August 4, 2010: My work with 'Journeying with the Totems'
I watched the video ‘Haida Modern’ which featured Robert Davidson, his life , breathtaking work, and wisdom, and included features of his children and grandchildren. I am always moved by such videos, and awed by what these treasured artists have and are contributing. But it accents my persistent melancholy, underscoring the questions that I’ve wrestled with for that past few years about my own work with the Journeying with the Totems series. When I see the vital work and contribution that these artists have done in the restoration and development of their Culture(s) and Heritage, and to History, it shines a light on how inconsequential my own artwork really is within the grand scheme of things. It has no part or bearing with the amazing work they do. I am just this artist on the periphery, capturing life span snapshots of their work, a facet of which many viewers are either not aware of or haven't paused to notice.
That word 'inconsequential' weighs on me at intervals in my life. It comes from being outside the box, both in the iconography and the Journeying series; never having a niche or sense of belonging, nor having a sense of what contribution I may have made along the way. My son has been patient in listening to me going over questions on my mind, and sharing thoughts, as I attempt to find answers for my journey forward. It is his belief in my work, and sharing in it, that sustains me.
As those who are aware my work, my website and Facebook pages, know that I am not from an Indigenous Culture or Heritage, as I was not from the Byzantine Rite in my work in Iconography. But after 40 years of work in Iconography, I needed to grow in my art. After much thought and deliberation in assuring my works foundation and integrity, doing studies of the aging totems was a natural bridge. It required the same faithfulness to the originals, and letting them guide me. They too are iconic, requiring the same respect and attention to detail. Mine is not to be ‘artsy’ but to remain faithful to the truth that is there. With the ‘Journeying with the Totems’ series, the prime goal is to capture the beauty of the aging totems within a particular moment in their life spans; honoring the aging cedar which bears the stories and images carved into it, and how nature does what nature does. They will never look the same way again in the following days, weeks, months, years to come. Their appearance may be frozen in time in the series, but not so in real life, as nature continues its course until each totem reaches the end of its life cycle. That is my passion and my skill set.
But in the past two years, a feeling of being in a corner and surrounded in a growing silence prevails, as I try to move forward and survive. Even art shows are now reluctant to consider my work, as there is no clear understanding or approval for what I do. I remain hopeful in eventually be able to speak openly with an Elder, and work through what the goals, thoughts and questions have been, and what needs to be adjusted. It is always a risk for an artist, but one that comes with being true to one’s work. My integrity and sincerity are vital to me, along with my deep respect and support for First Nations Peoples, Culture, Rights, Authentic efforts against appropriation and fraud, and Repatriation. I am also aware that all this time, I’ve been alone in my studio with my ‘inside thoughts and ponderings’. I can only hope that should the opportunity to dialog comes, that I will be able to verbalize these thoughts and questions in a coherent way. I know that my work is in a new grey zone. I’m not carving, carving copies, and avoiding artistic improvisations (artsy). I suppose some would argue that I am improvising or interpreting, but within my mandate of realism and being true, I would state in return that the extent of interpretation would be the cropping choice that I’ve made to feature a totem section within an available canvas size. My only improvisation would be my creation of a new style of painting with my fingers to better support being true to the patinas and textures of the carved cedar poles. There could be no paint brush strokes as they are not present on the actual totems.
Why not other art? It’s a natural question to pose to an artist. Many will assume that one size fits all, that all artists operate in the same manner. We all have different passions behind our work, in our need to create. When it comes to why I do what I do, the two key priorities from the start have been: a) to provide for my family and b) my need to do ‘big’ work. I use the term ‘big’ as I do not wish to be misunderstood as implying that not all art is vital and important. Artists fill a multitude of needs within human life; answering questions and posing others, serenity, beauty, a happy place, confronting issues, celebrating Culture and Heritage, designing the everyday needs, etc. The artist in me is drawn to, and needs to be, in the powerful meticulous work of iconography and the realistic captures of the aging totems. It’s my skill set.
