We are sharing selections from SAM’s Conversations with Curators member-only series online with everyone! This talk took place live between the artist behind “Carpe Fin,” SAM’s most recent and largest, commission, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, and SAM’s Curator of Native American Art, Barbara Brotherton.
Due to some technical difficulties, SAM members got a little tour of the artist’s quarantine studio at the beginning of the talk. We hope you enjoy this happy outcome of the challenges of moving our programs online!
Far away, past the point of no return, sits Lord’s Rock, an indistinct protuberance in an archipelago of windswept islands. It is from this auspicious place of hardship and wonder that Yahgulanaas’ large-scale Haida manga refreshes an ancient Haida tale. Several artistic and cultural influences form this innovative, hybrid style. Using Pop Art, Japanese manga, and Northwest Coast Indigenous formline art, the artist calls for action to save our one small planet. Hear about Yahgulanaas’ journey from politician and environmental activist to a leader in contemporary Haida art.
The black stone used for this carving by Haida artist Charles Edensaw is argillite, a carbonaceous kaolinite shale. Truly unique, this sedimentary rock is found in only one place in the world: Haida Gwaii. Formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, the archipelago in British Columbia is home to this very special material and the similarly distinct Haida artistic traditions that have arisen from it. More specifically, argillite comes from the Slatechuck Mountain. And while Haida peoples have accessed the Slatechuck quarry and produced such argillite carvings for centuries, it was not until 1941 that the quarry site (measuring approximately 18 hectares) was officially designated as land belonging to the Skidegate band, assuring that access would remain theirs in perpetuity.
For those who might not identify as geologists, or even amateur geologists, the slate’s black color comes from its high levels of carbon. A kaolinite shale, it is composed of clay material that has been subjected to heat and pressure over geologic time, resulting in a highly uniform and workable rock. For example, it ranks at two and a half on the Moh’s scale of mineral hardness (on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being diamond-hard).
Measuring 19 inches tall, this model totem pole (qwa.a gyaa.angaa) was expertly carved out of one piece of argillite. Perhaps it goes without saying, but the larger the carving, the more difficult it is to do successfully, as natural imperfections in the shale grain can result in fine fractures. Further, argillite is sensitive to its environmental surroundings, and can absorb and desorb moisture quickly; it is essential that freshly quarried argillite is slowly and carefully dried, otherwise it is prone to cracking.
Currently on view in the third floor Native Art of the Americas galleries, this piece makes clear just how skilled and masterful Edensaw was as a Haida carver. The figures on the pole from top to bottom are: a bear holding five stacked cylinders—representing a ringed basketry hat—above an eagle’s head; two human heads on either side, also wearing ringed hats; a bear, holding its tongue; and another bear, holding a seal-like figure with a fish-like tail. Though quite a lot to fit into 19 inches, compositionally, each animal and human figure bears exquisite incising and detail.
Such model poles were primarily made for commercial sale as Haida contact with Americans and Europeans increased during the 1800s. In fact, around the time that this piece was made (circa 1885), argillite carving experienced a surge in output corresponding with an exploration of new forms. As traditional Haida ceremonial objects and practices were increasingly banned by the Canadian government, new forms of creative expression thus emerged. Edensaw was an important figure during this period, whose personal style influenced many other Haida artists living in Skidegate and Masset. With a deeper understanding of argillite’s geological properties, rarity, and cultural significance, this carving by Edensaw is all the more impressive.
– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator
Image: Model totem pole (qwa.a gyaa.angaa), ca. 1885, Haida, argillite, 19 x 3 x 2 3/4 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.129
Wandering through the museum’s Native Art of the Americas galleries on the third floor, you see cloth, basketry, metal works, carved furnishings and more—a variety of objects from the history and life of the Northwest Coast people. Around the corner, it’s hard to miss Preston Singletary’s large work, but look to the left for an understated piece: the Eagle Shawl Collar Coat by Haida designer Dorothy Grant.
In earlier walks through the gallery, I admired the well-structured coat with its contrasting-red appliqué collar and feminine bishop sleeve. I even imagined how wearing the haute couture garment might transform my style and mood on a rainy day.
