Trends and Traditions

Andy Wilbur, Crane and Helldiver panels [1995], western red cedar, 61 x 18. Courtesy The Legacy Ltd., Seattle, WA.,crafts, southwest art.
Andy Wilbur, Crane and Helldiver panels [1995], western red cedar, 61 x 18. Courtesy The Legacy Ltd., Seattle, WA.

By Peter Macnair

To fully appreciate what is happening today in the ever-expanding market for contemporary Northwest Coast Native American art, we must review the issue of Native American artists producing art for sale to Euroamericans, which began in the 1820s.

In traditional society the artist learned his or her trade through an apprenticeship to a close relative. The ultimate goal of the artist was to serve the chiefs, who required ceremonial and utilitarian objects to reflect their inherited privileges. Rarely did the artist have an opportunity to produce an artwork for someone who was not highly placed in their hierarchical society. With the advent of the Euro-american intruder, however, an opportunity arose to produce curios for the collector’s market.

The collector has always had a profound influence on the subject, form, material, and cachet of the final product. This fact does not deny the artist’s role a dynamic tension exists between creator and patron as both wrestle to define a genre. The dialog between the two has been cyclical, emerging first in the 1820s and resurfacing to signal new directions several times over the ensuing 175 years.

The present is perhaps the most interesting era in this con-tinuum because certain iconoclasts are refusing to follow the dictates of the marketplace and are producing for their own satisfaction, regardless of public acceptance. At the same time, other contemporary artists are desperate to anticipate the art market’s trends and exploit them to best advantage. Some of the resultant tension derives from three competing genres: the traditional artifact, the innovative original, and the decorative alternative.

Tim Paul, Tai-Ci Doorway [1998], red cedar/paint, 43 x 29 x 8. Courtesy Spirit Wrestler Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. crafts, southwest art.
Tim Paul, Tai-Ci Doorway [1998], red cedar/paint, 43 x 29 x 8. Courtesy Spirit Wrestler Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

The Traditional Artifact
Traditional artifacts are ethnographic objects made for Native use; in the current market, any work which closely resembles its conventional antecedent fits into this genre. Masks, rattles, chests, bowls, dishes, spoons, blankets, and aprons which meet the highest aesthetic standards are obvious candidates.

A few contemporary artists who create traditional artifacts are seeking challenges beyond the expected norm. For example, Calvin Hunt has produced several complex costumes including a Raven Transformation outfit. Such works make design and construction demands which are intellectually and aesthetically satisfying to both the artist and the audience.

The Innovative Original
Because of the absolute authority chiefs exercised over their inherited privileges, it is assumed that in the early historic period only they could determine whether or not a ceremonial object could be sold. This suggests that an established artist would have to negotiate with his patron to create an acceptable facsimile which could be traded without compromising the chief’s patrimony. An alternate solution was to find a neutral material and format which would avoid discord.

Calvin Hunt, Raven-Sun Transformation Costume [1990], red cedar/bear fur/ muslin/feathers. Courtesy The Legacy Ltd., Seattle, WA, and Portland Art Museum. crafts, southwest art.
Calvin Hunt, Raven-Sun Transformation Costume [1990], red cedar/bear fur/ muslin/feathers. Courtesy The Legacy Ltd., Seattle, WA, and Portland Art Museum.

In the mid-1820s, a Kaigani Haida artist began to make masks for exchange with Euroamericans engaged in the sea otter fur trade. His celebrated prototype is the “Jenna Cass” mask depicting a noblewoman wearing a labret, or ornamental lip plug, in her pierced lower lip. Nearly a dozen remarkably similar masks have been attributed to this unnamed master none of which show evidence of Native use.

More central to the innovative genre, however, was the use of unconventional materials. These included argillite (a carbonaceous shale which could be carved with steel tools), precious metals like silver and gold, pencil and paper, and, recently, bronze and glass.

The use of argillite in the early 19th century reveals the creative genius of artists seeking to exploit new outlets for their work. Around 1830, Haida carvers began to produce flat rectangular panels up to 14 inches long which featured intertwined creatures from the Haida cosmos human, avian, and mammal. No doubt the interacting figures represented episodes from epic Haida sagas. The interesting point is that while some of the creatures featured on the panels would have been intelligible to the Euroamerican eye, the silent tableaux did not divulge the jealously guarded oral traditions they represented.

