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"Dogfish, Raven and Sun Pendant"
Fred Davis, Haida, "Dogfish, Raven and Sun Pendant," mastodon ivory, 14K gold, abalone shell. 2.5" X 1.5" X 1.25", at Coastal Peoples Fine Arts Gallery.
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"Cockle Shell Rattle and Pendant"
Gwaai Edenshaw, Haida, "Cockle Shell Rattle and Pendant," mastodon ivory, 22K gold, abalone shell. 2.75" X 1.5" X 1" (including bail), at Coastal Peoples Fine Arts Gallery.
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Gary Olver, Cree, "Volcano Woman," catlanite, abalone shell, horse hair, 2" X 1.75" X 1" (not including base and hair), at Coastal Peoples Fine Arts Gallery.
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"Killerwhale, Dogfish, Wolf, Raven and Bear Box"
Derek White, Haida, "Killerwhale, Dogfish, Wolf, Raven and Bear Box," sterling silver, argillite, abalone shell, mother of pearl. 3.25" X 5.25" X 3.25", at Coastal Peoples Fine Arts Gallery.
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Christian White, Haida, "Raven’s Child," argillite, mastodon ivory, catlanite, abalone shell, opal, maple wood base. 1.25" X 3" X 1.5"; (not including base), at Coastal Peoples Fine Arts Gallery.
MASTERS OF MINIATURE
First Nation scultptors scale it down.
By Beverly Cramp
It’s becoming more and more popular for galleries specializing in contemporary First Nations art to exhibit collections of smaller-scale work. But the styles and techniques for miniature sculpture have been around for a very long time.
“There’s a tradition of miniatures in West Coast cultures,” says Svetlana Fouks, co-owner of Coastal Peoples Fine Arts Gallery in Vancouver. “Historically they were used as ceremonial give-aways. Or they were worn as regalia by people with status — they signified people’s positions within their communities. Post-European contact, miniatures became more trade-worthy and so more of these pieces were made. Miniature pieces became embellished with materials like shells and beads. Some were carved from metals such as copper, gold and silver.”
The Inuit Gallery, also in Vancouver, has hosted a show called Small Treasures for four years in a row. This year, the gallery will highlight small-scale works from January 26 to February 8. “Without the immediate visual impact of works on a larger scale, these pieces beg to be examined up close or, better still, turned in the hand to fully appreciate their beauty and power,” says gallery director Melanie Zavediuk.
There’s something uniquely intimate about this work that larger monumental pieces don’t as readily elicit. Cree artist Gary Olver has created a piece called Eagle and Frog Pendant that is 1.5 by 1 by 1. At first glance, the piece looks like a tiny grass basket with a frog on its lid. The woven texture of the basket has been carved into catlanite stone with exquisite care and detail (catlanite is a fine-particled metamorphic claystone found throughout the midwest that was traditionally used for ceremonial tobacco pipes). The lid lifts up to reveal a sculpted eagle figure underneath. Both the frog and eagle figures have glowing eyes made of abalone shell.
Coastal Peoples represents Olver, and includedEagle and Frog in their recent show Coastal Legacy: from Intricate to Monumental. “We like miniatures partly because of their size and their purpose,” Fouks says about the popular show. She adds that small pieces don’t mean that less time has been spent on the creation of the work. “It’s often more complicated to create a miniature. The pieces we select open your eyes to how much impact a miniature can have.”
That the miniatures do double duty as works of art and as jewelry is undeniably one of the attractions of small artworks. Nigel Reading is co-director of Vancouver’s Spirit Wrestler Gallery, which is launching its second biannual show, called Mini-Masterworks II in March. He easily ties the function and presentation of miniature sculpture to jewellery and adornment. “A lot of this miniature show is wearable art. People like wearing beautiful things,” he says.
But shows such as these also give galleries an opportunity to showcase First Nations art to new audiences. “Doing a miniature show is one way of getting people to support a culture they haven’t in the past,” Reading says. “When we first tried this, we had a phenomenal response and decided we would do it every two years.” Smaller-scale works can also invite new collectors to the genre. But gallerists are adamant that size has little to do with price. “Size isn’t the most important part of price,” Zavediuk says at the Inuit Gallery. “Price has more to do with the actual piece itself, and the artist.”
"The value of any piece comes down to the medium, embellishment, and complexity and uniqueness of design,” Fouks adds.
To reinforce her point, Fouks describes a piece from the gallery titled Cockle Shell Rattle and Pendant by Haida artist Gwaai Edenshaw. “It’s quite rare. Few artists we know create wearable rattles. There are less than six artists capable of doing it that we’re aware of. Gwaai is a new artist for us, and he’s certainly pushing boundaries with his use of mixed media.”
