Coast Salish Revival
Timeless, elegant art thrives thanks to visionaries like Simon Charlie
By Suzanne Fournier
Photo left: Wawmeesh George Hamilton.
Ts’uts’umutl Luke Marston poses with his sculpture, "Shore to Shore"
Ts’uts’umutl Luke Marston poses with his sculpture, "Shore to Shore," in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.
In Vancouver’s Stanley Park, at a spot that receives some nine million visitors a year, Coast Salish master carver Ts’uts’umutl Luke Marston’s magnificent new sculpture, "Shore to Shore," celebrates the union of his great-great-grandparents, a Portuguese-born whaler named Joe Silvey and Kwatleematt, a Coast Salish woman from the Sechelt Nation on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast. The couple raised 11 children, including two daughters that Silvey had with his first wife, the Musqueam-born and buried Khaltinaht, who died tragically young.
Their life-sized figures stand below a three-pronged cod lure topped with an eagle head that also represents a Portuguese raptor called the açor. Unveiled in April, the bronze sculpture faces the skyline of downtown Vancouver. Located near three cedar portals carved by pioneering Musqueam artist Susan Point, Marston’s sculpture is a powerful symbol of Coast Salish ascendance.
Stanley Park, like much of British Columbia, is unceded territory, a fact formally recognized by the City of Vancouver, and its parks board, which both consult closely with the area’s three Coast Salish nations – the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh.
Photo right: Courtesy of Inuit Gallery of Vancouver Ltd.
"Great Blue Heron Paddle"
Maynard Johnny Jr., "Great Blue Heron Paddle," 2014, yellow cedar, 66” x 7” x 1”.
The Coast Salish, whose traditional territory also includes the south end of Vancouver Island and parts of Washington and Oregon, have a complex history. Some 23 lanaguages once flourished, and 10 are still considered extant. While the different nations have always had cultural, trade and family ties, and ranged freely along the south coast, that diversity indicates a lengthy history. Their designs evolved over time and became, some say, as refined as traditional Japanese aesthetics.
The work of northern coast artists, particularly from the Haida, Tlingit, Kwakwaka’wakw and Tsimshian nations, has been recognized worldwide since the 1800s. While the bold Northwest Coast designs in saturated blacks, reds and blues were coveted by collectors, the timeless, elegant minimalism of traditional Coast Salish art was less feted. Sometimes misunderstood, it was even denigrated for its simplicity.
Courtesy of Pegasus Gallery of Canadian Art, Salt Spring Island, B.C.
"Wolf Killer Whale Transformation Headdress"
Hwunumetse’ Simon Charlie, "Wolf Killer Whale Transformation Headdress," 1980, wood, 13” x 10” x 16”.
But things are changing. Coast Salish artists are gaining recognition in galleries and creating numerous public art projects. Among them is the Cowichan artist lessLIE (his birth name is Leslie Robert Sam, but he adopted his artistic moniker, citing a Picasso quote that “art is a lie that tells the truth.”) A curator and contemporary artist whose designs are very much in Salish style, his work has been celebrated in galleries and even at Canada House in London, where his bold black-and-white graphics adorn a striking carpet.
Another notable artist, Sinámkin Jody Broomfield, of the Squamish Nation, has provided designs to the Royal Canadian Mint and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, which showcased Coast Salish art and culture. In Washington, Qwalsius Shaun Peterson is a prolific producer of public art, and has set out the principles of Coast Salish design in a helpful YouTube video.
On the Capilano reserve in North Vancouver, Aaron Nelson-Moody, who carries the name Tawx’sin Yexwulla, or Splashing Eagle, creates exquisite silver and gold repoussé jewelry with double-headed serpents and graceful abstract swirls reminiscent of traditional spindle whorls. Nelson-Moody, who was mentored by Squamish artist Xwalacktun Rick Harry, has researched Salish art in museums around the world, sometimes even holding rare pieces so he can appreciate their spirit and design secrets. His work graced several 2010 Olympic venues, and he completed four house boards for the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler.
