I had the pleasure of catching a great CBC interview with Sonny Assu and his recent work which intervenes Emily Carr works with Indigenous iconography. An idea which he was careful to emphasize was the 'colonial narrative' and the 'colonial landscape'. It resonated with me and the series I've been working on the last few years, I have always been thankful to have really thought this through before I started. Some say that I am overthinking it, and that art is art. But I strongly disagree. Contrary to one artist I know that takes complete freedom in her interpretations of the totems (and not Aboriginal herself), I have always stayed with recording close-ups (facets) of totems realistically, within a set time in their amazing lifespans, and not interpret them artistically. And, my art labels in my shows (or website) nod to the original totem(s), the masters who created them, and include background. Not allowing myself to interpret the totems or adapting the symbols and forms in other compositions, safeguards me against slipping into that 'colonial' vision or landscape. What is on my canvas is the totem, and the awe within me in its presence.
We Come to Witness: Sonny Assu in Dialogue with Emily Carr
December 3, 2016 to April 23, 2017
Artist’s Tour: Sonny Assu
We Come to Witness: Sonny Assu in Dialogue with Emily Carr
Saturday December 3, 1pm & 3pm
In the Gallery, 4th floor
I needed to take a few days from working on the icon commission to get a new portfolio prepared to continue the quest of introducing myself to local art galleries and art centers; getting each page formatted and adjusted if prints came out too dark. I'm happy with the final product. My only complaint about the 'Portfolio' binder is that it has no business card slot, and no pocket for a CD of its contents (which I can leave with a contact).
I haven't painted a new totem painting for a while within the Journeying With The Totem series. There have been several reasons, which I've been mulling over and over again.
1- the struggle in getting the series known
2- people having difficulty in visualizing each piece online, without the benefit of seeing them in person
3- finding venues that will exhibit them
4- the financial struggle limiting exposure
Which brings me to the main endeavor which needs to be addressed.
The ability to,
1) get support from Granting Bodies and
2) to find opportunities for ongoing dialog with First Nations Artists and Elders
The core issue for the body of work with this series is not simply a commercial one as many assume. Commercial to a point yes, in that sales are required in order to survive and continue with the work. I do not have the finances to simply paint and have a growing number of paintings in storage around me. And I've been told by a provincial and national granting body that one reason I wouldn't qualify is because my work is commercial! Commercial? For one, they haven't seen my work.
The other reason they site, is that I am not recognized as a professional artist as I have yet to invited by a professional gallery to exhibit some of my pieces, and not having received a fee for any of my past solo shows which were held in Community Arts Council Galleries. My body of work extends from 1980 with my iconography throughout Western Canada through the past 36 years, and with the Journeying With The Totems series which began in 2013, followed by 3 Solo Exhibitions and pieces selected for two other major Art Shows. This is where the 'commercial' niche that I get stuffed into causes me some grief.
One question that each granting body also asked was whether the series was in collaboration with a First Nations contact. It is an additional hurdle that I have because I myself am not Aboriginal, which I have always been very up front about. I privately have support from a number of First Nations Artists but it is too soon within the great Authentic Aboriginal initiative for that dialog around someone like myself who is on the fringe; not appropriating the work by carving copies or interpreting the totems inappropriately, but presenting close-ups while remaining true to what is there for the eye to see. There is no one else within this niche, which I created. I was asked by someone during one solo exhibition, whether I would consider teaching my technique to First Nation students. My answer was simple. Of course. So for now, there is no precedent in place yet for my work. So in the meantime, I continue to acknowledge the great works and the master that created them. I also do not allow myself any form of interpretation of the images by many artistic changes to their form etc.
The Journeying With The Totems is not a commercial venture, even though it was assumed that the subject of the great west coast totems was intrinsic to the West Coast and held a deep interest globally. But my goal was not to simply copy totems on canvas in order to attain commercial success, but to bring viewers to a new close up view of the totems, so that they could then have a new appreciation when they see them once again in person.
One recent Art Show highlighted another reality. One painting that sold received great reviews, primarily because of the colours. As a piece of art, that is a valid observation and interest. But it poses a problem for future paintings. If this was a purely commercial venture, choosing totem subject based on colours and popularity would become the driving force. But that isn't the goal of this project.
As I sit here next to my studio space, I see all my colour photocopies of totem sections on the wall, which are waiting to be done. There are some that would be more commercially plausible, but there are many which I just need to do even though they may likely not be of interest for smaller scale collectors. But these images are time capsules in a totem's life which need to be recorded. A photograph could suffice, as documentation, but a photograph doesn't have the same artistic impact and longevity. I believe strongly in the energy captured as being different in a painting from a photograph. A photograph can be truly wonderful and artistic through the photographer's eye, skill and timing. All comes into place with the click of that shutter, and edits through the great photo editors available now. But a painting, also based on the artist's eye and skill, takes days and weeks to develop and complete, especially when remaining visually true realistic. The effort (blood, sweat and tears) and passion is all part of that energy that a viewer encounters, and why the paintings in my series are tactile. Their response is similar to mine when I am in front of a totem, and they feel the vibration I feel from the life of the wood and carving a master has set within it. People just want to feel the canvas and 'the wood' that they see.
Long story short, this finally brings me to my specific need to successfully open the door with granting bodies.
To remain faithful to the goals and development of this series, I do need the support from granting bodies (or a benefactor). The need is two-fold.
1) to continue on the series and maintain my studio and living expenses and
2) to continue in my research and documenting the totems in their original environment (an example being Haida Gwaii, Alert Bay etc.). I need to be at ground level of the homes of the totems, and to take my own photographs of the close-ups and lighting that would support the paintings. Because I stay true to the originals, I need images that have loads of visual information to work from. I do not use my imagination.
But to break ground with the granting bodies, my checklist will have to be, addressing my professional status, collaboration with a First Nations Elder/advisor or artist, and then prepare the scope of the project for presentation.
At the moment, this artist is going through another bought of weariness and self-doubt, typical for an artist. But one's passion maintains the focus for the next day and so on. The struggle and sacrifice to survive and support a family can bear heavily on one's art. Some may consider this as foolish, but I have to trust that somehow, I will, in the end, make a difference in my art as my legacy.
Andre Prevost, began his work in theatre in the late 70s after completing his studies at the Banff School of Fine Arts, and in his iconography in 1980, and having a large body of work in each. He has since been based in Western Canada; North Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and now back on the West Coast.