate than the simplicity of the carving would justify:

Among the spoons and bowls, the painting and lines of Lyle Mack’s “Transformation Spoon” was noticeable, so much so that I found myself wishing he had finished a mask or a painting for the show:

I was especially pleased to see that some of the high-quality work was done by last years’ winners of the Mature Student Award, which I sponsor. Barry Sampare, last years’ winner, showed more attention to detail and finish than most students:

Similarly, Evan Aster, who last year received an Honorable Mention for the Mature Student Award, displayed the same attention to the painted design as in last year’s exhibit to produce a mask of mildly eerie paleness:

Last year’s other Honorable Mention, Moses White, produced the strongest work of his that I’ve seen to date in “Oil Stained Warrior – Blood will spill before oil.” White’s mask had one side slightly higher than the other, but managed to be eye-catching just the same.

One of the standouts of the show was Nathan Wilson, who has already had some commercial success in the galleries. His “Defend the Village: Warrior Mask” seemed to show traces of the influence of John Wilson, with whom he worked privately in the past, but the boldness of design, as well as the mixture of materials (alder, horse hair, abalone, cedar bark, acrylic) was a a rare example of embellishments not overwhelming the design:

My only regret was that Wilson was not displaying more in the show.

First year student Jared “Citizen” Kane was another standout, with prints that were somewhat lacking in detail, but intricate enough that I bought both of them:

Still another standout was Paula Wesley, who plans to continue her art studies at Emily Carr next September. Although Wesley’s carvings looked a little rushed, and were not her best work, her two-dimensional pieces showed a pleasing discipline of line and a complexity of design, as in her “Releasing the Light”:

Wesley also created one of the strongest pieces in the show, a family box design that, had it been for sale, I would happily have bought:

However, pride of place in the show literally went to Kelly Robinson. Already a professional jeweler and painter, Robinson showed that he is equally promising as a carver. The central area of the exhibit was dominated by a display case with a spoon by Robinson, while two of his masks hung facing each other on either side:

In addition, Robinson’s painting, “Box Design (The 4 Carpenters)” hung at the main entrance of the longhouse, and was the most accomplished piece of the entire show:

The title refers to what might be called the celestial contractors in Nuxalk mythology who were charged with making the sun and other aspects of the world. The painting has a boldness and a mixture of traditional and contemporary that many visitors to the show admired, and I am proud to say that it will soon be on my living room wall.

With such artists as Kane, Robinson, Wilson and Wesley, the show was still worth seeing, and, as in past years, both the students and instructors couldn’t have been more welcoming. I look forward to seeing what the grads do next (and maybe buying more of their work), and how the first year students improve after another year of instruction.

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Bentwood boxes have always fascinated me. The intricacy of their making, which requires steaming the wood until it can be coaxed into shape, has always seemed an indication of just how technologically advanced the First Nations cultures of the Pacific Northwest were. In the same way, the fact that they are both decorated and utilitarian indicates the sophistication of these cultures. I have wanted a bentwood box for years, looking longingly at the works of Richard Sumner, the leading specialist in making them, but somehow never quite finding the right one.

Then last summer, after my partner Patricia Louise Williams died, Mitch Adams and John Wilson, two Terrace-based carvers and friends, said they would make a box as a memorial for me. Adams was experimenting with making the boxes (using a giant plastic bag, apparently, to trap the steam needed to shape the wood). He had already made one for his wife Diana after one or two tries, and, after another attempt had snapped, he produced a second one, passing it to Wilson to carve and paint.

For me, an agony of waiting followed, punctuated by jokes online how it was going to be the first see-through bentwood box, or would be painted pink and lime green, or some other non-traditional color, such as purple. But John had a living to make, and was nervous about wrecking the box. He also suffered a repetitive stress injury that kept him from carving for weeks, and slowed his notoriously fast carving. All too quickly, the days of waiting turned from days into weeks and from weeks into months.

I hope I didn’t nag him too often or too insistently. And I’m reasonably sure I didn’t actually utter the death-threats that impatience sent flitting through my brain, because, the last I checked, John was still talking to me.

Still, with one thing or the other, it was only when Mitch and Diana came down to Vancouver for the Chinese New Year in February that I finally held the box in my hands. I had spent the morning while we ate dim sum, wanting to ask if the box had been carried down on the plane as promised, and not wanting to ask in case it hadn’t. So, as soon as I had removed enough bubble wrap to smell the Varathane, a big sloppy grin was slapped across my face.

