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Posts Tagged ‘Todd Stephens’

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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When I was in Terrace last April, I returned with two artist proofs from Jared “Citizen” Kane, a young First Nations artist who affects hip-hop clothes and attitudes. Both these works – one entitled simply “Moon” and the other “Love Birds” – interested me as examples of what computer-assisted art does easily and what it struggles with in Northwest Coast art.

Both these pieces are based on popular images. Neither image is claimed by a particular family, so artists can use them without being accused of appropriating someone else’s property. “Moon” is a successful blending of the traditional crescent of the moon with a more modern sketch of a face, while “Love Birds” combines a traditional split image with lightly concealed heart-shapes of European origin. “Moon” is striking for its simplicity, “Love Bird” for its intricacy, as well as for the placement of a central T-shape with foreshortened arms that could be interpreted as either male or female genitals, but both are identifiable at a glance as being designed on the computer.

I spend far too much time on a computer myself to see anything wrong with making art on the computer. The days are long past when people objected to pole makers rough-shaping the wood with chainsaws, and computers seem to me nothing more than another way that artists can make their work easier.

However, the idea of computer-assisted art remains far from generally accepted in Northwest Coast Art. In the case of several established artists who dislike the very idea, part of the reaction may be due to their own lack of computer literacy. However, they will add that they consider computer-assisted art lacking in warmth and individualism. But artists like Alano Edzerza have shown the possibility of bold, original works designed on the computer. And, really, the idea is no different from the manual templates used by some artists on the coast for over two centuries.

Still, computer-assisted art generally leaves its mark. Like many of the pieces created since Bill Holm in the 1960s codified the conventions of the northern formline tradition, it emphasizes geometry and symmetry in a way that traditional art did only part of the time. It is not so much that a piece like Kane’s “Moon” adds an unnecessary line to create a complete circle instead of a crescent, but that each of the ovoids, U-forms, and other shapes has a single template. Graphics software allows these templates to be scaled and rotated, or even distorted, but they remain obviously based on the same source.

In addition, because the templates are available, computer-generated designs tend to be less varied in general. In formline design, part of the craft is how the thickness of the formlilne changes according to the need of the design. Look, for example, at the work of Todd Stephens, a Terrace-based Nisga’a artist, and you will see that the broadest formline can be up to ten times that of the thinnest, which is often as thin as single brushstroke can make it. By contrast, in Kane’s “Love Bird,” the difference is may be four times.

Another place for variation in formline design is the variety of techniques for avoiding too much thickening of the line where two formlines meet. These techniques can include thinning the tips of one or both lines, or adding a T-shape or some other element in the middle of the two lines to thin out the filled space between them. Kane uses both techniques, but the thinning is minimal in both pieces, and he uses fewer varieties of techniques than many manual artists.

Although I suppose that in theory there is no reason that artists working on a computer could not make asymmetrical designs (which were a much larger part of the local traditions than is sometimes credited in these post-Holm days), or vary technique more, in practice they seldom do. The natural tendency is against both asymmetry and variation and for consistency. There is nothing wrong with this tendency, but it means that computer-assisted design is more likely to be bold rather than nuanced and varied. Even the relative intricacy of “Love Birds” looks far less detailed and more striking than a hand-drawn similar design, like Shawn Aster‘s “Raven Heart,”) another piece on display in my townhouse.

In general, though, Kane makes the computer work for him rather than against him, producing designs that almost insist on being enlarged, and, in “Love Birds,” adding more variation than many artists who have attempted to work on the computer. In the future, I’m going to keep my eye out for what he is designing – manually as well as on the computer.

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YVR, Vancouver’s airport, is noted for its collection of local First Nations art. I’ve wanted a tour for over a year, but they aren’t always easy to come by, since they involve weaving in and out of security areas. However, today my chance came at last. Together with Ann Cameron, the editor of Coastal Art Beat and my colleague on the YVR Art Foundation board, we followed Rita Beiks, the airport’s art consultant, back and forth through the terminal until I was throughly lost, but marveling at the airport’s collection.

We met at the foot of Don Yeoman’s “Celebrating Flight,” a four-story pole that mixes Haida mythology with Celtic knotwork and a greeting in Chinese. The knotwork and Chineese characters, Rita said, replaced the originally planned figures because of some knots in the wood that made the figures impossible. By itself, the pole is impossible to photograph without a crane and bucket, but when you realize (as I had not) that everything from the panels representing the northern lights at the top to the mosaic on the floor and the moon some distance away are all part of the installation, then taking a complete picture becomes even more impossible.

