On an earlier trip to British Columbia, somewhere between Victoria and Vancouver, my husband and I fell in love with the work of Northwestern native artists. Every subsequent trip North has included a search for reputable stores and galleries that carry carvings and serigraphs, particularly those that are stylized pictorial representations of local myth and legend.
A popular character in the mythology of many tribes is the mischievous, shape-shifting Raven. Raven is always getting in trouble and relying upon his shape-shifting abilities to squirm out of whatever fix he's in, like finding himself in the belly of a whale with no obvious way out. Better galleries will be able to tell you exactly what story a given piece of art is describing, and some will even give you a writeup of the legend from a book or database when you buy a print. We've bought carvings in wood and soapstone, as well as some jewelry and textiles, but our favorite medium is the serigraph.
"Serigraph" might just be a fancy word that silkscreeners made up so as not to be confused with those guys who make family reunion t-shirts and corporate logo mugs, but the serigraphs I've seen and bought are original art, no question about it, and their creators and dealers take great care to ensure that they are considered as such. The process is actually quite complex, and when it is finished, any imperfect prints are discarded. The images are numbered and signed by the artist, and the stencils are destroyed so no more copies can be made. In other words, if an artist wants to buy a new car, he can't just print up a few more copies of "Raven Transforming into Dented Minivan" and put them on the market.
Where to Shop
Northwest Connection in the upper village is more of a store than a gallery. They feature hand-carved jewelry, masks, totem poles, baskets, mugs, and non-native art as well as some fine quality paintings and prints. Prices were very reasonable on the prints – we were excited to find a small Raven print by Wayne Young, an artist whose work we've found in the past in a Toronto gallery.
The other is Black Tusk Gallery, in the lower village. This is a high-end, high quality gallery, targeted to collectors. The owners are based in Seattle, and the gallery is their hobby as well as their passion. Here you'll find substantial and expensive pieces like carved headboards and elaborate masks, with ample space to display them. There are no placemats or t-shirts here; the saleslady painstakingly and ever so condescendingly explained to us that t-shirts trivialize the art of the serigraph and lower its value. We like to think that t-shirts help raise public consciousness of native art, but something tells me that argument would have been better received over at Northwest Connection.
Despite the side dish of attitude, Black Tusk is a great place to shop. They carry the work of "name-brand" artists as well as newcomers. We picked up a very reasonable print by a young artist from the Haida tribe (you can save a bundle by getting prints unframed!) and had it shipped home so we didn't have to pay the VAT tax. Black Tusk has an exceptionally good website which features biographies and extensive catalogs of each artist they represent. You can also purchase directly from the website.
Some artists to watch for:
Glen Rabena: Adopted into the Haida tribe, Rabena's serigraphs blend the ancient forms with modern subjects. His unusual style makes his work instantly recognizable.
Robert Davidson: Perhaps the most celebrated Northwest Coast artist alive today, Davidson has been the subject of several books. His work is shown in places as diverse as the Microsoft Art Gallery and Truly Malin's living room. No medium is off limits to this versatile artist, but his serigraphs are the most affordable.
Wayne Young: A personal favorite of ours, Young specializes in transformation myths, which he represents in prints and in totem pole carvings.
Eugene Alfred: We discovered this Tlingit artist's work at Black Tusk and are looking forward to more. At only 31 years old, he has a long and distinguished career ahead of him!
4232 Sunrise Alley
Black Tusk Gallery
At the Summit Lodge
101-4359 Main Street
Toll Free (CA & US) 877-905-5540
Photos courtesy of Black Tusk Gallery website