Photo left: Peter Rusland, Cowichan News Leader.
Hwunumetse’ Simon Charlie (right) with Ts’uts’umutl Luke Marston
Hwunumetse’ Simon Charlie (right) with Ts’uts’umutl Luke Marston.
Maynard Johnny Jr., a Penelakut artist who has made art since he was 17, created a large salmon sculpture donated to the World Trade Centre site in New York to honour those who died on 9/11.
Marston’s younger brother, Qap’u’luq John Marston, has work at the UBC Museum of Anthropology, the Vancouver International Airport and the Vancouver Convention Centre. He recently completed a sculpture, Honouring Our Cedar, a unique red-cedar pole with a curving aluminum top, at an upscale North Vancouver condominium. It rests on a base of black granite submerged in a fountain, appearing to float above the water’s surface. The brothers, members of the artistic family of Jane and David Marston, command the prices once reserved for Northwest Coast legends Bill Reid and Robert Davidson. Vancouver gallerist Douglas Reynolds says Luke Marston is “in the top 10 per cent of West Coast artists – and his prices reflect that.”
Photo: Courtesy Alcheringa Gallery, Victoria.
"Life and Light"
Joe Wilson, "Life and Light," 2009, serigraph (edition of 200), 22.5” x 22.5”.
The resurgence of Coast Salish art is all the more remarkable given the intense pressure for acculturation in a densely populated region with a long colonial history. The Marston brothers, along with Maynard Johnny Jr. and Cowichan carver and graphic artist Joe Wilson, credit forebears such as Hwunumetse’ Simon Charlie, Susan Point, Tsartlip elder Charles Elliott, and Jane Marston, an artist and educator, for forging links between the ancient art forms and the legends and stories that inform them. Another hugely influential figure is Stan Greene, who is based near Chilliwack. Like many key artists, he pored over books and museum pieces, recreating designs even when many elders, due to cultural loss from the residential school experience, could no longer explain their meaning.
Cultural revival occurred hand-in-hand with the resurgence of interest in specific tribal traditions. “A pan-coastal identity was more common before the 1970s,” says lessLIE, who is working on a Master’s degree on Coast Salish art at the University of Victoria. “But throughout that decade, people began to reclaim a true ancestral coastal style, reconnecting with their own cultural heritage.”
Photo: Courtesy Alcheringa Gallery, Victoria.
"Salmon Water Ripples"
lessLIE, "Salmon Water Ripples," 2014, serigraph (edition of 100), 22” x 22”.
Some say Coast Salish traditions, paradoxically, were hiding in plain sight all along. Privacy was integral to spiritual practices in the longhouses, even if ceremonies had to become more clandestine after 1885, when federal anti-potlatch laws banned all forms of cultural expression. Unlike the showy masks and regalia of the northern cultures, Coast Salish masks were never created for sale nor paraded in public. Although much significant Coast Salish art was undoubtedly confiscated, missionaries and collectors mostly swarmed north to scoop up totem poles, button blankets and bentwood boxes. Despite the anti-potlatch laws, in effect until 1951, ethnographers were allowed to observe and film northern ceremonies – and retain artifacts as souvenirs – to an extent rarely seen in Coast Salish societies. As well, Coast Salish design was lavished on everyday objects such as ladles, adzes, bowls and spindle whorls, which largely escaped attention. The extraordinary Salish ceremonial Sxwayxwey masks, quite unlike any other North American indigenous art form, were never sanctioned for sale. Artifacts such as rattles, dance staffs or shaman’s bowls may be replicated in design, but do not transition from ceremony to a public offering.
“We never stopped dancing, we never stopped singing, we never stopped practising our cultural ways,” says Musqueam weaver Debra Sparrow, whose bold geometric weavings can be seen at UBC, the Vancouver International Airport, the Burke museum in Seattle, and even the Smithsonian. Historical Salish textiles made from the wool of domesticated animals rivaled those of the Incas in their design complexity, though many were lost to the wet coastal climate. Sparrow, who considers herself a person who lives and practises traditional ways rather than an artist creating work for sale, spent many years studying old patterns and textiles.
