An artist’s life has its bumps along the way, and like most, an artist also wrestles with different levels of self-doubt along the way, and needing some level of acceptance in assessing growth and success.
With the opening of the first exhibition of the Journeying With The Totems series earlier this year, I was prepared for the inevitable questions about my not being Aboriginal and the background on how the series came to be, and why. I was prepared because I had fully thought out these points before I began the series, and I was solid in my intent and respect for the great works of the West Coast First Nations Masters; a reason why I credit the history and carvers on the exhibit art labels.
A few First Nations art student came through during the first exhibition and I will always value our conversation. They understood the series, and appreciated the sincerity and respect, which is the driving force behind the paintings. I also understood that I was in an awkward positioning for my First Nations contacts, conscious that they would be cautious about a public acceptance of my work, for fear of setting a wrong precedent. With the wonderful ‘Authentic Aboriginal’ movement, which is the prime focus at this time, it isn’t time yet for that dialog around the question about someone like myself, and how I fit on that fringe. Realistically, acceptance may or may not come in time, but my hope is that eventually, I may be allowed to follow along on the side for the journey.
One thing that I wasn’t prepared for, and which surprised me as to how it has stayed with me since, was having an artist that I know, asking me to meet over coffee. I know the artist’s work and have supported it. But I had suspected for some time that the artist and the artist’s fan base were having a problem with my series. The artist’s body of work also includes some totem paintings.
The meeting went pretty much as I was expecting but it still shocked me. The artist shared the struggle about my totem series and how the fan base was also upset with it. It basically came down to the belief that the totems were the artist’s turf. And yet, this artist is also non-Aboriginal. It was also shocking in that the artist never took time to actually see the exhibition, which was practically next-door to where we met for coffee. It seems there was no intent on the artist’s part to see the exhibit for what it was, if nothing else then being respectful and experiencing what something actually is first hand before drawing conclusions. The artist’s goal was to express one’s struggle and tears because of my work. It saddens me on a certain level as it came about from an artist that I know and had considered a friend. On the one hand, I always appreciate dealing with concerns and clearing the air. Not an easy thing to do, but important to move ahead and grow. But I didn’t get any feeling that this is what had occurred in this meeting. It felt more like I had been made aware of the artist’s displeasure and struggle, and that was the primary goal.
While stunned, I decided to take the high road at the time and explained that no artist has a permanent claim to any niche developed in the process. It will inevitably evolve and other artists will be influenced by it and develop it in their own way. Even for myself, I have a particular niche for the style and focus of my Journeying With The Totems series, but I also know that it is finite. I also know that if my work evolves with other artists, their work will not be mine. Mine will always be my work and my style.
I also iterated that, even though we artists all hope to develop a line of work that has longevity, notoriety, and some financial stability, there are no guarantees. It is the nature of art.
It would never occur to me to do to an artist what this artist did to me. I can only attribute the reason to insecurity. But even so, even if the thought ever occurred to me that another artist was in competition with me, it would never bring me to presuppose my entitlement and express my discomfort and displeasure to the other artist. That would be disrespectful of the artist and the artist’s work. If I find myself envious of another artist, it is my responsibility to work through that within myself. If I am envious or feel that the an artist doesn’t have the right to do similarly themed work, it is not the other artist’s doing, and it doesn’t give me the right to challenge the artist nor feed the displeasure with those around me. No artist has a claim or stake to any particular theme, style etc. Having a fan base is important to an artist, and I understand the sincerity of fans in wanting to defend and support their artist, but they too are making a error in this or any such case, by building resentment within the artist for any other artist perceived as competition, or infringing on their artist’s work. Anyone who is familiar with both of our paintings of the totems, will clearly see how distinct each style is from the other, and how the intent and focus of each series are so different. One doesn’t inform the other. We both approach the totems out of our love for them. That is where the similarity ends.
My series doesn’t interpret or visualize the totems in an artistic style not found within the totems themselves. Such visualizations are an artistic choice, which is normal in the grand scheme of things, and produces wonderfully strong images. But with my going into the totem series, it was clear to me that I didn’t have the right to interpret the totems in that way, but that I could make choices as to which facets of each totems I wanted to focus on and bring close to the viewer. And that being my artistic choice, my responsibility is then to present what was there, the carving by the masters and wood aging and evolving together. It isn’t my heritage to impose my artistic interpretation. That is why I have also never done any of the masks as they were specifically for private use by First Nations.
So months later, I found that I still needed to process this experience. My intuition tells me that there are still some that continue to disparage my work in this series. I can’t do anything about that and my hope is that they will come to see that I am aware and that I hold no ill will. But in the end, I can’t dwell on this. Having aired this concern of the heart, knowing that I can’t do anything about what other people think or do, the Journeying With The Totem series stands on its own feet and all this will have no bearing on its value and merit. The series will continue exhibiting and run its course for as long as it needs to. It will be mine to determine when that point arrives, either when I feel that the totems wanting to be painting have run their course or for financial reasons. Lastly, as an artist, my hope is that the paintings will have continued success in connecting the public with the totem in a different way and be appreciated for what they are. I also wish the other artist (and all artists) great success in the wonderful work being done.
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.