Bill Reid has addressed similar themes in bronze; his curvilinear forms give the medium a surprising plasticity. A recent work by Robert Davidson, Eyes of the Mind, demonstrates his ability to integrate a non-traditional material with an ancient art form.

Robert Davidson, Eyes of the Mind, bronze, 111⁄2 x 10 x 7. Courtesy Spirit Wrestler Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. masks, southwest art.
Robert Davidson, Eyes of the Mind, bronze, 111⁄2 x 10 x 7. Courtesy Spirit Wrestler Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

The Decorative Alternative
‘Decorative’ works are comfortable and easily read and are tempered with a color, material, and finish that assuages rather than challenges the viewer’s intellect. The decorative alternative is clearly a result of one of the first open challenges between buyer and artist. In 1952, Kwakwaka’wakw chief Mungo Martin was hired by the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, Canada, to implement a project that would assure the survival of the Northwest Coast carving tradition. To supplement his income, he began carving masks for sale to local craft shops. Reflecting current Kwakwaka’wakw preference, he painted his completed masks white and then applied decorative designs in a range of colors. The paint employed was a glossy enamel.

Potential buyers objected to Mungo’s shiny finishes, however, and his gallery agent shared these concerns with the artist. Mungo’s solution was to abandon paint entirely; instead, he finished his works with a light application of oil to enhance the natural grain. These decorative pieces became so popular that Mungo was forced to simplify their form and structure to keep up with the demand, and thus the modern tourist mask was born. It had considerable cachet, created as it was by an internationally renowned senior artist, and yet it was priced so that almost any enthusiast could purchase it.

Also working in the 1950s in Vancouver, Mungo’s protégé Ellen Neel experienced similar buyer reluctance. Her solution was to carve the mask to a point of near-completion and then scorch it with an open flame. Finally, she scrubbed the charred surface with a wire brush to differentiate the softer wood between the annular rings for effect.

Mungo’s apprentices Henry and Tony Hunt followed suit. In the 1960s, a growing connoisseur’s market encouraged them to produce much more elaborate masks, incorporating additional figures in relief and engraved in considerable detail. Sometimes a restrained application of matte-finish acrylic paint was added, but the natural, usually oiled, ground continued to dominate. Again it was the restrained sensibilities of these works that attracted a new type of collector, one comfortable with the decorative qualities of the product and prepared to pay a higher price.

Coast Salish artist Susan Point is a leading proponent but also an anomaly in the decorative genre. She consults design magazines and notes seasonal changes in color schemes. Her nontraditional color sense is supported by her mastery of archaic Salish two-dimensional design. She has coaxed its simplified yet highly intellectual secrets into life in a way that no other artist has managed with the exception of Skokomish artist Andy Wilbur, whose very modern variant is emerging in his decorative panels, boxes, and silkscreen prints.

Susan Point has assimilated and mastered a number of new media and techniques. Her first intaglio print was a technical and artistic success, and her now-extensive creations in glass set a standard for originality that no other Northwest Coast artist working in this material has yet approached. She conquered the adze, chisel, and knife and the sometimes unforgiving grain of western red cedar in less than a quarter of the time normally needed by a promising apprentice. She can work on any scale, as revealed by her monumental spindle whorl in laminated red cedar at the Vancouver International Airport [see page 8]. She is unique as a Northwest Coast artist in the way in which she has bridged and melded the innovative and decorative genres.

The Iconoclasts
Final consideration must be given to those few Northwest Coast artists who have defied convention and persisted with their own personal vision without necessarily gaining immediate acceptance.

Nuu-chah-nulth artist Tim Paul can be considered a leading iconoclast. His frontally flattened masks, often decorated with narrative painting, are in contraposition to the classic triangular form preferred by fellow Nuu-chah-nulth artists contributing to the revival of this unique tribal style. Of late he has both artistically and intellectually probed the world beyond, that sacrosanct space where Nuu-chah-nulth culture began. He has translated that expanse into a series of figural groups, which might be thought of as installation pieces. Only recently have critics begun to consider these works important and meaningful.

Native American artists on the Northwest Coast have engaged in a lively dialog with their clients for more than two centuries. A creative dynamic between producer and patron has regularly redefined the art form, to the advantage of both artist and benefactor. Both have a responsibility to remain aware of the evolution of this discourse so that the relationship between the two continues to be implicit, informed, and inspired.

Featured in August 1999