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Many people don’t realize the fact, but the Northwest Coast art market is flooded with forgeries. Made in Asia, these forgeries sell are imported by the hundreds, selling for a fraction of genuine pieces. Often, they are low quality, and show little knowledge of local traditions, but a few of them show a reasonable level of skill, and even include forged signatures of well-known artists.

So how can you know if the art you are buying is genuine? Here are a few basic precautions:

  1. Spend some time in galleries to see what regular prices are, both for the kind of work and for a particular artist. Forgeries will usually be 20–50% of the standard prices. Although you can sometimes find genuine bargains – for instance, the work of new artists — in most cases if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  2. Buy directly from reputable galleries or artists. Someone selling on the streets is unlikely to be genuine, and, the further removed from the artist a sale is, the greater the chance of forgery.
  3. Talk to the seller about the piece. Be suspicious if the seller cannot talk knowledgeably about what it represents or how it was made. Beware of simple, general explanations about the piece, such as the claim that a depiction of a wolf symbolizes courage or an eagle soaring ideals.
  4. Ask the seller where they studied the art, and with whom. Traditionally, Northwest Coast art has been passed down from teacher to student, and genuine artists are quick to mention their teachers. By contrast, be skeptical of people who claim to have been adopted by a First Nations group, or to have received a blessing – claims that appeal to the stereotypes of First Nations, but have little to do with the realities of the cultures.
  5. Check what materials are being used. For instance, although legitimate First Nations artists sometimes experiment with other types of wood, the most common types are ones found on the northwest coast, such as red or yellow cedar, alder, and yew. By contrast, the forgeries are usually made from Asian hardwoods, such as mahogany. Argillite pieces are usually legitimate, because the Haida control the supply, although a few pieces are sometimes sold to others.
  6. If you don’t know who is reputable, ask around galleries and online for recommendations. If you are buying privately, ask for some indication of authenticity.
  7. When you can, see the signature on a genuine piece and compare it with the signature on a piece you are considering buying. If it looks totally different, it is a forgery. However, beware of it looking too much the same, too, because no one ever signs their signature exactly the same each time.
  8. If you have a picture of a piece you want to buy, use it to search online to see if a similar design exists from another artist.
  9. Educate yourself about the art by spending time in galleries or reading books like Hilary Stewart’s Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast. Although the art is intricate, it is also stylized, especially the formline tradition of the northern First Nations. Asian carvers copying from pictures rarely have the knowledge to follow the tradition accurately. Not only does knowing the traditions teach you what to look for, but, if you know the tradition, you can also tell when the seller is using phrases like “transformation mask” incorrectly in an effort to impress you.

A single one of these precautions may not be enough to help you avoid forgeries, but several together should be. The sellers of forgeries count heavily on the ignorance and prejudices of buyers and the wish for a bargain. Respond with caution and common sense, and you have a better chance of seeing through their deceit and of not buying a worthless fake.

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When I attended the Freda Diesing School’s year end exhibit last April, I was the first in the doors when the campus longhouse was opened. As I stepped in, a mask caught my attention from across the room. The closer I came, the more I admired it. Eventually, I checked the artist, who turned out to be Jamie Katerina Nole, whose “Pregnant Frogwoman” print I bought several years ago. I hovered waiting for Nole, and, as soon as she arrived, I bought it – and who can blame me? “Princess Luna” is a piece of carving that starts with solid foundations, and consistently makes an extra effort that produces an outstanding work.

princess-luna

“Princess Luna.”

Of course I could not have foreseen that, through a series of misadventures that were no one’s fault, I would take four months to receive the mask. However, the delay only makes me appreciate the mask all the more.

As the name suggests, “Princess Luna” is a moon mask. Moon masks are common at the school, because the moon is not a family crest, but often they are learning exercises at best. The basic design consists of a face surrounded by a ring of U-shapes or ovoids and “Princess Luna” obviously begins with that design, although it soon heads off in its own direction.

To start with, the mask is made of alder, a pale wood that through a combination of selection and sanding seems suitable for the moon. Both the painting and the copper labret are restrained, and the face itself is more realistic than that of most moon masks, with closed eyes that create a sense of serenity and mystery that is reminiscent of standing in the light of the full moon. Like the “Pregnant Frogwoman,” print, the result is a sense of emotion that is rare in northwest coast art.

Similarly, the decorations around the rim can be viewed as covering the phrases of the moon, with the blank ovoid at the top the new moon, and the full moon at ear level on both sides of the mask.