But recently, considering pieces in our collection from a lens of social justice, I found new meaning in this coat. Fashion has incredible power (remember this year’s Golden Globes?), and Grant’s work is no exception. The Eagle Shawl Collar Coat links a rich history of innovation with a contemporary mode of expression, capable of transforming and inspiring conversation.
The design of the coat, can be traced to button blankets, the original ceremonial dress of the Haida people1, which Dorothy learned to sew as a young teen. She studied closely with Haida Gwaii elder and knowledge-keeper Florence Davidson, and eventually innovated the traditional garment, altering the neckline so it would hang more comfortably. Grant continued to innovate after her graduation from Helen Lefeaux School of Fashion Design in Vancouver, British Columbia: she launched her haute couture Feastwear line and became the first designer to combine Haida art and fashion.
With the eagle coat in our galleries, Grant gives us opportunity to admire skillful design and innovation. It might also challenge the stereotype that Native American art exists only as commercial art or mute museum pieces. For herself, Grant considers the transformational effect of her work to be her greatest achievement. “I would like to know that I made a difference for First Nations youth, that any idea is possible. That my artwork can make someone wearing one of my garments feel pride in themselves. That through my achievements as an artist and entrepreneur I feel I have broken down stereotypes and changed the perception of a successful native woman.”
– Jenae Williams, Associate for the Curatorial Division
1 Button blankets were introduced as early as the 1840s, after early missionaries denounced the totem poles of the Northwest Coast people. The Haida placed crests of their histories onto cloth instead—elder Florence Davidson referred to button blankets as “totem poles on cloth”—and created a new form of storytelling from the act of oppression.
Sometimes, when I’m writing about remarkable artworks we have at SAM, I feel a bit like Levar Burton. SAM’s Sdláagwaal (horn ladle) is an incredible thing . . .
Sdláagwaal is displayed adjacent to a bold piece by living Native artist Robert Davidson. Standing in the galleries and seeing these pieces next to one another is like watching the traditional conversing with the new, visually. We can also imagine Davidson speaking his comments about the Sdláagwaal, recorded in a 1995 SAM catalogue:
This person had a sure understanding of space. Not just the graphics, but even beyond, the whole aesthetics of spoon. It’s almost like a swan. My first reaction was raven, but then you look at the long neck.
It is almost like a mandala, it becomes a concentration object. When I go fishing, the net is like that, a meditation point. We’re watching that net. We can watch for three, four, five hours, waiting for that fish to strike. Same with carving. You could work three, four, five days to get that line right, that undercut right. It’s almost like a meditation.1
Has anybody ever applied the term “aesthetics of spoon” with such awesome and apt grace (or been brilliant enough to apply it at all)? Davidson’s phrasing would never have come to me, but I understand immediately the qualities to which he refers. Every aspect of the Sdláagwaal bespeaks perfection. It has been carved with adze and knife from a mountain sheep horn, steamed so that the wide bowl of the ladle might be formed, and fashioned by someone with a clear mastery of the technique. With the precise lines that cover the ladle, the artist shows awe-inspiring precision. The formline designs on the bottom of the ladle fill the pictorial space with perfect balance and symmetry.
Another authority whose voice we should listen to regarding the Sdláagwaal is Bill Holm, a recognized scholar, longtime curator, and prolific author on Native American art in the Pacific Northwest. The gallery bracketed by the museum’s four great Arthur Shaughnessy house posts, also has a monitor playing several videos where we can learn from Bill Holm about the history and making of the posts. Back to the Sdláagwaal, of which Holm writes:
Among the artists of the Northwest Coast there were some who had complete mastery of the materials, techniques, and design system with which they worked. The maker of this horn ladle was one of those artists . . . . The formlines comprising the design are broad and simple, without extraneous elaboration. Their execution is flawless.2
To have people like Davidson and Holm, who really know their stuff, compliment the Sdláagwaal with such glowing words brings heaps of praises on its maker—who must have been quite an impressive individual, indeed.
–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator
1 Robert Davidson, quoted in The Spirit Within: Northwest Coast Native Art from the John H. Hauberg Collection, Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, and New York: Rizzoli, 1995; 118.
2 Bill Holm, Box of Daylight: Northwest Coast Indian Art, Seattle: Seattle Art Museum and University of Washington Press, 1983; 84.