She had a close connection to her grandfather, Ed Sparrow, who remembered the Musqueams’ forced departure from Stanley Park. She took to heart his words – to always know who she was and where she came from – and found her path to cultural knowledge through traditional weaving. The installation of Shore to Shore left her feeling a deep kinship. She is a descendent of Khaltinaht and says the sculpture’s female figures in traditional Salish robes “look as if they walked out of the mist of times gone by. The spirit of our ancestors stands with them.”
Photo: Courtesy of Inuit Gallery of Vancouver Ltd.
Qap’u’luq John Marston, "Sun Mask," 2014, yellow cedar and cedar bark, 11” x 11” x 3.5”.
The Coast Salish relied purely on oral history and their art, which often featured animals both real and symbolic, typically illustrated stories handed down over the generations, connecting ancestors, elders and youth. “I am always inspired as I work by the legacy of my ancestors,” says Luke Marston, whose art often draws on stories he heard from elders. At ceremonies and important events, witnesses were chosen to remember and pass on those stories, a tradition that enabled Simon Charlie to hand them down to others, even if he had to resort to museums or books to learn some design elements.
Charlie, who died in 2005, was able to bridge a gap of a generation or two of disconnected cultural ties by relating those stories. “He was a very humble, generous person, a generous and patient teacher who always encouraged me – and every carver who came to his shop – to do the best work you could do,” says John Marston.
Despite the cultural losses caused by colonialism, including the so-called Sixties’ Scoop, which saw aboriginal children placed in white adoptive or foster families, the contemporary wave of Coast Salish artists was fortunate to have strong, reliable mentors. Charlie, who received the Order of Canada in 2003, was a prolific artist. He once estimated he had carved the equivalent of 22 logging truckloads of cedar into ceremonial form. Curators Andrea Walsh and Cathi Charles Wherry, in their book accompanying the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s 2007 show Transporters: Contemporary Salish Art, noted his contribution: “Once the laws prohibiting cultural expression were lifted, artists like Cowichan elder Simon Charlie worked tirelessly, and often in obscurity, to keep the classical Salish forms alive and to share them with younger artists.”
Some of Charlie’s work – a carved totem pole and a striking eagle mask – can be found at the Pegasus Gallery of Canadian Art on Salt Spring Island. Owner Ian Sigvaldason says Charlie often struggled financially. “He did a lot of his work with unsharpened knives and second-hand house paint, whatever was available,” says Sigvaldason. “In trying to rebuild the culture, you do it with what’s at hand.” Charlie’s vigorous realistic carvings have a primitive style and he was influenced by the Northwest Coast artists with whom he had apprenticed, particularly with totem poles, not part of the Coast Salish tradition. Jane Marston, a creator of exquisite painted paddles, masks and doll-like figures, worked closely with Charlie in his workshop. “I would say to Simon: ‘Why should we use this style or that, when we have our own Coast Salish art?’ ” she recalls.
Outside Charlie’s workshop, near Duncan on Vancouver Island, massive old-growth cedars sit abandoned, never to be carved. A mossy totem pole with a thunderbird’s wings above a bear decays on an old cedar deck, all of it gradually returning to the earth. A triangular lift for big logs stands near a curious model of a Salish loom. Inside the workshop, Charlie’s tools sit on a bench and half-carved figures rest unfinished, as if he had left just the day before. “It’s out of respect, for Simon and his legacy that no artist is going to step in there and take over,” says Joe Wilson, who is related to Charlie. “It should be a museum.”
Photo: Anna Davydova.
"Untitled (weaving commissioned by the CBC)"
Debra Sparrow, "Untitled (weaving commissioned by the CBC)," 2009, hand-spun sheep’s wool, 4’ x 20’.