Just these basics would be enough to make the mask more than a classroom exercise, but they are just the beginning. At the bottom, the stars are indicated, with cutouts and two loose rings cut from the same piece of wood as the rest of the mask – an impressive and seldom-seen display of skill. Turn the mask over, and the phases of the moon are shown again, although few people are likely to see it.

princess-luna-back

The back of the mask, showing the phases of the moon. Notice, too, the smooth finish on the back.

Yet the greatest extra effort is the use of luminous paint. If, like me, your eyes see some distance into the ultra-violet, this luminous paint adds to the sense of wonder in the mask by creating a sense of something that cannot quite be seen. In the twilight, the pale wood turns almost golden, and, under black light, creates an entirely different look to the mask, transforming it into a figure of power more awake that the mask appears under ordinary light.

princess-luna-blacklight

“Princess Luna” by black light.

Nole is still experimenting with different styles. The Northern Exposure show included another two more of her experiments, “Trickster Flow,” which places a Modernist design across a conventional portrait mask, and “Raven – Don’t Froget Me Crest,” a frontlet painted in a non-traditional style. Neither is as successful as “Princess Luna,” but, like it, they create the impression of an innovative artist who is prepared to make the extra effort to produce original work. Nole has clearly made intelligent use of her time at the Freda Diesing school, and “Princess Luna” is proof that “The Pregnant Frogwoman” was a start and not just an accidental success.  I can’t wait to see what she carves next — or what she will be carving in another twenty years.

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All too often, English grammar is reduced to a series of rules. Instead of being a description of how the language is currently used, it becomes a prescription that should be followed in every circumstance. This habit is a sign of bad teaching, probably by people whose own knowledge of grammar is shaky. Usually, however, it is an over-simplification, as it is in the absolute prohibition against the passive voice.

The passive voice (if you need reminding) is the removal of the obvious subject from the sentence. Sometimes, the proper subject becomes the dative, or the agent of the action (“The lawn was mowed by him”), but it is often left out entirely (“The lawn was mowed”). Instead, in either case, it is replaced by what should be the object. For example, instead of “He groaned,” the passive voice would be “A groan was torn from him.” Since before students are old enough to understand the difference, they are told that they should always use the active voice of “He groaned” and avoid the passive voice equivalent.

In many cases, the active voice has advantages. For one thing, it is shorter.. It is also politer, but, even more importantly, the passive voice is used to disguise responsibility by the speaker, or to make the sentence seem more important than it is – habits that are all too common in academia and politics. By converting the sentence to the active voice, you can immediately see if the speaker has something to hide. For example, “Social services were cut” is more likely to be accepted than “We cut social services.”

All the same, the idea that the passive voice should never be used in English is misleading. To start with, in English, constructions that start with “it” but offer no pronoun reference are considered idiomatically correct — that is, correct from common usage rather than any logic. When Jane Austen begins Pride and Prejudice with, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” she is writing colloquially, not committing an unforgivable sin. Besides, the pompous construction is funnier – and more ironic– than “Everyone acknowledges that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

In other cases, when to use the passive voice rather than the active comes down to what you want to emphasize. In my initial example, the difference between the active and the passive does not just lie in the information conveyed. All the active voice does is let the audience know that a male figure has groaned. However, “a groan was torn from him” is more descriptive, because it suggests a sense of helplessness. The groaner, the passive voice suggests, did not want to groan, but, because of mental or physical distress, cannot help himself. Far from being a clumsy construction, it conveys more information than the active voice, and can therefore be the preferred construction. Write an entire paragraph in the passive voice, and you create the impression of someone who has no control over what is happening and increase the tension in the narrative.

Like all point of grammar, the decision of whether to use the passive voice should not be based on a memorized rule that decreases the flexibility of the language. Instead, think of what you want to convey and decide which voice expresses it most effectively within its context. Should the passive voice be most effective for your purposes, you should use it without fear of being thought uneducated. It is the ones who would outlaw all uses of the passive voice who are uneducated, not those who use the construction to their own advantage.

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Until recently, I was mostly indifferent to computer chairs. I stopped using a computer stool over a decade ago because kneeling all day put too much pressure on my cartilage-deprived knees, but otherwise, my main concern was to have fabric rather than a leather or imitation-leather cushions because they are easier to clean. I was skeptical about the advantages of ergonomic chairs, but in the past month or so, I’ve changed my mind.

Two things happened to change my mind. First, I recently replaced two aging futons, and found the new futons vastly more comfortable to lie upon. Second, a colleague recently bought a Herman Miller Mirra 2, and I started wondering if I could improve upon my computer chair in the same way I had improved on the futons.

Having done graphical design, I was intrigued by pictures of my colleague’s new chair. Although Herman Miller products have been popular in the tech world for a couple of decades, they had never registered on mind, even though Herman Miller chairs were a common perq in startups. However, I soon found out that the company had over eighty years of experience in modernist design, and was widely considered an expert in ergonomics and in the reduction of the material needed to build a chair.