Image: Sdláagwaal (horn ladle), ca. 1860, Haida, mountain sheep horn, 14 ½ x 6 ¾ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of John H. Hauberg, 85.356.
An encounter with a sea bear would not be easily forgotten. Among the Haida people, oral histories sustain the memory of this imposing, magical spirit, with its origins at the beginning of the world. A hybrid animal with features of the whale and bear, the sea bear had all the subtle swiftness of the whale and the predatory power of the bear, carrying the mass and presence of both. Traversing land and sea freely, it commanded respect in all domains. Rows of intimidating teeth, set in powerful jaws, made it so. On the back of its neck, a dorsal fin gave him stability and agility in the water, and when he emerged from its surface, as we see him do here, whomever he encountered would take notice.
Before I learned a little bit about this Haida Sea Bear Crest hat, I might have called it (adjective) animated, pointing out that I see a quality of life and energy reflected in it. Turns out that its maker also intended it to be actively (verb) animated, or even danced. It’s a hat, after all, and it was worn as part of a ceremonial costume. The sea bear marked the crest of a particular family or lineage, so displaying it was a show of family pride. Carved wooden hats—for me, even worse to think about wearing something wooden on your head than wearing something wooden on your feet, so gimme clogs—were common in the art of the Northwest Coast Native peoples. In literature, they’re sometimes called “helmets,” and that is maybe a term we would have an easier time connecting to the sea bear.
Over 150 years, wear to the paint and wood has made the hat’s features much more quiet than they would have been. Both carving and painted design were meant to contribute to a striking figure. Today, the red pigment that once animated the lips, tongue, and ears of the sea bear is only barely visible. Without looking closely, one might even miss his serious front claws.
Many people have played a part in the life of this piece, from its maker to its performers, and later, collectors. Two figures from this last category are especially significant to us. John H. Hauberg, who donated the piece in December of 1983, has been a hugely influential contributor to SAM. His foundational gifts established the Native art collection as a strength of the museum and placed it on a level of national regard. Interestingly, Hauberg actually acquired the piece from another well-known figure in this corner of the art world: Northwest Modern painter Mark Tobey.
The Sea Bear Crest hat features in the display Pacific Currents, on view now in our third floor galleries. If you find him, peer under the brim of the “hat” to get a better sense for how this artwork would have been worn and performed (and to see the fine work of our world-class mount-makers).
—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator
Images:Sea Bear Crest hat (Tsa.an Xuu.ujee Dajangee), ca. 1870, Haida, red cedar and paint, 10 1/2 x 15 3/4 in. Gift of John H. Hauberg, 83.228. Photos by Natali Wiseman.
Identified as “Giant” by the collector, we can only imagine how the dancer would have revealed the nature of the formidable being—part man, part bird—portrayed in this mask. Naxnox masked dance performances dramatize prestigious names of supernatural beings, including “Giant,” that make up the pantheon of powerful spirits.
Masks exhibit the greatest range of sculptural variation of all Northwest Coast art forms. The diversity of mask types and their uses reflects the unique cultural beliefs and ceremonial traditions of each group. Five new masks, including this Naxnox mask, were recently added to the Native American art galleries.
Naxnox Mask, ca. 1900, Git’ksan, Kitwancool Village, British Columbia, red cedar, paint, 15 3/8 x 12 3/16 x 12 3/16 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.49. Now on view in the Native American art galleries, third floor, SAM Downtown.
Hillaire carving the pole for Kobe, Japan, in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, 1961. Photograph by Harvey Davis. Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History and Industry.
Joe Hillaire Kwul-kwul-tu, (meaning “spirit of the war club”) was a man of indomitable spirit, grace, intelligence, and talent. For his Lummi people, he perpetuated song and dance traditions through the Setting Sun Dance group, was instrumental in reviving the Lummi Stommish water festival (and Chief Seattle Days at Suquamish), taught totem carving and canoe-making, and was a voice for social and political causes. Of parallel importance were his actions as a liaison between Native and non-Native people. He imparted knowledge of Lummi heritage to anthropologists Bernhard J. Stern and Erna Gunther (curator of the Northwest Coast Native exhibit at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair) and ethnomusicologist Willard Rhodes, as well as to the Boy Scouts of America and various school groups in the Seattle region. Hillaire also provided guidance to business and civic leaders, and traveled throughout the U.S. and to Japan with the objective of fostering inter-cultural friendships and bringing attention to Native culture.
