Thunderbird Totem, 2014
24” x 24” x 1.5”
19th c Haida Pole from Skidegate on Haida Gwaii
Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia
After completing the Tattoo Ancestor painting, I wasn’t sure which direction to go. I had a number of images on file, but the one thing I knew for sure, was that I wanted to do another 24”x24” canvas.
The one limitation that I’ve adjusted to was having to work with available stock canvas sizes. It was too expensive to have special sizes constructed; not at this time anyway. My decision process is skewed in the sense that the image couldn’t dictate the canvas size, but that I had to crop images to fit the available stock sizes. It can be a limitation but then again, looking at different images through a ‘cropping’ eye does give me the opportunity of selecting the strongest image for the canvas. A key benefit for me is that it also solves my avoiding compositions that would require loads of general background in order to accommodate such features as a long beak or other extensions. I didn’t want the totem studies to become overpowered by the background(s), and basically becoming landscapes. Up until now, landscapes have never been a big draw for me.
But selecting an image for a square canvas has its own challenges given that totems are naturally better suited to rectangular imagery. In trying numerous croppings of assorted images from my ‘short list’ of options, I came across this one image while browsing online for Eagle totems. It was from the Australian museum. Even though the image itself was very small and of small resolution, I was intrigued by its composition and strength. It wasn’t until later that I correctly identify it as a Thunderbird totem (see *Note below).
The original picture was darker and had been edited to exclude all background spaces. So I chose to set it within the context of a sunny day and had to make choices in lightening the totem to better represent the sunlight. (This is a totem that strays with me and I may paint another one day, but setting it in a late afternoon sunset setting to bring out the deeper tones.)
This painting presented a further study as to how paint fades and wears with time and how paint colours completely change depending on the under base colour used (black versus dark gray etc.), especially with the reds. The eye and surrounding area needed adjusting a few times because of the upward angle of the face, and that wonderful outward gaze upon the world. Still relatively new on this journey, this affirmed how I need images with as much detail as possible, to guide me in what the carved wood is doing. So when in doubt, I default to less is more. It is better to produce what is there in the image rather then adding cracking and such that in the end, may or may not be on the totem. By adding what I think may be on the totem, I am making an artistic interpretation which I deeply believe I have no right to do. This is different from a few other non-Aboriginal artists who do approach the totems through their artistic styles and interpretations, and many from the First Nations communities have a range a mixed feelings on that. There is no denying that these artists works are beautiful and striking, but it’s an artistic choice that I do not feel comfortable with for myself. It is likely because of my experience with iconic work and my deep respect, which isn’t about the conceptualization and interpretation of art, but based on tradition and respect thereof. Some would argue that I am indeed interpreting, and I don’t necessarily disagree with them. I am using my style of painting to present the totems as I see them in real life and not from my mind’s eye or superimposition of underlying messages or themes. I see my current task as bringing these treasures to the public’s eye, in a new closeness and realism that it can only be experienced if people could get up the heights required to see the totems in the same way. After seeing the paintings, and the accompanying historical backgrounds and stories, my hope is that people can return and have a deeper appreciation for the same totems in real life.
*Note: As I was working on the painting, even though the museum’s site identified it as an Eagle, I wasn’t convinced because of the curved beak. Even when it came time to getting ready for the first exhibition in January 2015, and had prepared the art label for this painting, I double-checked my research online. I came across a few totem images from Alaska, which matched this totem exactly. The shapes, motifs and beak were all the same. Seeing that the one in the museum in Australia originally came from the same area, I was confident that this totem was in fact a Thunderbird and not an Eagle. I quickly prepared a new art label, but the owner of the painting has a bit of this background written on the back of the canvas, as it too had to be updated. :-)
This painting was purchased by Pam Straka, Parksville, BC