Hard facts about the ergonomics simply don’t exist, so, in the end, I had to see for myself. I spent an afternoon playing Goldilocks, sitting on a couple of dozen chairs, both from Herman Miller and rival companies like Steelcase. I quickly found that, although the rival products had the same price, and some of the same features, none were as comfortable as the Herman Miller chairs.

Herman Miller established itself as a manufacturer of ergonomic chairs with the Aeron model. However, neither the original Aeron nor the retooled version seemed especially comfortable to me (other people might find differently). Neither did the top of the line Embody chairs, possibly because its back cushions muffled the effect of the spine-like mesh on the back – which, considering my budget, is just as well.

I finally settled on two models, the Mirra 2 and the Sayl, which were more or less equally comfortable for me. However, I then had to make decisions about a half dozen various options – something that I had never really considered. Some of the changes were cosmetic, such as the color of the frame or the seat, but others were more practical, such as whether the arms were fixed or were adjustable, or whether lumbar support was added to the back. Patiently, the store clerk made up quotes for both, listing the cost of the options I was most interested in, and I took them home to ponder.

The Mira 2, I decided, had a better mechanism for adjusting the arms, but offered a limited selection of colors. The ergonomics being approximately equal, I settled on the Sayl chair, whose cosmetic options would allow me my preferences. For a day or so, I debated adding an upholstered back, but, remembering my reaction to the Embody chair, I thought the upholstered back would reduce the ergonomics. That would be especially true if I added lumbar support, which would be difficult – if not impossible – to adjust when covered by upholstery.

Besides, why buy a modernist chair then cover it up? The mesh on the back of the Sayl chair gives it a bold, clean look of which I am unlikely to tire.

Unfortunately, my purchase has to wait upon some unexpected expenses, but, as soon as I can afford it, I am going to indulge myself. A Herman Miller chair is not cheap – although the Sayl is the least expensive — but with a twelve year warranty, I am satisfied that I will not simply be paying for the name. My back, I suspect, will be glad of the purchase in the coming years.

sayl-chairs

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In the renaissance of Northwest Coast art, the story of how Raven stole the light is the equivalent of the Madonna and Child in classic European art: sooner or later, most artists produce at least one version of it. Several years ago, I bought Bill Hudson’s version of the story, which shows Raven opening a box labeled Sun Crispies as he sits down at a kitchen table. Now, in James Crawford’s “Raven Steals the Lightbulb – Unscrewed,” I have found another modern updating of the story.

If anyone knows one story from the local First Nations, it is the story of how Raven stole the light from the chieftain who held in locked in his chest. Raven turns himself into a pine-needle and has himself swallowed by the chieftain’s daughter so he can be born as her son. The chieftain dotes on his grandchild, and one day gives him the light as a toy – and Raven promptly flees with it, burning himself black as he escapes through the smokehouse of the longhouse, and scattering the sun, moon, and stars, accidentally creating the world as we know it. With variations, the story is told in many different cultures. Usually, the depiction has Raven holding a sphere of light in his beak as he flees.

Crawford gives a modern rendering of this familiar scene. It is evidently a supernatural light bulb, since it appears to be still radiating light after being unscrewed, and in the upper left is what might be the rising sun. Raven looks mischievously pleased with his theft, or perhaps with the updating of the well-known scene.

However, the print is more than a one-punch piece. Instead, it is one of Crawford’s experiments with lino block prints: images that are carved, then inked and used as a stamp. It is a seldom used technique, although Stan Bevan, one of Crawford’s instructors at the Freda Diesing School, released at least one block print of his own. The effect is totally unlike any other medium, with irregular lines, and an often blocky appearance. It reminds me of the woodcuts in books from the 16th and 17th Centuries, which used a similar technique. The result gives Crawford’s print the eerie impression of being an artifact from some alternate universe in which the local First Nations had European-style printed books.

Needless to say, block prints require tremendous care when they are printed, especially when more than one color is used. Consequently, the print is small, roughly 12 by 25 centimeters. However, the effect is so appealing to my eye that I plan to buy some of Crawford’s other block prints – and to keep an eye on his work in other media as well.

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I missed the 2016 Freda Diesing School’s graduate exhibit, so attending this one meant all the more for me. The moment I walked into the campus longhouse, with its carvings, natural light and high ceilings, I immediately felt at ease. Within moments, I was circling around the exhibit, trying to get pictures while staying one step ahead of the crowd.

