Noble Eagle, 2014
24” x 36” x 1.5”
Part from a House Frontal Totem Pole which once stood before a dwelling named 'Plenty of Ilimen - Hides in this House.' It belonged to the clan named 'Those Born at Qadasgo Creek.' UBC MOA
Having done a few paintings now with more colour, I was drawn once again to the Eagle totem in the Indoor Collection at MOA UBC. I had always been taken by the decay in the wood and the loss of its beak which would have been a piece added into the totem (you can still see one slot where this piece was anchored inside the decayed area).
I felt more reassured that I could possibly do this totem justice now that I had developed my technique and had a better understanding of the subtleties in grays, wood tones coming through, and the orange rust colours of the decay.
The eyes, in addition to the very specific design and form, show how the one side of the totem (the left side in this case) has been more affected by the exposure to the elements. The lines have been distorted by it.
I used a mid gray tone as the base, and once the design was transferred onto the canvas, it took a few tries to get the mouth right, as it required visualizing the beak that was now missing, and understanding how the missing piece connected. I had a larger colour photocopy done of the area of the missing piece so that I could study what was going on there and understand the contours.
Once I had the initial overall colours done, I spent a lot of time on the decay and shadows. It took some moving forward and then taking steps back to gradually get the blend of colours just right. I gradually built up the brighter oranges and rust colours to those areas that caught more of the natural light (from the windows in the museum in this case). The decay was key for this piece. It so connected to a totem’s life span and how it remains beautiful and noble in it waning years. That is why I always had the title ‘Noble Eagle' in mind.
The totem section also catches some of the artificial light from above, especially on the forehead. Because of the cool quality of that lighting, I decided to add a bit more warmth to the wood tones coming through in order to keep the totem more natural.
One other note that I always find fascinating, is how a colour changes in relationship to those next to it. The case in point in this painting is the dark gray background colour. The colour, even though being the same, looked like two different colours (one on the left and another on the right). I ended up having to adjust the colour on the right to look more like the one on the left.
As I was working on this section, I was thinking of the shift that museums have brought about for the lifespan of the totem. It was problematic in that it became separated from its normal life span back to the earth it came from, and the notion of preservation, which was foreign. Wood cannot be preserved 100% in controlled environments and require interventions along the way to maintain it, but wood is wood. It’s lifespan has artificially been lengthened, but not permanently. But aside from these core concerns, including how many of these totems came to be in museums, a benefit for many of us, who are unable to get to the historical sites of the great totems, is that it has brought them to our centres and places of learning. I am also encouraged by how more and more museums are making efforts in keeping the First Nations people connected to their family treasures and artifacts and making them part of their documentation and preservation, and in cases, repatriating them back to the First Nations. I was taken by a documentary on the the lengthy efforts in repatriating the Haisla G’psgolox totem pole at the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm. It was especially moving to witness the moment that the Elders had come, and approached their totem. The parallel stories, for me, presented a clear picture of what seemed to be the dichotomy of this story, where both appear to be opposites. But with ongoing openness to dialog, and much effort and commitment, it was successful. But you could see the resolve from the Elders to bring their totem home, and the museum which, although supporting the need to correct the wrong done when the totem was taken, had a very difficult time with the idea of releasing it without assurance of its ongoing preservation (a core mandate of a museum).
Another very good documentary covering totems being saved can be viewed through the following link. It is narrated by Bill Reid. ‘Totems - Rescuing the timeless totems of SGang Gwaay': Historic Haida totem poles are salvaged from a deserted island village in B.C. in 1957.Digital Archives http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1659728755
So painting this series has never been simply an artistic activity. There are so many thoughts while painting and questions that come up. I have been fortunate to have access to the treasures of the MOA UBC and its extensive documentation, along with the wealth of information and videos online. My hope of hopes is that one day, my work and sincerity will speak for itself, and open the door for Prevost to continue his journey, learning and conversing with the First Nations artists.