If possible, my first sight of the box made my grin wider still. According to John, the red side represents Trish, and the black side me. Considering that black is the primary color in formline designs and red the secondary, these seem the appropriate colors for the living and the dead, and I’ve taken to turning the box on my dresser according to my mood, turning to the red side when I’m thinking of Trish, and to the black when my grief weighs on me less than usual. So far, it tends to have the red side outwards four days out of five.

I didn’t quite hunch over my sports bag as I took the box home on the Skytrain, but it was a near thing altogether. Had anyone tried to snatch the bag from me, they would have seen my wolverine imitation, but the trip passed uneventfully.

I have no plans to sell any of the art I’ve bought. However, if I ever did, the box would be among the last. It’s become a symbol of more things than I can quickly describe, and often it’s the last thing I look at before turning off the light at night.

Thanks, guys, for the right gift at the right time. I know that Trish would have appreciated it as much as I do.

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The Freda Diesing School’s year-end exhibit has become a fixture on my calendar. Not only is it one of the largest annual shows of First Nations artists anywhere in the province, but I enjoy seeing how the students develop over the two years of the program. Over the last three years, it has also become a place for renewing old friendships and acquaintances, and making new ones.

Held April 16-17, the 2011 incarnation of the show was no exception. It was smaller than previous exhibits, but made up for its size by the general quality of the work.

The variety was also impressive, although, when I heard that the final project for the second year students was a moon mask, I half-expected otherwise. Perhaps a lack of time prevented uniformity; when I arrived during setup on the afternoon of April 15, many of the students were yawning and taking every chance to sit, having been up late finishing their pieces for the show.

The quality of the second year students’ work was especially high, much of it equaling or surpassing the pieces seen in Vancouver galleries. Chazz Mack, who has gained a reputation for the skill seen in his two-dimensional designs in his two years at the school was forced to miss the first day of the show because of an illness that the hospital diagnosed as dehydration, but contributed “Eagle Trance,” a mask in the distinctive Nuxalk style of high head dresses, large noses and strong primary colors:

Stephanie Anderson, a winner last year of a YVR award, staggered late into setup with a striking eagle frontlet that still reeked of fixative – and was possibly the strongest piece in the show:

Another second year student, Colin Morrison, whose first mask I bought eighteen months ago, demonstrated his growing skill with two masks, “Resurrection of the Ancestors” and “Black Wolf,” a mask meant for a flat surface or stand:

Even more development was shown in the work of Carol Young Bagshaw, the winner of last years’ Mature Student Award. While last year at this time, you could tell which teachers she was working with on each of her masks, this year, she displayed her own sense of style. Her masks are less stylized than traditional northern work, looking more like portraits, and taking full advantage of the beauty of the grain and the unpainted wood:

These graduates set a high standard, but at least some of the first year students seem likely to equal them. Nathan Wilson, who has already sold professionally, produced a solid piece entitled “Moon in Human Form,” that hinted at his skill, even though it was far from his best work:

Another emerging professional in first year, Kelly Robinson, easily rivaled the second years with “Visions Within,” even though he talked of adding some finishing touches to it:

Yet another talented first year students was Paula Wesley with the fine line and unique hair of her cannibal woman “Thu-Wixia,” which she danced at the end of the opening evening:

Accompanying Wesley in the dance was Evan Aster, who won one of this years’ Honorable Mentions for the Mature Student Award. Like Wesley, Aster promises to be a strong artist when his carving equals his painting:

The same could be said of Nigel Fox, a first year student who also paints in a style reminiscent of Canadian Impressionism. Fox’s “Surface Tension” was an interesting take on colors running together in the water:

Unfortunately, though, the painting overwhelmed the carving. Fox was on much more solid ground when he created an Escher-like design out of traditional butterflies in “Butterflies #3” (which is now in my possession):

Still other first years showed a mastery of the fundamentals of traditional design that should allow them to come into their own during their second years. They included Barry Sampare, this years’ winner of the Mature Student Award:

as well as Robert Moses White, who received an Honorable Mention for the Mature Student Award:

The pick of the show moves south on May 29 to Vancouver’s Spirit Wrestler Gallery, where I predict brisk first day sales. But although Spirit Wrestler is much closer than Terrace for me, I was glad to see the complete show, especially in Waap Galts’ap, the Northwest Community College longhouse, which is a comfortable blend of traditional design and carving and modern building and safety codes.

My thanks to everyone at the college and in the Terrace First Nations art community for making my visit such a pleasant one.

