Object of the Week: Feast Dish

Crafted out of wood, paint, and opercula shells, Calvin Hunt’s monster Feast Dish, is a testament to the importance of food, community, and potlatch culture to the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of British Columbia. Born in 1956, Calvin Hunt is known for his monumental sculptures and is a well-respected artist from the Kwagu’l band located in Fort Rupert. Hunt’s feast dish provides a remarkable contrast to the typical Kwakwaka’wakw dishes.

As many partake in Thanksgiving celebrations, it is pertinent to recognize the cultural significance of the potlatch for the First Nations, along with the impact of the Canadian potlatch ban that restricted Indigenous peoples from practicing their traditions for over sixty years, only officially ending in 1951. The word potlatch, in Kwak’wala means “to give.” Potlatching for the Kwakwaka’wakw continues to this day and has been practiced for as long as spoken and written history can remember.

Feast bowls are carefully carved and ornamented by their creators, specifically designed for their use at potlatches that will hold delicious foods such as eulachon fish oil, seal meat, cranberries, and cinquefoil roots. Hunt’s bowl, however, was crafted specifically for SAM to coincide with the Chiefly Feasts exhibition in 1994. The feast bowl is modeled after Sisiutl, a three-headed sea serpent from Kwakwaka’wakw mythology, who can change between human and animal, along with morphing into a self-propelling canoe whose owner must feed with seals. Operculum shells encircle the mouth of the bowl. In nature, these shells protect marine gastropods (snails) from predators along with preventing the gastropod from drying up if they are exposed to air. With these operculum shells adorning the mouth of Hunt’s bowl where feast food is placed, along with this piece having been created shortly after the potlatch ban was lifted, it can be inferred that these shells are protecting the sacred tradition of potlatching from predatory laws.

Today, and every day, is an occasion to give thanks to Indigenous communities.

Seattle Art Museum acknowledges that we are on the traditional homelands of the Duwamish and the customary territories of the Suquamish and Muckleshoot Peoples. As a cultural and educational institution, we honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future. We also acknowledge the urban Native peoples from many Nations who call Seattle their home.

– Kari Karsten, SAM Emerging Museum Professional Curatorial Intern

Image: Lukwalil (feast dish), 1994, Calvin Hunt (Tlasutiwalis), Wood, paint, opercula shells, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 94.63 © Calvin Hunt.

Object of the Week: Kitchen Range

In 1959–1960 Walter Mattila organized a retrospective exhibition for the Northwest artist Earl Thomas Fields. The show had two venues: the public bank in Fields’ native Woodland, Washington; and a gallery in Mattila’s Portland, Oregon. Mattila was not a curator but a historian, one especially interested in Finnish immigration to the US. In the early 1970s, the Finnish American Historical Society of the West published volumes of Mattila’s work on the subject as the Finnish Emigrant Studies Series. He was understandably drawn in by the story of a young Finnish artist from the rural Northwest.

Earl Fields’ father Charles was the first native of Pielavesi, Finland, to settle in Woodland as a farmer. Like his father, Earl was a trailblazer. While his older brothers were pressed into logging jobs that would augment the farm’s income, Earl became the first Finn from the Woodland community to graduate high school and go on to attend the University of Washington. Earl was not only a strong thinker but a creative one. He earned his bachelor’s degree in fine art in 1925, and after traveling and sketching up and down the West Coast—sometimes joined on these trips by Kenneth Callahan, among others—Fields went on to attain an MFA, also from UW, in 1933. Still, his heart stayed with his family. Earl devoted the large part of his early work, from the 1920s up until World War II, to the Finnish people, and to farm life in the Woodland area.

Highly sensitive to the story of the Finns in the Northwest, Mattila wrote this about Earl Fields’ work in August of 1959:

There is not much left of the strange interlude of the Finnish emigrants in the Woodland country. Fortunately one of the Pielavesians was an artist and a brave one to persist being an artist in the hills. Even more than Americans today, the emigrants, Finns like others, had to keep a sharp eye on the dollar. To them a house painter was more of a performer than a portrait painter because he was sure of so much money an hour. And portraits weren’t bread.

Earl Fields painted the slashing Finns who lived in the disappearing forest on the fading frontier. His pioneers are genuine, simple, strong and resigned to their hard lot. The things they didn’t have—you feel that in his paintings.

The day will soon come when the spirit and people of this strange interlude in the Woodland hills survive largely in Earl Fields’ paintings.1

If this community’s history relied on being remembered in the painting of Earl Fields, then their history would be in danger, since Fields has been all but forgotten—unfortunately, in my view. Mattila may have been drawn to Fields’ work by the story, but its bare simplicity kept his attention. The visual element that Mattila found most gripping was Fields’ ability to depict a lack of things, a sense of going wanting. In paintings like Kitchen Range (1932) this feeling of poverty remains palpable.

