Regional Styles: Northwest Coast Diversity
"You know, we've never had a word in our language for 'art.' Visual art, dance, performance, the oral stories, they're all seen as one thing that moves forward, and it's only in contemporary society that it's seen as an aesthetic, as a visual form."
—Corey Moraes, Tsimshian artist
Northwest Coast art can be broadly divided into two regional styles: northern and southern. Northern style includes the Tsimshian, Gitxsan, Nisga'a, and Haisla, as well as the Haida and Tlingit in cases nearby. Northern artists adopted the formline system for their designs, in which curving lines, ovoids and U shapes connect to form the basic design, creating a tension characteristic of northern art.
The southern region includes the Nuu-chah-nulth, Nuxalk, and Coast Salish, as well as the Kwakwaka'wakw. Southern styles tend to be more naturalistic and have less bilateral symmetry. Although many southern artists began using formlines during historic times, their designs tend to be more open, and their work shows a freedom and exuberance that distinguishes it from northern art.
Featured Artist: Art Thompson
Art Thompson (1948–2003) is famous for his paintings and silk-screen prints, and for his innovation with traditional, free-flowing Nuu-chah-nulth design.
"I went to work as a logger when I was fourteen. During those years, I began to carve. I made my first sale when I was sixteen.
"My grandmother encouraged me to learn songs and study our culture. Now I am anxious to give things back to the community. I have made many things—carvings of masks, a headdress, and painted ceremonial curtain—for Nuu-chah-nulth families who have used them. But I also make artworks for sale. That work makes others aware that our people did not go away and will not go away."
Featured Artist: Rod Modeste
Rod Modeste helped lead the renewal of interest in Coast Salish art during recent decades. Studying the finest examples of Coast Salish woodcarving in museums and galleries, Modeste discovered the old Salish style. Later he applied the hallmarks of Salish design—crescents and wedge-shaped elements—as key components in his silver engravings.
NUXALK AND HEILTSUK
Featured Artist: Marven Tallio
Marven Tallio has educated himself in traditional Nuxalk and Heiltsuk styles. Yet he sometimes works outside those boundaries. "It's up to the individual if he wants to experiment with different materials, maybe add in some new stories about our lives in this day and age. If it's a private sale I usually ask what the client wants, contemporary style art or traditional. I've done a couple of polar bears that were nontraditional."
Featured Artist: Lyle Wilson
Lyle Wilson sees his art as neither "contemporary" nor "traditional." He seeks to represent the tension between older Haisla values and the influences of present-day society. "I believe my best work takes account of the past, present, and future tenses."
"I credit my uncle, Sam Robinson, for sparking my interest in art. I remember once, he was upstairs carving; everything was dark, except for one light shining overhead. The shavings seemed to flow off the wood in crispy curls before disappearing into the dark. It was a magical scene that I've never forgotten.
"My goal in jewelry is to create layers, forms, and textures that highlight the creative process. The finished work is not so much jewelry but a miniature carving. I also prefer a surface that is not highly polished and reflects the light in a diffused manner. This allows the carving, rather than the metal, to shine."
PEOPLES OF THE TSIMSHIAN REGION
Three distinct peoples, the Nisga'a, Gitxsan, and Tsimshian live near one another and have similar languages and artistic styles. The Gitxsan live on the upper Skeena River, the Tsimshian on the lower Skeena and nearby islands, and the Nisga'a live along the Nass River just to the north.
Featured Artist: Norman Tait
By the mid-1900s, the old Nisga'a artistic style had almost completely died out. So, in order to understand this artistic tradition, Norman Tait was forced to visit the major collections of Nisga'a art around the world. He sold his own woodcarvings to pay for trips to New York, Madrid, and Paris, where he could study the old masterpieces. Today his efforts have helped revive the ancient Nisga'a style, which he describes as "about halfway between Haida and Tlingit art."
Tait is also one of the few practicing shamans among the Nisga'a today, a role predicted for him by his grandmother, who said he was a reincarnation of an old shaman.
Featured Artist: Earl Muldon
Gitxsan master artist and hereditary chief Earl Muldon began his art career studying with a non-Native artist. In 1970, at the newly established Kitanmax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art, Muldon and other students learned the basics of Northwest Coast art from both Native and non-Native instructors. Muldon became a teacher there, and helped to reestablish the old Gitxsan tradition.
Featured Artist: Henry Green
In addition to apprenticing with Native artists and studying at a Vancouver art school, Henry Green also studied art at Instituto Allende in Mexico. Green later developed his own Native art education program, teaching design, toolmaking, woodcarving, and silver engraving.