B.C. native carvers make masks with the power to stare people down

Brian D. Johnson December 5 1994


B.C. native carvers make masks with the power to stare people down

Brian D. Johnson December 5 1994


B.C. native carvers make masks with the power to stare people down



They are carved from cedar, alder and silver birch. On some, the wood grain is left bare, circling jaws and cheekbones like lines on a contour map. Others are painted in sports-car colors. Canary-yellow beaks. Lipstick mouths. Customized complexions of sea green and cobalt blue. Foreheads tattooed with modular curves. Horsehair, shredded bark and eagle down serve as coiffure. A child’s face is streaked with tears made of copper strips. The masks are, at first glance, wildly decorative. But there is something else going on that has nothing to do with esthetics. It can be found in the eyes.

This is art that stares back at the viewer. In an age of interactive media, the Indian masks of British Columbia’s Northwest Coast offer a primeval prototype—software, in softwood, that can be worn or mounted, animated in a dance or hung on a wall. There are private masks that remain shrouded in family secrets, and public masks that fetch thousands of dollars on the international art market. Some are inspired by family stories of animals and spirits, oral history that has been passed down through countless generations. Others are as immediate as yesterday’s news—Beau Dick, an artist from Alert Bay on Vancouver Island, carved his Wildman mask in honor of a close friend killed by a policeman’s bullet after running crazed and naked into the woods.

Native masks are not just artifacts of a traditional way of life. Looking outwards as well as inwards, they reflect the changing face of native culture. Over the past 10 years, there has been a boom in mask making as an expressive, entrepreneurial art form. Titled Spirit Faces, a new exhibit at Vancouver’s Inuit Gallery offers the most extensive public showing of Northwest Coast masks since 1987. And within half an hour of its opening, 21 of the 24 catalogued pieces on display had been

bought by local and international collectors—at prices ranging from $2,000 to $15,000.

The show’s Nov. 19 opening also marked the launch of a modest but impressive book titled Spirit Faces: Contemporary Masks of the Northwest Coast.

Written by Gary Wyatt, curator of the gallery’s Northwest Coast collection, and published by Douglas & McIntyre, it contains photographs and descriptions of 75 masks by 23 of the top native carvers working in the region.

The book has sparked widespread interest among foreign distributors. “Northwest Coast masks have taken their place in the wider world of international art,” says Wyatt. ‘We bring a fine-art perspective to it. We take this art to the international art fair, where it’s going to sit next to German expressionism or abstract expressionism, and it fits right in.”

Traditionally, native masks were often destroyed after the dance ceremonies in which they were used. The idea of turning ritual objects into art-market commodities suggests fetishism on a very different order. But there remains a distinction between nasks that are carved for the market and hose that remain within the tribe. “Some )eople will say that masks, because of their flstory, should not be available in the marketplace, or treated as trophies,” says Wyatt. ‘But they’re not taking into account that hese collectors bring their own spiritual atti-

Over the past 10 years, there I has been a boom in mask making as an expressive art form, and international buyers have rushed to acquire pieces by the STARS of Northwest Coast carving

to them. As art objects, the masks are not something to blend in with the couch. They’re so powerful that they take over. Every day you look at the mask, you bring something different to it, and it is going to talk back to you.”

Some collectors, however, just like to collect. And if their masks all talked back at once, there would be a cacophony. One of the customers who lined up for the Spirit Faces sale was Richard Chodosh, a 56-year-old orthodontist who had flown in from Rochester, N.Y. For $4,000, he picked up a sad-eyed, grey-faced piece by Robert Jackson to add to the 55 masks and two totem poles in his living-room. “I’ve got a cathedral ceiling,” the collector explains. “But I’m running out of room.” Mingling at the gallery’s opening reception, Chodosh was thrilled to see many of the artists there in person. He was hoping to buy a mask with a face coming out of the forehead, and one of the artists offered to carve it for him on commission in time for Christmas.

Despite the burgeoning commercial appeal of native masks, their heritage is not being compromised, according to Wyatt. “Some people argue that we’re extracting something from the culture, but that’s not the case,” he says. “Artists who have had the opportunity to work in the market have brought back some wonderful innovations. And the superstars of the art form all happen to be culturally active in their communities.”

The most famous of them, Haida artist Robert Davidson, 48, is not represented in the Spirit Faces exhibit—he has taken a one-year sabbatical from carving. But a number of new stars are emerging. With six masks in the exhibit, Kwakwaka’wakw carver Beau Dick is one of the most prolific and innovative carvers. Both his father and grandfather practised the art. As a child, Dick painted ravens on clam shells for pocket money. “I was 15,” he recalls, “when a knife was put into my hand by my grandfather, and he said do this.” Now 39,

Dick carves for both ceremonial and commercial patrons. “People always try to draw a line between them,” says the artist. “But whether you carve a piece for a chief or for the international market, you’re getting paid. It really doesn’t make any difference. You do the best job you can.” Still, the carver has a duty to take part in the culture, he adds. "If you want to take, you’ve got to give. I owe it back to my people.”