This is where the Marstons worked under Charlie’s watchful eye. “Simon would be talking and laughing, joking around, and sometimes he’d just kind of launch into a story,” says Wilson. “He had all the time in the world for the Marston family, and the boys really blossomed under his instruction. If he thought you weren’t serious about your art, he could speak pretty sharply.”
Wilson, though he says he did not receive the same close tutelage from Charlie, is an acclaimed and accomplished artist, producing designs used by aboriginal groups and on products ranging from T-shirts, prints and art cards to cars – not always with his permission or to his benefit. He draws mirror-image designs freehand, using a light table, and makes masks and bowls from old-growth cedar. His greatest triumph is a stunning outdoor fountain at a Victoria shopping centre.
While Charlie’s influence, and his many accolades and honours, are indisputable, it’s hard to link the refined minimalist designs of artists like Luke and John Marston, or Maynard Johnny Jr., to Charlie’s more primitive carving style and the bright paint that spills over his edges and lines. It’s something lessLIE says he often ponders, along with the criticism Charlie faced in his lifetime for reproducing for sale the sacred Sxwayxwey masks. Barbara Brotherton, author of the seminal 2008 book S’abadeb / The Gifts: Pacific Coast Salish Art and Artists, suggests that Charlie’s artistry “issued from his deep knowledge of the language, history, oral traditions and ceremonial practices of his Cowichan people rather than from copying older examples of the art forms.”
Courtesy of Inuit Gallery of Vancouver Photo: Kenji Nagai, Courtesy of Inuit Gallery, Vancouver.
Luke Marston, "Being Mindful," 2009, yellow cedar and yew wood.
Luke Marston has produced many works with a modern aesthetic, including Being Mindful, masks that depict a tranquil face in unpainted yellow cedar. Yet he immediately credits Charlie’s influence in many of his works, as he does with the intricate transformation mask, Raven Stealing the Light from Seagull, which features a burst of orange and yellow rays. “That is Simon, that is his legend of how Raven tricked Seagull into sharing his hidden box of light with the rest of the world,” says Luke. “He passed on to us directly so many of the old legends and stories, and the art forms ... I recall his words all the time when I’m working.
“He was a total expressionist and didn’t work in a refined style like the artists of today, but all the Salish art forms are there, the crescent, the trigons, the incised lines, circles and ovals. He was our inspiration, and he lives on in the work that all Coast Salish artists do today … the younger up-and-coming artists, they need to go back and do their research before they break out into their own style. Our art is a discipline, and yet it’s not going to stand still. It has to evolve, and that’s what the world is seeing with Coast Salish art today. It’s our time.”
Swirling, fluid designs occupy negative space
Ts’uts’umutl Luke Marston’s, "Mink Bowl," is carved from alder and features trigons, circles and crescents.
Coast Salish art, unlike most northern-style indigenous art, is not based on the formline, in which a boldly outlined perimeter contains images in positive space. Instead, it features the creative use of negative space, somewhat like a cutout design that pierces through paper. A subtle and stylized technique, it features circles, ovals, crescents and trigons, curving triangular shapes that resemble arrowheads.
Much extant Coast Salish design comes from utilitarian objects, such as spindle whorls and paddles, which were carved in low relief. Crescents, which look like ripples spreading out from a pebble hitting calm water, are often incised around the eyes or mouth of a human or a creature. They also help move the eye around abstract designs.
Used together, these elements can produce raised ridges that create curvilinear effects. The overall result is a swirling, fluid design that perhaps reflects the coastal peoples’ close spiritual and economic ties to rivers and the ocean.
Identifying Salish designs can be challenging because artists of all First Nations – including many with intermingled heritages – create stylized images, in which rigid design traditions are hard to discern. As well, Coast Salish art continues to evolve in the hands of emerging artists who create ever more abstract and colloquial images. Yet both Coast Salish carver Luke Marston and his mentor, Robert Davidson, the internationally renowned Haida artist, emphasize the importance of understanding a tradition before bending the rules.