Fred Davis is another Coastal Peoples artist who uses mastodon ivory, sourced from the remains of an extinct tusked mammal that disappeared from North America about 10,000 years ago. Davis has called one of his piecesDogfish, Raven and Sun Pendant “Fred is well-known for these images and pushing boundaries with his artwork,” Fouks says of the piece, which has a dogfish image carved on the front face and a raven carved on the back. “Many of his pieces are in private collections and he releases few to galleries.”
All the shows focusing on small-scale art shows in Vancouver offer new opportunities for First Nations artists. “Often, for many artists who work in larger scale, it’s a challenge to work small,” says Nigel Reading. “It involves going from an adze to a penknife sometimes. This is a whole different technology and one that artists find exciting.”
Melanie Zavediuk has chosen a range of pieces for her 2008 show, with a particular focus on contemporary themes. “This year’s collection illustrates more than ever the changes in Inuit art,” she says. “Young carvers working today are incorporating present-day influences into their work more than ever.” She cites Toonoo Sharky’s finely carved miniature sculpture of the late kung-fu actor Bruce Lee in mid-kick, and James Pitseolak’s Surfing on a UFO.
This contemporary work is a natural progression for an art-form that has been around for millennia. “Traditionally, all Inuit work was small because Inuit people were nomadic and it wasn’t practical for them to carry around large pieces,” says Reading. “Much of the traditional work was in the form of amulets and talismans. The work only got larger when Innu began selling their work and were encouraged to make bigger pieces.”
Collecting 101: Northwest Coast artwork
Art made in miniature may not always mean downsized prices, but starting small may be good advice for collectors looking to delve into the Northwest Coast art market. “There are no easy answers on how to best get started,” says Donald Ellis, owner of the Donald Ellis Gallery in Dundas, Ontario and one of Canada’s best-known authorities on Northwest Coast art. “Look, read, and refrain from buying as long as possible,” he advises. This will not only help a buyer build visual awareness of the different styles, cultural affiliations and materials used, he says, but an awareness of their own preferences.
Then start small. One stellar piece is a better buy than three mediocre ones — and it’s the quality that’s key. Ellis is known to have an eye for excellence, but if collectors come to him for investment advice, he refers them to their stockbroker. “I don’t sell investments,” he says. He may be unable to predict the future, but having been in the business since 1976, he’s well aware of what’s happened in the past. The prices for Northwest Coast art haven’t dropped in 35 years, he says.
In a nutshell, Ellis says condition, quality, provenance and age all affect the value of antique art, but in the contemporary field, it’s usually big names that bring the highest prices. Many collectors are really collecting autographs, he says, which is why names like Robert Davidson and Bill Reid command prices higher than 19th century coastal masters — some of whose names were never recorded.
In the past, Ellis says, the market only sought out the “holy trinity” of Haida, Tsimshian or Tlingit art, but now the extraordinary works of art made by other coastal First Nations are highly valued too. The highest prices are reserved for iconic pieces, like wooden masks and rattles, but Ellis says collectors can still find the best of the best in other forms of antique Northwest Coast art — such as decorated household implements — for under $10,000.
He is awed at how little some of the old masterpieces from the Northwest Coast sell for, especially in comparison to 20th century sculpture. He points to the November 2007 contemporary art auction at Sotheby’s in New York which brought in $316 million (US) for 65 lots, the house’s highest auction total ever. In comparison, the highest price ever paid for a Northwest Coast piece was $1.8 million for a Tsimshian shaman’s mask, part of the Dundas collection, sold in 2006.
Karen Duffek, curator of art at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, says watching the auctions is one way to help determine value. She points to the impact anthropologists have had on the market, starting with the very notion of Northwest Coast art. Coastal artists usually identify themselves by their tribal affiliations, not by using the catch-all term. And the work of anthropologists in the 1960s and 70s created the language still used to describe the forms today — a language that identifies value in terms of integrity of formlines and ovoids.
She says that western design terminology imposes static rules on the art that, in retrospect, doesn’t apply to all 19th century pieces. Elements like symmetry and refined surfaces were not important to carvers who used their wooden masks by firelight during the winter dance months. “I could make a list of 10 rules that define a good carving, but the rules won’t always work,” she says.
Duffek is also interested in aboriginal artists who are playing outside the rules altogether, especially those who don’t place their work within the Northwest Coast genre, but who still build on the stylistic foundations of their cultures. She suggests the print market as a good place to start collecting. Silkscreen prints used to be the hottest ticket on the market, but the medium reached its peak in the 1980s, and now there are many beautiful prints out there, for relatively low prices, she says.