From the pole, we walked to the terminal’s best-known installation: Bill Reid’s “Jade Canoe,” version of “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii.” The “Jade Canoe” is a copy of the “Black Canoe” at the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C. However, while the “Black Canoe” is barely visible for security reasons, the “Jade Canoe” is so accessible that people have rubbed the bronze patina off the paddles and some of the other reachable parts of the sculpture. A sign telling people not to climb the sculpture is necessary, and the tradition has grown up that rubbing Mouse Woman’s nose is good luck.

Rita gave a brief history of the negotiations for the piece, which cost three million – an unheard of figure for an airport to spend on art in the early 1990s, and mentioned that the piece was orginally intended to have a copper patina, and changed to bronze only after a phone call from airport official Frank O’Neil to Reid, who at the time was in intensive care. She also pointed out that Lutz Haufschild’s “The Great Wave Wall,” which replaces the nearby windows on the terminal, was chosen as a suitable backdrop to Reid’s iconic piece.

Leaning over the railing, we looked down at the arrival level to Nu-chu-nualth artist Joe David’s “Clayoquot Welcome Figures.” Originally carved for Expo 67, the figures are on permanent loan from the Vancouver museum. Their popularity is so great that they needed a railing to protect them; even so, money is still regularly found in their hands.

We then moved into the secure area for departure and arrivals. Strangely enough, Rita and Brenda Longland, the airport official with us, both had to submit to the usual inspection of their belongings, while Ann and I sailed through without any problems with our visitors’ badges.
We passed display cases with the works of YVRAF scholarship winners from 2010, including Latham Mack’s Nuxalk mask and robe, and Todd Stephen’s drum. Like the other scholarship pieces scattered throughout the terminal, these pieces will be on display until June 2012, when they will be replaced by the work of the 2011 scholarship winners.

The next permanent display was the Pacific Passage in the arrivals area, a combination of diorama and original art.

I had seen the Pacific Passage several times, but always after a long flight that left me rushing to the fresh air, and uninclined to give the art treasures on display more than a passing glance.
That was a mistake on my part, because the display is well worth lingering over. It is dominated by Connie Watt’s thunderbird.

Also in the area is an aluminium panel by Lyle Wilson and a canoe by Tim Paul, as well a number of smaller pieces. Bird sounds start as soon as you enter the area, and I was amused to see the swallows who live in the terminal sheltering in the empty eagle’s nest that was added to the dioramas for realism.

Walking down the overhead walkways, we stopped next at the Musqueam Welcome area, the contribution of the First Nations people on whose territory the airport stands. According to Rita, Frank O’Neill, the airport official responsible for the idea of the First Nations collection, was convinced of the need for the area when the Musqueam chief told him that not having the local nation included there would be like having a sign in Ireland saying, “Welcome to the United Kingdom.”

Accordingly, arrivals are greeted first by the Musqueam, and then by Canada. One of the first sites arrivals see is Susan Point’s giant spindle whorl set against a waterfall – an impressive site even if you have been flying all night (although the palms to each side are incongruous; can’t native plants be used instead?).

Turning to the stairs and escalators that lead down to the custom booths, the first thing arrivals see are free-hanging samples of Musqueam weaving.

Moving to the steps and escalators, below them arrivals see the Musqueam welcome figures. These were originally carved by Shane Point, but when Musqueam women complained about the sagging breasts on the female figure, it was replaced by the less controversial figure by Susan Point that stands there today.

Only as you descend do you appreciate the sheer size of the figures; by the time you are on the same level, you realize that they are enormous.

Our next stop was the artificial river that begins with an installation by Tahltan master carver Dempsey Bob, and winds down to an oceanic aquarium dominated by another piece by Haisla master Lyle Wilson.

Bob’s piece is “Fog Woman and Raven.” It is based on the tale of how Fog Woman, mistreated by her husband Raven, gathers up all the salmon from the streams and smoke houses, and prepares to depart the world with them. A little stiffer than many of Bob’s works, it is still a piece worth lingering over because of the details like the salmon caught in Fog Woman’s hair.

The figures are carved from laminated blocks of cedar – an expensive process that is rarely done because it involves shutting down a mill for the better part of a day. In fact, the first laminted block for Fog Woman was found to be punky inside, and had to be abandoned.