His own tribe owns four sets of masks for a traditional ceremony. Every time they are displayed in a dance, one set is destroyed and a new set is commissioned to replace it. “That way they are never forgotten,” says Dick. “And they never end up on somebody’s wall just to be admired. Their value is in the meaning, not the actual material.”

But even some masks that do end up in collectors’ living rooms can carry powerful messages.

Dick’s Wildman mask was inspired by a horrifying episode involving a close friend. Joe Peters, 33, a promising carver and future chief of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe, was suffering from paranoid delusions when friends sent him to St. Joseph’s General Hospital in Comox, B.C., for treatment in July. The doctors, who said there was nothing wrong with him, released Peters, although his wife begged them not to. Two weeks later, he turned up

in the garage of a stranger’s house in Courtenay, B.C.—hiding naked in a car after surrounding it with a circle of flaming gasoline. As the owner of the house approached him, Peters stabbed the man, nonfatally. Later, cornered by RCMP officers, Peters stabbed a police dog, and then fled into the woods. There, brandishing his knife, he was shot in the head at close range by one of the officers.

Dick describes his Wildman mask as “an expression of anger and hurt and frustration.” Unlike most masks, which tend to be immaculately wrought, it is finger painted in a raw, anxious style. The carver says he tried to capture “the confusion that was going through my friend’s head—the darkness creeping up—and the flames reflecting on his face.” Sold for $4,000, the mask now belongs to John Wenneman, a 34-year-old

plant manager at Vancouver’s Fleetwood sausage factory. “It is my first mask,” he says. “I found the story intriguing, but that wasn’t the reason I bought it. I liked the intensity, and the spirituality.”

Most masks tell stories that are much older than the one behind Dick’s Wildman. They are passed down through families like precious heirlooms. And the details often remain secret. “Most artists will give a quick story to go with the mask for the public,” says Norman Tait, a 53year-old Nisga’a carver from the village of Kincolith now living in Vancouver. “But the real story remains private. The very personal stories are hidden, so that someone else doesn’t copy it.” Adds Tait: “In the old days, some of the masks were so powerful. If the potlatch was going on for three weeks, they were kept in the treasure box before they were danced. And when the ceremony is over they are thrown in the fire. We believe the fire is where the spirits

go. These spirits are the keepers of the masks.”

Although Tait now carves for collectors, he has a few masks that have been used ceremonially. “Once they’ve been danced,” he says, “I really can’t sell them. Because I’d feel like I’d just sold a spirit to someone and that spirit won’t be happy again, and we’ll lose it forever.”

Tait’s work at the Inuit Gallery includes two magnificent pieces that he carved out of wet alder, both much larger than a human face. One of them, Shaman Singing Bear Song, has a little man poking his head through the mouth—he represents the shaman’s voice. Bands of hammered copper serve as eyebrows, bear claws as eyelashes. Another mask, Medicine Beaver, has a little man carved in each ear and, with human hands, the animal holds a burning stick between its teeth—the flames represented by shards of abalone.

Despite his reverence for tradition, Tait did not inherit his vocation. Twenty-three years ago, he was earning his living as a registered mechanic. While waiting for work, he would sit by the phone and whittle. “I whittled and whittled and whittled,” he recalls, “and before long, I was earning more money with my carving than with mechanics.” Because there were no carvers in his family, Tait studied works of a 19th-century Nisga’a carver. “You might say he was training me in his death. I wished I had a man like him around when I started, but all I could do is study his works.”

Glenn Tallio is another carver who has reclaimed his heritage by default. The 55-yearold Bella Coola native carved part time while working as a logger, a fisherman and an automotive painter. But logging jobs became scarce, his father sold their fishing boat, and his doctor ordered him to quit painting cars. “So, I started to look seriously at carving,” says Tallio. Now, after 15 years of mask making, he is an accomplished artist. His Salmon Transformation mask is one of the most complex works in the Spirit Faces collection. A large piece with four arms in the shape of fish, it has hinged components that open up to reveal a hidden face.

From Tallio’s transformer-toy novelty to the starkness of Joe David’s sorcerer masks, from the four-faced delicacy of Ken McNeil’s The Wind to Stan Bevan’s muscular ravens and eagles, the genre embraces an eclectic range of styles. And although most carvers are men, women are now beginning to make their mark. Dale Campbell, a Tahltan Tlingit from Prince Rupert, picked up a knife at 17 after getting bored with beadwork. She studied with veteran female carver Freda Deising. Now 40, Campbell has her own touch. In the openmouthed, wide-eyed astonishment of her Moon Mask, she combines formal elegance with a subtle wit.

On a wall, a mask can momentarily come alive. But when a dancer puts it on, the illusion is complete. For the opening of Spirit Faces, a native dance troupe gave a spirited demonstration. The lead dancer, a slight figure in a black cloak, swooped around the floor in a giant black mask, a demon face that opened like a clam shell to reveal a brightly painted mask inside. Behind it was an 11-year-old boy named Jean Prévost. “We call him chief,” said Beau Dick afterwards, “because he’s going to be a chief. We’ve got him carving, painting, dancing and singing. He’s going to do it all.” As the artists of the Northwest Coast carve out their name, the next generation is already preparing the next face-lift. □