Totem pole carved by Joe Hillaire, Kobe, Japan, 1961. Photograph by Lawrence Denny Lindsley, 1967. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division.
The 35-foot-tall pole depicted in the image to the right was carved by Hillaire in 1961 as a part of a two-pole project to call attention to the upcoming 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. Kobe is Seattle’s sister city and the story pole was a goodwill gift meant to point out commonalties between the two cities, ease the memories of WWII, and promote trade between the U.S. and Japan. Hillaire’s approach is richly symbolic: two sisters grow closer as they acknowledge the things they share, like the salmon, mountains and sea, and the rising sun (Japan) and setting sun (Seattle). The monster blowing a dark cloud symbolizes the darkness of war, while the sun alludes to the hope of peace.
Images from Joseph Hillaire’s Trip to Kobe, Japan (1961)
Joseph Hillaire and the Saga of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair Totems
Lummi artist Joseph Hillaire was commissioned to carve two story poles in connection with the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. In celebration of its 50th anniversary, we are remembering Hillaire’s contributions to the Century 21 Exposition in a series of weekly posts. Please check back each week or subscribe to our RSS to learn more about Joseph Hillaire and the Saga of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair Totems.
Top Photo: Hillaire carving the pole for Kobe, Japan, in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, 1961. Photograph by Harvey Davis. Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History and Industry.
Joseph Raymond Kwul-kwul’tu Hillaire (1894–1967) was an artist, storyteller, performer, Native activist, and diplomat. When Joe Hillaire was born, lingering distrust permeated Native-White relations. Many of Joe’s totem poles were created as civic monuments and served to bridge cross-cultural understanding, as well as to project the rich Lummi oral traditions.
Hillaire’s monumental carvings are “story poles”—the deeds of ancestral heroes and their encounters with supernatural beings appearing on both sides of the pole. When Hillaire learned carving from his father at sixteen, Coast Salish totem pole carving was a recent practice. While this art form was adopted in shape and size from northern Native groups, it displayed more naturalistic figures (adapted from traditional interior house posts) and arranged them in narrative fashion.
In 1961, Hillaire was commissioned to create two totem poles for the Seattle World’s Fair celebration, one to tour the United States to promote the Fair (and the unique heritage of the Northwest) and one for Seattle’s sister city, Kobe, Japan. The Land in the Sky Pole—which tells the story of the adventures of two brothers who enter the sky world—traveled to 300 cities and towns before itwas returned to Seattle for the April 21, 1962 opening of the Exposition. By the time it was completed the sixty-six year-old Hillaire having carved on it in twenty-five states! The Land in the Sky Pole was never erected at the Seattle Center but stood near Chief Seattle’s grave on the Suquamish reservation from 1963 until 2005, when it was deemed unsafe and taken down, and returned to his ancestral home, the Lummi reservation near Bellingham, WA.
Joseph Hillaire and the Saga of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair Totems
Lummi artist Joseph Hillaire was commissioned to carve two story poles in connection with the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. In celebration of its 50th anniversary, we are remembering Hillaire’s contributions to the Century 21 Exposition in a series of weekly posts, starting this week! Please check back each week or subscribe to our RSS to learn more about Joseph Hillaire and the Saga of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair Totems.
Hillaire and grandson, Ernie Lewis, 1950s. Photograph courtesy of Pauline Hillaire.
Hello SAM fans! My name is Lindsay Baldwin and, I am a (very) recent graduate of Western Washington University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication as well as in French. My number one passion is traveling. I was lucky enough to have lived in Edinburgh for six months. During breaks, I traveled extensively through Europe. I have visited many museums around the world and if I had to choose one of my favorites (besides SAM, of course!) it would have to be the Van Gogh Museum. I am very excited to be a part of this great museum for the next three months and cannot wait for the challenges that lie ahead.
If you have not yet checked out the Native American art that SAM has to offer, then I suggest that you put a tour of the galleries on your to-do list.