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Over the past weekend, I was in Terrace in northern British Columbia to attend the graduation ceremony and exhibition for the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art. I would have wrangled an invitation anyway that I could, because the art show is worth seeing, but fortunately I didn’t have to. I was invited to attend so that I could announce the Mature Student Award, and, just before I rose to spoke, a touching thing happened.

The award was started by me and my late partner, Patricia Louise Williams two years ago, after I noticed that many of the awards for First Nations carvers required that the recipient be under twenty-five. Knowing that older students give up even more than young ones when they return to school, and how much older students add to the class room, we decided that they deserved an award, too.

This year was the first time the award had been given out since my partner died and the award was listed as being in her honor. I knew, too, that Carol Young, last year’s winner, was going to give a eulogy for Trish – something I knew that I could not possibly do without becoming incoherent with tears. So I knew going into the graduation ceremony that my emotions would be running high.

Carol gave a brief speech that had me fighting to keep control. She spoke of Trish’s lifelong interest in Northwest Coast Art and of the crafts that she was always doing. She spoke, too, of Trish’s generosity, and how she used to cut the blossoms from her miniature roses and hand them out when we were on our weekend errands.

Then she announced that, in honor of Trish, each student would take a rose and hand it to someone in the audience.

That was it. I lost all hope of control and started crying. By the time Carol announced me, I could barely see for crying.

I walked slowly to the front, buying time to dredge up some composure. To say the least, I didn’t succeed very well.

Somehow, I managed to stand straight and talk slowly. Afterwards, people said I talked well, but I don’t know if they were being kind or not. I don’t even remember what I said.

But I got through somehow. I may have said that, because of money donated at Trish’s memorial service and raised through the sale of her craft supplies, that this year the award was being given to three students, two of whom were honorable mentions. I’m not sure, though. All I know for sure is that I announced the winners, and handed each a wrapped book, and faltered back towards my seat.

The ceremony ended soon after, and the crowd followed two drummers to Waap Galts’ap, the campus longhouse, which is a happy blend of a traditional Tsimshian and a modern building. There, we heard the students talk, and watched Nuxalk and Tsimshian/Salishan dancers moving around the flats and glass cases of the exhibition.

Occasionally, as the evening continued, I saw people in the crowd holding one of the roses. Usually, they were women, and often seniors, although once I heard a lover give a male student a rose, on the grounds that men rarely receive roses. That seemed especially fitting, since Trish had said something similar to me on my twenty-first birthday.

But no matter who held the rose, the sight never failed to leave a catch in my breath and tears in my eyes. Later that night, as I stared up into the dark in my hotel room, I reflected how strange it was that a gesture carried out by people who had never known Trish should be so much more moving that the memorial service held a few weeks after her death. I was not the least ashamed of crying, because I knew that Trish would have sobbed to see it, and I knew I had to cry in her place. I drifted off in melancholy satisfaction, and slept well I awoke, grateful for the gesture and wondering if it might be repeated next year.

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A couple of weeks ago when I was in Terrace, Dean Heron drove me the fifteen kilometers northeast to the Kitselas Canyon National Historic Site. We left the highway, bounced up a gravel road through some second growth forest to a gate and, after opening it, descended to the top of the site.

I’ve been hearing about construction on the site for a couple of years and the work that teachers, students, and graduates of the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art had been doing there, but nothing really prepared me for the site or the scope of the effort. The top of the site was dominated by a nearby mountain, so dramatically close that I could never quite keep it out of my glance, or resist looking up at it (or be unaware of it at my back):

To date, four longhouses have been completed. A fifth is largely complete but unpainted and will eventually display a wolf design, if I remember correctly.

In front of the line of longhouses, are the carved figures of a grizzly bear and a beaver:

Each of the longhouses, Heron explained to me, would become the showcase for a different aspect of the local Tsimshian culture. About a hundred meters across the gravel was the future gift shop and the washroom.

However, the current buildings were just the start of the plans. Eventually, part of the leveled gravel will become a ground for dances and ceremonies. And, behind the gift house, a path lead down to the archaeological site where the original village had been located. I would have liked to descend to the site, where an interpretive center was being built, but Heron was unsure of his right to go there. He had a key to the gate, and having worked on the top of the site, had no hesitation about going there, but the archaeological site was another matter – perhaps because he was not a member of the Kitselas First Nation.

Nor could we enter any of the longhouses, because alarms had been added recently to them. Naturally, I was disappointed, but I was glad that some pre-cautions were being taken, because apparently one of the longhouses had already been broken into. In fact, considering some of the art work there, I can see a day coming when the site has security staff around the clock.

