Native American art from the Pacific Northwest Coast is millennia-old but still vital and ever-changing.
It starts with the formlines—the distinctive pattern of shapes, curves, and lines shared by so many pieces of native Northwest Coast art. From the formlines all emerges in a logical but lyrical way: animals, faces, forces of nature, as well as Raven, Eagle, and other characters from the stories of Native Northwest Coast culture. Formlines didn’t gain a specific name until 1965, but they appear on native Northwest Coast artifacts dating back two or three millennia. Most native Northwest Coast tribal communities saw the value of formlines and invited them into their own cultures, carving them into boxes, totem poles, masks, and more.
Formlines became the visual signature that marks native Northwest Coast art and declares its heritage. They animate an exquisite wooden bent corner box, carved circa 1750 on the northern Northwest coast, whose pigments have long since worn away; they enliven silver bracelets fashioned by Charles Edenshaw, a masterful Haida carver active from the late 19th century to the early 20th centuries, as well as the mid- 20th century golden bracelets crafted by his late great-great nephew, Bill Reid; and they grace an impressive screen shown in the background of a 2006 film by contemporary native artist Nicholas Galanin, who helped his uncle make it.
Europeans first reached Northwest coastal shores in the 16th century, bringing diseases as well as spiritual and cultural assaults by outsiders who were convinced that they were doing good. The formlines survived these grave insults and might even have gotten stronger. Today, native Northwest Coast artists embrace their ancient arts and explore media that lie outside their cultural traditions—glass, prints, bronze, and more. No matter what they try, they bring the formlines with them. “In order to make art well, you have to understand the design system, the formline, a very rule-bound, tradition-bound design system,” says Becky Blanchard, co-director at Stonington Gallery in Seattle. “I liken it to jazz or poetry. You’d never dream of experimenting as a jazz musician unless you understood the jazz scale. I like to tell young artists that the same thing is true of Northwest Coast art. Before you begin to carve, you need to master the formlines and understand how they utilize the elements. Then you can express yourself spontaneously and appropriately.”
Formlines are complex and beguiling and present their own set of visual rules. While rules can prove frustrating to an artist, they can be oddly liberating, too. Native Northwestern artists are more likely to move between media rather than stick with one medium for their whole career, and the formlines might be key to helping them do that. “It’s a natural progression to use different materials,” says Douglas Reynolds, who founded his eponymous gallery in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, in 1995. “I think many artists look at the art and think about the best way to produce it. The material almost comes second.”
Galanin, whose background includes Tlingit, Aleut, and non-native ancestry, is a contemporary native Northwest Coast artist who navigates many media with wisdom and wit. His mesmerizing 2006 black-and-white film Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan (We Will Again Open This Container of Wisdom That Has Been Left in Our Care) dwells on a former Michael Jackson backup dancer exuberantly moving to Tlingit singing and drumming before shifting to a traditionally attired Tlingit dancer connecting with a bass-heavy, throbbing piece of electronica. Galanin wrote the electronic song, and as noted above, he helped carve the formline-decorated screen that appears behind the Tlingit dancer. The film enjoys a prominent place in “Raven’s Many Gifts: Native Art of the Northwest Coast,” which is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Mass., through December 31. Another Galanin piece in the show shares a case with a marquee item: a gape-mouthed circa-1845 wooden Heiltsuk (Bella Bella) mask. Galanin’s contribution is Bear Mask Vol. 9, a 2006 work from his “What Have We Become?” series. He employed a literally cutting-edge artistic tool—a laser—to sculpt paper, some of it taken from anthropological and historical books, into a traditional bear face.
“Raven’s Many Gifts” testifies to the effectiveness of formlines as a force in Native Northwest Coast art. The works and artifacts in the exhibit span the 19th century to the 21st, and on paper they seem wildly different. In person, they harmonize, linking a splendid 2000 cape by husband-and-wife team Don and Trace Yeomans (both from the Haida community) with an impressive front door created in 1984 by Richard Hunt (Kwakwaka’wakw) and John Livingston (adopted Kwakwaka’wakw) that has a moon face for a doorknob, which in turn complements a visually striking 1888 platter carved from argillite, accented with ivory, and attributed to Tom Price, a Haida chief.
Art is a vital, time-honored tool for telling and retelling the story of the Raven and other significant figures in native Northwest Coast culture. “For them, these characters are very much alive and shaping current family history as well as the past,” says Karen Kramer, curator of Native American and Oceanic Art and Culture at the PEM. “Understanding that is key to understanding Northwest Coast art and culture.”
Donald Ellis does not impose a rigid time cutoff on the Northwest Coast native American pieces that he carries at his New York gallery—he currently has an early 1980s gold transformation necklace by Bill Reid, who was inspired to follow in the footsteps of his great-great uncle Charles Edenshaw after seeing a pair of bracelets that he had carved—but much of his stock dates from 1880 or before. One standout is a bent corner box from the northern Northwest Coast that dates to around 1750 and probably belonged to a shaman. Its imagery of faces within faces treats two sides of the box as one large surface for the art. “This is the best example that’s ever been on the market in terms of its type, vintage, and quality,” he says. “It’s a master’s hand.”
