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Posts Tagged ‘Tsimshian’

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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Six weeks ago, Haida/Tsimshian artist Mitch Adams and his wife Diana were in Vancouver on a selling expedition. We sat on the shaded porch of a Starbucks, and Mitch unwrapped the pieces he hoped to sell to one of the galleries. They included a variety of pipes (“They’ll make you look taller! Cooler!” Mitch claimed), several miniature masks carved from ebony, and a couple of sculptures I would have bought on the spot if I’d had the money. Then Mitch brought out a framed painting from the back of the car.

I remembered the painting. I’d seen it when I was in Terrace the previous April, sitting at the back of Mitch’s workshop. It was a design that he had done while a student at the Freda Diesing School. An injury had left him temporarily unable to carve, so, rather than sit idle (or more like, kibbitzing with the other students, if I know anything), he began to do designs on paper.

At the time, I asked him if he would sell it, but he was unsure of the price, and I had enough to carry back on the plane already. “Throw it in the trunk next time you come to Vancouver,” I said, but, to be honest, I’d forgot all about the piece until I saw it again. However, once I got over my surprise, I was happy to buy it.

As you might guess from the story about its origin, “Haida Box Design” is a formal exercise, but no less interesting for that. Like Celtic knotwork, abstract Northwest Coast designs fascinate me in their intricacy. When you know a bit about the artistic tradition, you can appreciate the breakdown of the figures in a series of basic shapes, each of which is varied by such details as how the thickening of the formlines where they meet is minimized, or the designs inside the U-shapes. At its best, the result is a strong sense of individualism within a detailed tradition – which is certainly the case here.

Adams’ individual touches are numerous. To start with, rather than designing primarily in black, he balances red and black almost perfectly. The design puts round shapes, rather than the more common ovoids, in the center where they can hardly be missed. Many of the lines are straight, rather than curved, as you would expect in most designs on paper, although that would make them ideal for carving. Tapering of the lines is minimal, and Adams makes wider use of thin lines than most artists would.

However, what fascinates me most about the design is how, despite being symmetrical, it manages to avoid some of the stiffness usually associated with symmetry – especially to a modern eye, trained to consider asymmetry of design the norm. Day after day as I’ve done my morning stretching exercises, I’ve watched the piece and considered the elements that undermine the potential symmetry.

First, there’s the easy interchange of figure and ground between the black and red that changes depending on what you focus on. Then there’s the mild variation of rounded shapes in the center of the design. Most of all, however, what really offsets the symmetry are the shapes positioned on an angle.

All things considered, I’m tempted to say that I’d appreciate seeing “Haida Box” design carved in yellow cedar and painted. The only thing that keeps me from doing so is the fear that, the next time we meet, Mitch will present me with exactly that, and I won’t be able to resist pulling out the cash to buy.

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Haida/Tsimshian artist Mitch Adams seems to be making a career out of smaller pieces. Not that he avoids larger pieces; his “Blue Moon Mask” is one of my favorite pieces on the walls of my townhouse. However, in the last year or so, he has done masks from laminated blocks of wood about the height of my finger, a brass magnifier, a couple of combs, and, most recently, a briarwood pipe, filling a niche shared by few other artists. With a length of ten centimeters, his “Raven Rattle” is another of his miniatures – and one of my favorites among his work.

Contrary to what you might think, rattles of this size are not a recent development. Although modern tools makes carving at smaller sizes much easier, rattles the size of this one appear in artifacts of a century and a half ago. Some might have been used, concealed, in the magic and theatrics of the winter ceremonies. More likely (since the sound doesn’t carry far), small rattles might have been used by shamans, working up close with sick patients.

Aside from the obviously modern paint, Adam’s main innovation is his material – boxwood. The stand is a piece of driftwood, or (as I like to think of it), two-thirds the price of a Special Platter at The Afghan Horseman, where I last had dinner with Mitch and his wife Diana and took the rattle home with me. Unpainted, the base provides a contrast with the largely painted rattle. The rattle can be left on the base, in a position in which it resembles a rocket, or else lifted free and used, in which case it gives a delicate, half-hissing sound.

Like the size, the subject and composition is also traditional. The rattle depicts Raven the trickster, the face in his belly representing the light that he has stolen from the chief who hoarded it. On his back is a red human figure facing a raven’s head, their tongues intertwining to suggest communication, and a reminder of Raven’s ability to change from human to bird shape. You might also take the quasi-sexual posture of the two figures, as well as the round belly containing the face in the light of some of the details of the story: Raven has impregnated the chief’s daughter with himself to be reborn as the chief’s grandson, so he might have a chance to get close to the light.

As for the composition, it, too, has a long tradition. For instance, just before writing this entry, I came across a picture of this two centuries-old Haida piece in the McCord Museum in Montreal:

The subject is different, but the composition similar, although Adam’s piece was never meant to rest on its bottom, and has a more streamlined look. With a few minutes’ research, I could easily turn up another two of three similarly arranged rattles.

None of these comments are meant to suggest in any way that Adams lacks originality. Rather, I’ve made them to point out that the rattle is a piece within a tradition. Its shape and intricate painting of details are more than enough to establish Adam’s ability – and to make me curious about what he will do next.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Miniature masks and sculpture are a test of an artist’s skill. They are merciless about showing who has a steady hand on the carving tool or the paint brush, and who cares about finishing details. Often, too, they demonstrate an artist’s ingenuity.  Tsimshian / Haida Mitch Adam’s “Peaceful Warrior” (shown below roughly full size) is an example of all these things, which is why I jumped to buy it when I learned it was available.