This year’s show included a skillful piece by instructor Dean Heron, an alumnae of the first graduating class. I was glad to see it; focusing on his teaching, Dean does far less carving that I would prefer.

However, the emphasis was on the students’ work. The classes of 2017 were some of the stronger ones of recent years, with several outstanding graduates of the program and a promising collection of first year students. I found myself dividing the pieces displayed into those whose main appeal was their painting, and those whose appeal combined both painting and carving.

It takes a steady hand to paint convincingly – a steadier one than I have ever had – and the exhibit included several examples. Joseph Campbell, Lorraine Wolf, and Roger Smith all hung portrait masks with a steady hand and palettes of primary colors. In her moon mask, Kari Morgan took another direction with a minimalist white that put the emphasis on the finish of the wood and her carving.

More exotic were Sage Novak’s “Ghost Mask” and Violet Gatensbury’s “Fire Mask,” which blended paint skillfully into the wood and also featured rows of beads on the mask.

Among those with both strong painting and carving were Raven LeBlanc’s Dogfish mask, which rapidly went on my shortlist of possible purchases.

Similarly, Amanda Hugon showed her skill and versatility with her Tsimshian-like “Great Canadian Beaver” mask and Salish Moon Mask.”

However, the standouts in the show were Reuben Mack and Jaimie Katerina Nole. Mack submitted two Nuxalk-style masks,and only his absence from the crowd kept me from asking if they were for sale:

 

By contrast, Nole submitted three masks in three very different styles: the “Don’t Froget Me” frontlet, the “Trickster Flow” portrait mask, and the “Princess Luna” moon mask.

With an unlimited budget, I could have willingly bought most of these masks, assuming they had been for sale. However, since my parents refused to let me be born rich, I could only buy Nole’s “Princess Luna” – to my eye the pick of the show In fact, it caught my attention from across the floor as I stepped into the exhibit, and within twenty minutes, I was begging to buy it.

All these masks, and possibly more, are scheduled to be in the 2017 Northern Exposure show opening on May 27 at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver. If you have an interest in First Nations art, take the time to have a look at them in person. Even if you don’t buy, the pleasure of seeing what has become one of the biggest yearly exhibits in British Columbia is too great to miss. Believe me, I won’t make the mistake of missing it again – and neither should you.

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Ask most people what makes quality music, and inevitably they reply that it’s the speakers. I’m not sure whether that was ever true, or if the speakers were simply one of the few pieces of hardware that users could choose, but it’s definitely not the case in this age of digital music.

Speakers do matter, of course. However, thanks to printed circuits, selecting them is no longer a matter of the larger the better. Today, you can get the same sound from a eight centimeter high wireless speaker that you once needed a seventy-five centimeter wired speaker for. And, although you still can’t go astray with traditional quality brands such as Bose, other brands like Logitech’s UE (Ultimate Ears) are also worth considering.

If you use headphones or ear buds, the headphone amplifier on your music player takes the place of speakers. For example, Fiio, an up and coming Chinese maker of audio equipment makes several different amplifiers for different listening preferences to accompany its top of the line music player. The cables used to connect headphones or ear buds can also make a difference, with those made from metals like titanium being at the high end.

Then there is the digital file. A 32 bit file is going to capture more nuances than an 8 bit one, and a 192K sample rate more than a 42K one, regardless of what hardware you play them back on. Format also matters, with FLAC being preferred by many audiophiles because of its advanced capabilities.

Still another consideration is the DAC (Digital to Analog Converter), which turns the digital file into sound. Unlike with speakers, with DACs, size still matters – a music player the length of your thumb does not have room for a first-rate DAC, which currently requires a device about the size of a cell phone. Even so, modern DACs deliver quality that was once only available with several bulky boxes many times their weight.

All these considerations are often bundled for you. Download sites, for example, often offer low quality files in MP3 formats, with occasional special offers of files with a higher sampling format. Similarly, headphone amplifiers and DACs are usually not compatible with other brands, or even other formats, although headphones, ear buds, and cables generally are.

If you are ripping your own digital music or selecting a music player and its accessories, take into account where you will play music. An apartment dweller will have little use for Fiio’s A5 headphone amplifier, because they are unlikely to be playing music loud enough to appreciate its ability to keep the bass from distorting at high volumes. Instead, the less specialized A3 headphone amplifier is probably a more reasonable choice. Similarly, if you want music for riding the bus, even with noise-canceling headphone, you will probably have enough external noise that you can’t appreciate a 32bit FLAC file, and it will simply take up extra storage space.

Sorting through all these considerations can be complex. All the same, don’t just stop with the speakers or headphones when you are considering how to play your music. Today,  focusing on the speakers is only part of what you need to consider.

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