Why not just take photographs? There are countless photographers doing just that. Many take photos of the totems and masks, copyright them, then sell them in various forms, and even requiring a reference fee. Aside from the questions around this practice, the main problem with a digital image is that the viewer is looking through a pane of sorts to view the image. There’s a separation between the two. With the closeup canvases that I do, I intentionally use unframed exhibition canvases so that nothing detracts from the totem (including no signatures on the front). There is no pane to look through. The totem is right there. Many viewing the series in an art show had stated that they could smell the cedar and had to resist the urge to feel the wood. The totems were speaking. It’s a personnel connection that doesn’t happen with a photograph of the same. To my knowledge, I am the first in this niche.
But because of who I am, and very aware of it, am I overthinking it? But then, my inability to begin a dialog around these very questions, and the silence following my inquiries, weighs upon me. I continue to hope. I’ve always checked, and double checked, that I’m not inadvertently superimposing anything from the lens I was born into. Even with the efforts to remain true, and acknowledging the background and carvers of the originals, even though I am not aware of being within cross-hairs, I feel that I've become a discomfort, a hot potato which no one know how to open a dialog with? Being here in my wee humble studio in Cassidy BC, it’s impossible to assess. I’ve had some (online) just say that I should not worry about it, that art is art. 'Just do what you want to do'. What I do is not just art, and there’s a difference doing what you want to do and doing what you need to do. And with that need comes all the other layers of respect for Cultures and safeguarding the integrity of the work which was never wrapped in any form of validation of the originals, icons or totems. They have no need of any validation. They are the treasures that they are, and there is nothing I can add to them.
Footnote: All my Journal entries are in a Blog format, Anyone reading through them can respond below, or can send my a private message through my CONTACT.
June 5, 2010;
Just wanted to share a moving experience today, which once again brought me to the reality of working in Iconography. I've often shared with my son how, after all the years, I still feel as an unknown, and that the momentum of my work remains spotty at best. But I came across two real time live streams on You Tube that put before me something that I've always known (on a certain level) but never having witnessed. Both were live streams with the Moleben in honor of Christ the Lover of Mankind, from Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church in Winnipeg MB.
The first live stream was from June 3rd. I was surprised to see an icon which I did back in 1997. I was touched by it. The second live stream was this afternoon, and I caught it in real time. This time, the vested priest led the Moleban in front of the icon with a few parishioners singing the responses. I was overwhelmed by that reality that once my work as the iconographer is completed, my part is finished. The icon takes on its own life of veneration, and the hands that were part of its creation no longer matter. It's a fact that I've always understood, even though it does leave you feeling isolated.
But to receive this gift of being present for a real time stream was a blessing indeed. It was both humbling and surreal at the same time. I knew I was there with the parishioners, all the while still being in the background and invisible. I so deeply appreciated the live stream and was moved by witnessing the devotion to the icon. It was all as it should be. I know my connection to the icon while also knowing that no one else in this moment did. And nor should they. It comes with being an iconographer. In this moment I am no different from another other participant before the icon. It keeps me humble and filled with gratitude that these unworthy hands played their part.
May 10, 2020;
I'd been working on detailing on the icon, but with the combination of COVID-19 and the cancellation of the ferry sailings between here and Horseshoe Bay on the Mainland, delivering the icon was going to be delayed indefinitely. This opened some time to think everything through and reevaluate. The realities of the corona virus weighs on my ability to keep supporting my family through my iconography and artwork. I had to take some time to ponder what the options were or could be, and how I can best proceed forward. Is there a way to adjust what I do and still be reasonably assured that I can recover from this pandemic; making a base income to keep the home front afloat? An artist can always experiment with various art forms, but the reality is such that, when developing a new focus, one has to start from scratch in getting any momentum for sales. And that takes time and financial stability to get through such a period. But this artist lives hand to mouth.