Still, even without seeing everything, I was impressed, both by what had been done and what I imagined the finished result would be. Between the magnificence of the setting and the carvings by Dempsey Bob, Stan Bevan, and their current and ex-pupils, Kitselas Canyon has every chance of being the cultural and tourist landmark it is intended to become. Personally, I can’t wait to see what it should become in a few years — and I’m grateful to Dean for the preview.

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Mitch Adams is an artist I’ve been watching for some time. From the pictures he’s posted on Facebook in the last year, I suspected that it was only a matter of time before I saw one of his works that I wanted to buy. And, sure enough, when I walked into the 2010 Freda Diesing School Student Art Exhibition, his “Blue Moon Mask” immediately caught my eye. I consider it one of the finer examples of contemporary Northwest Coast art that I’ve seen in the last year – an opinion with which some traditionalists strongly disagree.

I am not the only one to think so highly of the mask. I know of at least half a dozen people who would have been happy to buy it, and who wished that it had not been marked as not for sale. Two of those people were frankly envious when I told them that, after I expressed my admiration, Adams decided not to send it to the upcoming Spirit Wrestler show after all, but to sell it to me. One even asked me if I would resell it.

Similarly, when I posted a picture of it in my review of the exhibition, one viewer called it “the most stunning mask I have ever seen.”

To me, such reactions seem perfectly logical for anyone who has troubled to look at the mask. Although “Blue Moon Mask” is covered entirely with paint, the paint is not so thick that you cannot see the smoothness of the carving.If anything, the palest blue on the mask tends to emphasis the plans of the carving, making them into shadows rather than lines.

The careful selection of the shades of blues is equally obvious, from the pale, almost white skin color to the darker blue on the outer rim, and makes the mask seem ever-changing, especially with the tear tracks falling from the eyes. Depending on the light and the angle, the mask can look serene, corpse-like, or even like the heavy makeup of a Goth on Friday night. It is a work that is both accessible and ambiguous at the same time.

Some aspects of the work are traditional. Looking through galleries or museums, you should have no trouble finding other moon masks of the same general shape. Many details are traditional, too, including the eyebrows and nostrils, and the array of U-shapes and ovoids surrounding the face.

Yet the work departs from the northern tradition in at least two key ways. For one thing, in the northern tradition, blue is a third color, used in small amounts if it is present at all. Black and red are the typical colors, with a third being added by the natural color of the wood. A departure from this norm is, by itself, enough to define a work as contemporary.

For another thing, the use of paint on the entire mask is unusual in Adam’s Haida and Tsimshian tradition (although not entirely unheard of, either). The northern tradition tends to be sparing in its use of paint, with designs painted across the mask that ignore the features beneath them. Adams’ decision to paint the entire mask would be more common in the Kwakwaka’wakw tradition, although, even there, his use of different shades of the same color instead of contrasting ones would be more characteristic of modern artists such as Beau Dick or perhaps Simon Dick.

To make these departures is a risk – but I believe it is a necessary one, of the kind needed to keep Northwest Coast art developing and relevant. Nor is it a unique one. Historically, the art form has long been a combination of local conventions meeting industrial societies’ technologies and sensibilities. So-called tradition has long changed and benefited from artists’ discoveries of metal tools, industrially produced paints, and, much later, of power tools. Similarly, the first European influence on subject matter is over a century and a half old, in top-hatted figures on poles and sailing ships on argillite plates. From this perspective, what Adams does in “Blue Moon Mask” is not radical, and should be easy to appreciate.

Yet, sadly, a minority noticed “Blue Moon Mask”’s departure from strict tradition and could not get past it. I am told that one teacher reacted strongly to it, and that another one joked about it. Even worse, some students, seeing the teachers’ reactions, immediately imitated them rather than using their own eyes.

These reactions strike me as both unfortunate and short-sighted. The basis of Northwest Coast art will always be the traditional work. If nothing else, the contemporary needs the traditional to react against.

Yet I do not see why admiration for the traditional must include a rejection of everything contemporary. True, you may prefer one over the other, or prefer one in your own work. But what you like and what is done well are by no means synonymous. Nor does preferring one require that you condemn the other.

Personally, I refuse to take sides. “Blue Moon Mask” is a technically skilled piece, and amidst our collection of traditional works by artists like Norman Tait or Richard Hunt and of contemporary pieces by artists like Alano Edzerza or Ron Telek, it claims a place on our wall on its own merits. It’s a piece that I consider myself lucky to live with, and I’m proud to have our keeping.

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