Fields’ work as an artist is inextricably linked to SAM. He was part of the SAM family for nearly 40 years himself, and he also traveled in a circle of better-known artists, including Callahan, Morris Graves, and Mark Tobey, who were all heavily involved at the museum. During the Great Depression, SAM served an important social role in Seattle as an employer and patron of local artists, allowing them to continue creating. Fields was one beneficiary of that generosity. He first joined the museum as an assistant upon its opening in 1933. In 1941, he was appointed staff photographer, a role in which he earned a reputation as a meticulous and creative documenter of three-dimensional objects. He remained on staff until 1972, retiring from SAM just one year before Dr. Fuller, who had hired him.

Kitchen Range inspires thanksgiving in me because of “the things they didn’t have,” to borrow Mattila’s words. I’m thankful for bread; for the unique voices of artists and the stories they represent; for the diverse cultural histories remembered by their work; for the museums that have supported them and preserved their work so we might learn from it.

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Walter Mattila, “Finnish folk arrive at turn of century,” Lewis River News, Woodland, Wash., Aug. 12, 1959.
Image: Kitchen Range, 1932, Earl Fields (American, born Pielavesi, Finland, 1898; died Seattle, 1975), oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 32 1/4 in. Seattle Art Museum, Public Works of Art Project, Washington State, 33.216.

Object of the Week: Airstream Turkey

Our global culture is pretty good at making visual associations. As kids, many of us grew up pointing to the sky, calling out animals and faces suggested by the eccentric outlines of the clouds. Now, we play the meme game: How funny is Ryan Gosling if we cut him out of a movie role and paste him into all these different come-on scenarios? How well does a scrunched-up, pouty kid face express all your life’s frustrations? So funny! So well! And for me, it’s hilarious how quickly and creatively we make these connections. If a movie star or a top athlete makes a crazy face one night, there’s a trending meme of her or him the next morning.

In art, too, visual associations go a long way. They can be poignant, suggesting parallels across time and across cultures, causing us to re-think our views about the world. They can be as silly as a Ryan Gosling meme, putting a sign or symbol or person into a new context and pointing out just how important context is for how we understand these things.

Patti Warashina’s Airstream Turkey was born out of a similar, this-looks-like-that approach to digesting the huge diversity of images we experience every day, bringing together the forms of a trailer, a turkey, a bread loaf, and a chafing dish lid. Warashina applied low-fire glaze and low-fire luster to the ceramic piece, giving it the shiny metallic quality of a vintage trailer. Wings and feathers morph into streamlined horizontal details; reductive legs jut into the air like maneuverable levers. Airstream Turkey pranks us visually and playfully, thoughtfully keeping the eye engaged.

With her idea of a turkey vehicle, Warashina seems to have been onto something. Just such an avian Airstream makes a notable appearance in Tom Robbins’ 1990 postmodern novel Skinny Legs and All, in which the First Veil opens:

“It was a bright, defrosted, pussy-willow day at the onset of spring, and the newlyweds were driving cross-country in a large roast turkey.

The Turkey lay upon its back, as roast turkeys will; submissive, agreeable, volunteering its breast to the carving blade, its roly-poly legs cocked in a stiff but jaunty position, as if it might summon the gumption to spring forward onto its feet, but, of course, it had no feet, which made the suggestion seem both empty and ridiculous, and only added to the turkey’s aura of goofy vulnerability.

Despite its feetlessness, however, its pathetic podalic privation, this roast turkey—or jumbo facsimile thereof—was moving down the highway at sixty-five miles an hour…”

Today, let’s do some associations around the word “Thanksgiving”: gratefulness—smiles—family—love—warm food—mashed potatoes and gravy.

Happy (postmodern) Thanksgiving from SAM!

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGE: Airstream Turkey, ca. 1969, Patti Warashina, American, 1940- , earthenware with low-fire glaze and low-fire luster, 9 1/2 x 9 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Anne and Sidney Gerber, 94.86, © Patti Warashina.

SAM Art: Giving thanks

The Seattle Art Museum gives thanks for the hundreds of women artists whose work we collect and display, including the many talented artists currently included in Elles: Pompidou and Elles: SAM.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

The Seattle Art Museum is closed on Thursday, 22 November, in observance of the Thanksgiving Day holiday. We are open on Friday, 23 November, our normal hours (10:00am – 9:00pm).

Circumvolution, ca. 1943, Helmi Juvonen (American, 1903-1985), tempera on canvas, 24 x 36 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 43.32. Not currently on view.