Bob’s tableau is surrounded by chairs, and would be a pleasant piece to linger beside, but, unfortunately no food vendors are nearby, so nobody does. Annoyingly, too, small merchandise displays are crowding the piece (we asked a cashier to move an obscuring sign, but it was back when we passed by again half an hour later)

At the far end of the river, Lyle Wilson’s “Orca Chief and the Kelp Forest” rest on top of an aquarium of fish, so that the chief lies half hidden in the kelp made from glass and looks down at the subjects whom he protects. Rita says that few people look up, and reactions to Wilson’s piece proves her point, since most people looked at the fish moving back and forth, but few ever glanced up to see the art above them.

Our last major stops on the tour were two pieces by Steve Smith. The first, “Freedom to Move,” is a series of painted panels that are intended to slow people down in their hurry through the airport.

Unfortunately, the piece is squeezed into a space too small for it, and the pool that is supposed to surround it is dry, but Smith still managed to slow me down for an appreciative moment or two.

The second of Smith’s installations, “Sea to Sky,” named for the highway to Squamish and Whistler, is a series of drums hung beneath a sky light. What we saw was the second version of the piece, parts of the first having been damage by temperature problems, crumbling with a sound like artillery one winter day (fortunately without anyone being hurt. Smith took advantage of the incident to paint bolder designs, and sold what remained of the first version.

These are only some of the collection we saw today. There were also a number of pieces by Roy Henry Vickers that were originally part of a longhouse that has since been destroyed. The longhouse’s pillars and several other designs are now temporarily scattered throughout the airport, most of them unlabeled.

Display cases throughout the terminal also carried such treasures as Hazel Wilson’s famous “Golden Spruce” blanket, which commemorates the recent felling of a particular tree famous in Haida mythology, Tim Paul’s “ClearCut and Dressed,” and some outstanding non-native work by local artists such as Graham Smith. However, enumerating the entire collection would require a blog five times as long as this one.

For lack of time, we also didn’t get to the “Supernatural World” installation by Dempsey Bob, Robert Davidson, and Richard Hunt on the domestic arrivals level. And the only reason Susan Point’s “Cedar Connection” was included in the tour was that we passed it on the way to the Skytrain and the parking lot as we left.

Still, I didn’t feel cheated by any omissions. After four and a half hours, my brain was as numb as my kneecaps. I had taken in as much art as I could appreciate for the day, and rode the Skytrain home, full of the dazed content that comes from prolonged exposure to fine art.

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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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Most Saturdays, noon sees me barely staggering out to the gym. But today, noon or shortly after saw us arriving in Gastown for the reception to mark the opening of the Northern Exposure 2009 show at The Spirit Wrestler Gallery. The show is an exhibit of the graduating class of the Fred Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, plus this years’ scholarship winners. It has already become a tradition in the three years that the school has existed.

With 19 carvings and no graphics, the show was a subset of the graduation show I saw in Terrace, which had some 75 pieces. One or two second year students were missing, as well as most of the first year, including some artists like Mitch Adams or John Wilson who I’d rate above some of those who were represented. Still, space was limited, so some way of reducing the numbers was probably unavoidable.

At any rate, the reduced number also had the benefit of allowing you to pay close attention to each piece – something that is impossible with four times the number. It was especially interesting to see the graduates’ work beside that of their teachers, Stan Bevan and Ken McNeil. That way, you could see the teachers’ influence, and which students were on their way to establishing their own style.

To my eye, the exhibit was somewhat weaker than last years’, which included the work of Dean Heron, who is rapidly becoming one of the major up and coming young artists in the Northwest Coast Tradition. However, the show included the paddles I had admired in Terrace by Latham Mack and Shawn Aster. Another standout was Mack’s “Northern Beauty” mask with its striking painting and individualistic detailing of the nostrils and mouth.

northern-beauty

I also appreciated two samples of Reynold Collins’ detailed, often intricate work. While I think Collins’ work would be improved by more finishing and greater attention to the grain, his work never suffers from the clumsy blank spaces found in many of the other students’ work and shows a vividness of imagination that makes me suspect it is only a matter of time until I find the right piece of his work to buy.

reynold-collins

Only a half dozen students were at the reception, and their time was in demand. However, because the event was smaller than the graduate show, it was easier to have a few words with them and find what motivated them. I talked briefly with Sophia Patricia Beaton, Darryl W. Moore, and Reynold Collins, each time finding something in the conversation to bring me back for another look at the pieces they were exhibiting.