The mask is one of two that Adams carved from a block of laminated wood (the other is currently in the Spirit Wrestler Gallery). Except for a few pieces, such the eyebrows, the pupils, the lower lip, and part of the nostrils, what you see is not paint, but the natural colors of different layers of wood. From the outside working in, the layers are Swamp Ash, Ebony, Mahogany, Maple and Wenge. Adams has chosen to make so few additions to the block that you might call the result an example of minimalism.

Adams, who seems to be making miniatures one of his specialties, writes, “I enjoy carving this size of mask, to challenge my self and to see what level of detail and character I can get out of these woods. [I] try to carve and finish it as it would be done for a full size mask.”
Faced with such ingenious economy, what can I do except try to imitate it, and let the mask speak for itself?

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(Morgan Green is currently trying to raise $5000 to pay the remainder of her tutition for goldsmithing. She is offering a number of pieces of her original art in return for donations. If you want to assist, please click this link)

http://www.indiegogo.com/project/widget/9083 )

Looking at the artistic career of twenty-six-year-old Morgan Green, the first thing that strikes most people is how varied it has been. But probably, that variety comes naturally. With an art teacher for a mother, and master carver Henry Green for a father, Green has been surrounded by a variety of art all her life.

However, for Green herself, the road to becoming an artist, “All started with clothing. “I’ve always loved making clothing since I was young. I used to handsew on the bus or wherever to pass time. I can still handsew and walk at the same time,” Green says, adding with a smile, “I can also read and walk, but it’s a bit of a dangerous occupation.”

In fact, Green’s first formal training after graduating from high school in Prince Rupert was fashion design. However, since then, she has also studied bronze casting, molding technique, clay sculpture and goldsmithing, as well as learning wood carving with her father and Salish carver Jordan Seward, and jewelry-making with Haida artist Richard Adkins.

With this background, Green is already making a living as an artist, although, like most artists, she has also had the usual array of odd jobs, ranging from commercial fishing to waitressing.

“The most important steps were just doing it,” Green says when asked about how she established her career. “I put myself out there, applied for grants, asked to apprentice, showed up, and applied for art jobs.”

However, Green also goes on to say that, “Formal training has helped me immensely to have cleaner, professional work. Usually, the teachers are an amazing resource.”

A tradition of her own

Of mixed Scottish and Tsimshian background, Green shows a similar diversity of influences.

In general, she says, “I admire artists who work hard.” However, asked to name artists she admires, the first one she mentions is Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha.

“The visual flow of his work is enchanting,” she says. “I find it rather poignant how he influenced the whole Art Nouveau movement like that, then died alone in exile. Very sad. I like that much of his art was poster art, popular culture. He has been an influence because I have studied his work a lot and use his work often as a drawing reference.”

The next influences she acknowledges are “Tsimshian historical artists. Most of their names aren’t known, but I am the most fascinated with their work. Their variations on Mouse Woman are my favorite, but everything about their formline is amazing – the shapes, the flow, the connections.”

Some writers on Northwest Coast art would see a split between the modern and the traditional in these influences, but Green doesn’t see tings that way. “I think that tradition and innovation are the same, or, I should say that Northwest Coast historical designs and sculpture were extremely innovative. I think that it is important to study tradition, because, without that study, innovation can seem hollow.”

Unlike some First Nations artists, Green sees nothing wrong with choosing subjects that are not part of her family’s crests. “Technically, if I stayed within my hereditary right, I would only be able to make eagle things,” she says, “But even in history artists were definitely different from the general population. To my knowledge, the hereditary right is more important for who’s wearing the item. Artists have always created art for many different people, as well as for performances, and even neighboring villages. So I think that we can be given some artistic license.”

Diversity upon diversity

Since Green makes her living as an artist, she describes herself as “somewhere in mid-stage of my career. I feel like my artwork is still maturing, but the quality is good, and I’m happy with where I’m at. I’m not really one for major production or commercialism (I like to make things one of a kind, and I believe in locally made), so I’m lucky that I have supporters who believe in me.

Right now, Green thinks that “My career is at another jumping off point.” Continuing to work in a variety of media, she says “I see it all as connected. The processes are all different, but have similarities. A lot of [working with a new medium] is learning how to work best with the properties of the material.

“I am, of course, in love with a very traditional style of Tsimshian art myself.”

Besides art, Green also hopes to do more teaching in the future. “Teaching has probably been my biggest revelation: first figuring out I had skills to share, and then trying to formulate my knowledge and ideas into a communicable lesson plan. I think that teaching Northwest Coast art fills my need for altruism. I think it helps people, and at the very least makes kids happy.”

In addition, Green is also concerned with violence against women, and was Jordan Steward’s assistant a few years ago on the pole to commemorate missing women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

As Green thinks ahead, she adds “I want to teach art and prevent violence against women and make our children stronger and able to practice cultural arts. And I want to do a fashion show, sometime soon.”

An armchair psychologist might be tempted to speculate that Green is trying to combine the interests of both her parents in her own life. However, those who know her might be more tempted to say that her ambitions are just Morgan being Morgan, looking ahead to more of the diversity that has already characterized her career.

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