Just as beguiling is a Tshimshian animal-shaped wooden crest headdress from northern British Columbia dating to around 1840, which has abalone pupils and abalone and copper teeth. The tribal leader would have worn it on his head at the start of an opulent ceremonial feast known as a potlach. Unfortunately, we cannot know if the crest headdress represents a bear or a beaver. Ellis explains that while the red dashes decorating the animal’s body usually appear on bear forms, the headdress has long since lost the hide or cloth tail that would have settled the question.
Ellis is also a long-standing champion of Edenshaw, who had been overlooked in part because he created pieces to sell to tourists as well as making items for the use of the community he presided over. “Edenshaw was perhaps the first person who made a living by creating works for sale at the time he led his people,” says Ellis. “He made some of the most extraordinary work ever made on the northwest coast. He brought a sense of modernism to the material.” Edenshaw works are scarce, with fewer than 300 known, and none are signed. Ellis, who describes himself as having “aggressively” sought the Haida carver’s works for 30 years—and may have personally handled up to 10 percent of his output—happens to have multiple Edenshaws on hand right now. An especially splendid example is a large (almost 17 inches) model totem pole carved from argillite, a type of rock, between 1890 and 1910.
Ellis, who opened his eponymous gallery in 1976, says he has seen the audience for native Northwest Coast art broaden over time, extending past the region and the United States and Canada to the world at large. Reynolds and Blandford, whose galleries deal primarily in contemporary native Northwest Coast art, have seen expansions of a different sort—contemporary artists becoming a bit freer in their approach and freer in their choice of media. Blandford, in particular, is overjoyed by the strength and quality of what the newest generation of artists is making. “These young people are spending time with their elders, taking the time to understand the language and the rules that govern the art. They’re contributing artworks that I think 100 years from now will be deeply appreciated,” she says, adding, “Greatness does not happen frequently, but I’m seeing more artists with greater consequence. It’s a marvelous, beautiful time for artists on the Northwest coast.”
She credits the quality and enthusiasm of the new generation of native Northwest Coast artists, at least in part, to an annual event that brings many of the tribal communities together: the canoe journey. Launched with the Paddle to Seattle event in 1989, which marked the anniversary of Washington becoming a state, a canoe journey has been held almost every summer since then. Northwest coast native Americans and native Canadians—mostly teenagers and young adults, guided by elders—paddle traditionally designed cedar canoes to that year’s host site. Depending on where the teams start, they might paddle 40 miles a day for as many as three weeks. Once they arrive, they engage in an exuberant weeklong celebration of their native cultures. “I think the canoe journey plays a role in teaching young people about their history,” says Blanchard. “That has been a big thing.”
The younger artists have brought a fresh outlook to time-honored Northwest Coast forms. The most iconic of them might be the totem pole, an eye-catching carved vertical stack of symbols and characters that can stretch higher than 30 feet into the air. Some totem poles tell stories; others commemorate clans, families, and ancestors; still others are simply artistic, and some combine all these elements and more. While Northwest Coast peoples made smaller poles—these are known as “model” or “tourist” totem poles—antique full-size totem poles are scarce and hard to come by. One did appear at Bonhams San Francisco in June 2016. Dating to the late 19th century and credited to the Kwakiutl community, it measured 11 feet, 1 inch tall and stood outside a shop in Juneau, Alaska, until 1920. It sold for $56,250.
Many leading contemporary Northwest Coast native artist-carvers accept commissions for full-size totem poles. Reynolds’ gallery has handled about a dozen such commissions, and he explains that it’s a long, involved process, requiring 6 to 12 months to find and prepare a suitable cedar log, and another 12 to 24 months to carve it. Don Yeomans, who co-created the cape in the PEM exhibit, delivered one of the more magnificent contemporary custom totem poles to Stanford University in 2002. Dubbed the Stanford Legacy, the 40-foot-long, 4,200-pound red cedar totem pole stands in front of the university’s law school.
Sculptor Junior Henderson, a Kwakwaka’wakw, recently delivered his own unique take on the totem pole. Raven Transforming into the Hunter of the Woods is a transforming totem pole. When closed, the nearly seven-foot-high cedar pole resembles a bird; open it, and it turns into a man. “It took many, many months,” says Blanchard, whose gallery features Henderson’s totem pole on its web site. “The whole thing is so beautifully carved.”
Native contemporary art is often a family affair, and that holds true for Northwest Coast native art as well. Look at a contemporary gallery roster and you’ll spot bunches of Alfreds, Davidsons, Edenshaws, Hunts, Lafortunes, Smiths, and Wilsons. Though the tribal communities of the northwest tend to be matrilineal, men dominate the ranks of the artists. Notable female Northwest Coast native artists include Hollie Bear Bartlett, a member of the Haisla Nation whose approach to jewelry shows her gift for working elegantly on a small scale, as well as Susan Point, a self-taught Musqueam Coast Salish artist who has created public commissions such as Seattle House Post IV/I, which combines the traditional material of cedar with the decidedly non-traditional medium of glass to create a work that sensitively combines native ideas with a contemporary vision.
Northwest Coast native art should enjoy a bright future. “When I started working with it in 1987, people then were saying it was at the height of its popularity, and where it could go,” says Reynolds. “Here it is, 30 years later. It hasn’t gotten there yet, and it never will. It keeps changing and moving forward.”
By Sheila Gibson Stoodley