Last years’ show, as well as the work of other recent graduates was priced somewhat high – a mistake that means that the pieces do not sell, and that the artist is tempted to try to charge prices elsewhere that their reputation cannot sustain. By contrast, this year, the students seem to have priced their own work, and, thanks to the guidance of their teachers, this year, realism prevailed. Most of the pieces were under $1400, and only one over $2000. This realism seems to have helped; as I write seven hours after the start of the reception, some six of the pieces in the show have sold, including two each by YVR award-winners Todd Stephens and Shawn Aster. Not bad for a day’s display.

Especially at realistic prices, the show cannot be much of a money-maker for Spirit Wrestler, which often sells works by Robert Davidson or glass artist Preston Singletary for tens of thousands of dollars. In fact, when the cost of publicity, reception and staff wages are taken into account, the show might even cost the gallery money. That makes the show a public-spirited effort, or at the very least, a long-term investment in the next generation of artists.

Certainly, it means a considerable amount to the artists, many of whom have limited funds and some of whom had to go to some effort to get to Vancouver. But, after several days that included the YVR ceremony, and a tour of several local galleries and a CBC interview for the award-winners, the reception was clearly the highlight of their trip. Many said as much, and their sincerity was unquestionable. The reception gives them a taste of the lives they would like to live – and, thanks to Spirit Wrestler, for some of them, those lives may now be that much closer.

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“How does this compare to a show down south?” John Wilson asked me last week, shortly after I arrived at the Freda Diesing School Student Art Exhibition in Terrace. He seemed surprised when I told him that a 23 person show with some 75 pieces almost never happened, but it’s true. The annual show is one of the largest annual exhibits of modern Northwest Coast Art anywhere.

The show lasted only two days, with a private viewing for friends and family on Friday and a public viewing on Saturday. The location is the Freda Diesing Studio on the Terrace campus of Northwest Community College, a well-lit building with a large lower floor ordinarily occupied by work benches and a loft for a more conventional class room setting:

fd-studio1

Just inside the door, above the table with the show catalog and price list were a few prints by Freda Diesing herself, including a self-portrait mask:

fd-self-portrait

These works were not for sale, but stood as tutelary spirits of the show – or, more precisely, as the standards to which the students should aspire.

Several months ago, I reviewed the school’s mid-term show via a collection of pictures sent to me by John Wilson. That show was mostly painting and sketches, the first year class in particular having not begun its study of carving at the time. By contrast, the year-end show had a few two-dimensional pieces, but consisted largely of paddles, spoons, and masks.

Painted paddles are closer to two dimensional than three dimensional works, so I was not surprised when two of the best-designed paddles were from Shawn Aster and Latham Mack, two artists who were among the standouts at the earlier shows and scholarship winners at the graduation ceremonies that accompanied the private viewing:

shawn-aster-paddle

latham-mack-paddle

However, making the transition from the two-dimensional craft of painting to the three-dimensional one of carving does not always comes easily, and many students are still making it. Latham Mack, for instance (who as a Nuxalk, is learning his second style of carving), is well on the way, using the same blue that I am starting to recognize as characteristic of his two-dimensional designs:
latham-mack

By contrast, a mask by Shawn Aster shows a sense of surfaces, but seems more tentative, with a shallowness in the carving and a thinness of line that makes you only appreciate the mask up close, as seen in this (unfortunately cropped) picture:

shawn-aster-mask

A similar lack of ease in three dimensions is true of Todd Stephens, another scholarship winner from whom I’ve bought several paintings:

todd-stephens

Other students showed similar learning curves – and, as might be expected in a student show – a certain tendency to conformity – although Norman McLean, Sr., in a triumph of social sensibility over aesthetics did do a bright pink mask, as well as a spoon with a more discrete pink ribbon around the handle as fund-raisers for breast cancer. Still, there were some interesting pieces here and there.

Sophia Patricia Beaton, another scholarship winner, had only one piece in the show, but the wavy hair and the obviously feminine face and the labret were original enough to make me wonder what the rest of her work might be like:

sophia-beaton

I also noticed James Weget-McNeil’s frog mask, which, although in a very different style, reminded me of some of the faux-artifacts that Beau Dick has been carving recently:

james-weget-mcneil1

However, much of the interesting carving came from mature students with more experience.

Charles Richard Wesley, whose work I noticed in the mid-term show, came up with two interestingly intricate masks:

charles-richard-wesley

I also appreciated John Wilson’s work, which he says represents an advance in finishing details over his earlier work – pointing, for example, an indentation of the eye sockets at the top of the nose:

john-wilson

These are just some of the pieces in the show, but, aside from the bowls (something needing to be left out), they give an idea of the variety to be seen at the show. I appreciate the chance to see students learning and mastering their craft, and while some flaws and weaknesses are apparent, there are just as many examples of solid and skilled works.

In fact, I could have come away from the show considerably poorer. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on my shifting perspective, most of the pieces I considered buying were marked NFS, many earmarked for a show at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver later this month.

But buying is only one reason to attend such a show. A far better reason is spend a few hours surrounded by efforts of art – and that, so far as I am concerned, is more than enough reason for me to want to attend next year’s show.

My thanks to Stan Bevan for seeing that I got an invitation. That small kindness gave me an enriching day.

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Six weeks ago, Haisla artist John Wilson sent me pictures from the Freda Diesing School’s mid-term show. Since then, I’ve been trying to contact the artists whose work impressed me. Eventually, I hope to buy work from three or four of them. But, so far, the only one whose work has found its way into our house is Todd Stephens.

I’ve exchanged a few emails with Stephens, but I know very little about him besides the fact that he is Nisga’a, a young father, and one of last years’ recipients of the YVR Art Foundation Awards at the school. But I do know that he is an artist with a studied simplicity of form and enough understanding of the traditional northern style that he is already showing a strong signs of a personal style.

todd-stephens-red-warrior2

You can see Stephen’s simplicity of form in “Red Warrior,” the first piece of his work that attracted my attention. This small acrylic on canvas uses the barest minimum of lines to suggest a traditional maskin a non-traditional style. The thickest parts on the face – the eye and brow, the nostril, and the mouth – ate the parts most likely to be painted on a mask. On the outside, the columns of three lines, with irregular spaces between them help to break up the thickness of the line. The black background and the use of red as a primary color add a touch of innovation to a piece that otherwise is effective largely because of its simplicity. That Stephens should have reisisted the urge to elaborate is very much to his credit – generally, only a much more experienced artist would have trusted so much to simplicity.

Todd Stephens, "Industry"

In “Industry,” Stephens paints a traditional beaver in a traditional pose. He takes considerable care to avoid the thickening of formlines, mostly by tapering them and arching them where they meet.

At first, his major innovation in “Industry” seems to be in having the tail down, rather than held up parallel in front of the body. But, if you compare it to other versions of the beaver in this position (like the Richard Hunt print below), you notice thta it is a rectangular form, rather than the usual squae one. This change makes the body much leaner than in other artists’ versions, especially in relation to the head and hands, resulting in a much less-stolid figure than usual.

Richard Hunt, "Kwa-quilth Beaver"

Even more importantly, the thinner body leaves less room for secondary designs than in other people’s versions. As a result, the arms, legs, and body are decorated simply with only one or two elements apiece, which further emphasizes the outsized hands and feet – an exaggeration that fits in with the title of the piece. And, because so much of the beaver is rendered simply, the head and the tail are, too. The result is a boldness that makes “Industry” far more effective than most Northwest Coast Beavers.

Another of Stephen’s pieces that we have agreed to buy but not yet paid for is “Jorga and I,” a depiction of Stephens and his young daughter with the heads of the animals of their tribes (since the Nisga’a are matrilineal, of course, his daughter belongs to her mother’s tribe). The fact that the mythological heads are black, the traditional primary color in northern works, and the human bodies are red, the traditional secondary color makes the piece a statement of identity, saying clearly, “We are Nisga’a first” — and, because the hands are also black, perhaps “and artists” should be added to the statement.

Todd Stephens, "Jorga and I"

The protective hunching of the figure of Stephens, and the placement of his hands over his daughter’s eyes gives a modern and gently moving touch to the piece. Another modern touch is given by the overlapping of the artists’ hands and his daughter’s eyes, an element I do not recall seeing anywhere else. However, like “Industry,” much of the design of “Jorga and I” is traditional yet distinctive, with close attention paid to formlines, and the use of the distinctively Nisga’a T-shape inside forms to help further reduce their thickness.

This ability to combine a modern sensibility with a mastery of traditional design is the main reason that I think Stephens has a career in art if he wants one and is willing to work hard enough. Stephens still has things to learn, such as trusting to the power of white space enough to give wider margins on his designs, but the fundamentals are so obviously there, especially in the more complicated “Jorga and I,” that he seems likely to learn them – and fairly quickly, too.

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