It is impossible to know when icon commissions could be possible for clients, as this pandemic will affect each in very different ways. I am searching for the best way of moving forward with the totem studies, hopefully with trust from some First Nations. So these are weighty times. I've gone in circles in my thoughts around all this, but I keep coming back to my passion for the icons and for the totems studies!
The past week has been about gathering my thoughts and transposing them onto paper. I need to get that sorted out for myself to remain clear about my goals and priorities. You always need to review and reassess as you move along. I believe that I've reached a point where I've done that, and having reached out to a key contact in the hope of counsel, I now need to get back to Chiwatenhwa's icon. He has been patient and has guided the way. I am also grateful of my followers being patient, waiting the see the completed icon. It will come.
April 23, 2020:
Hmmm. With art income becoming a bigger challenge with COVID-19, I’ve been wondering what else I can try adding to my body of work. I’m so vested in, and connected to the icons and totem close up time capsule painting series. It’s what my passion has been and what my inner eye sees. It also matches my skill set. I’ve ordered a few supplies from Opus but without a definitive plan. I’m not one to venture into what everyone else is doing. There’s the challenge.
But in the meantime, I do have 2 icons to complete (from before the pandemic) and then I will go back to the Tlingit Wolf canvas that I had started in the winter. It’s a complex piece. I’ll take some time then to experiment and explore, hoping to find something new that works.
But don’t get me wrong. I’m not abandoning my iconic work. I’m always hoping for ongoing icon commissions, but also in the development of a trust relationship with West Coast First Nations, guiding my path in the realism time capsule paintings of their treasured totems: capturing them within a point in their life cycle, and how the wood and carvers’ work have aged together.
January 18, 2018:
A few months have gone by since my last Journal entry for the totem paintings at the end of October. A few things were at play.
Being the artist, the quest of survival on the home front is always a going concern.
The totem series is especially so in that, even though some question where the artist is in my work (seemingly devoid of interpretation and personal messaging), it remains a passion and a love. There are so many totems that I hope to experience in person, and photograph from my perspective; angle and lighting being especially important. There are so many that I would dearly love to capture close-up facets, within the time capsules of their lives. But the hurdle at this time is getting past all the questioning and re-rediscovering my original passion with the series. It wasn't about a commercial interest, but it gets challenged when struggling to make ends meet. The pressure to produce naturally railroads the process and as an artist, I always need to find my way back to allowing myself to respond to the totems and give them the time they require.
I do have those two canvas which are near completion, but I wasn't in the right head space in November. I didn't want to force them. Another icon project came up in early November. It turned out that the project came from two different sources but for the same prototype. Each icon would be of Rose Prince, better known as Rose Of The Carrier. It is now January 18th and I'm in the process of painting after a month and a half of research, and numerous design directions. Once I get these two icons completed, I will have to get right back to the two totems ASAP as the pressures of the home budget always remain.
It was encouraging to read the few positive comments on Facebook after JD Stevenson Gallery's posting about the recent sale of 'Blue Totems'. But as with my iconography after so many years, I always seem to be the one still to be discovered for the most part. It would be so nice to hear from those who have commissioned or purchased my work. Otherwise, an artist works alone in the studio without that important feedback in moving forward.
Heart-felt regards to all.
January 20, 2018: Memory of Solo Show
As I am painting the icon for Rose Of The Carrier, and because of its quiet meditative nature, I have the CD of 'Native American Flute + Ocean Waves' playing in the background. But in addition to its quiet, peaceful setting, it is also such a nice way to stay connected to Rose Prince while painting.
But it is also bringing memories of my solo show of 'Journeying With The Totems', the one where I was often present. I know that it was a bit of a strain for the volunteers at the centre, who had an eclectic collection of CDs to brighten their days while supervising the shows, but Jazz and such didn't suit a space filled with totems. It didn't have the quiet serenity of a totem in its natural state. I am very thankful to those volunteers who were so supportive, and understanding and accommodating of an artist, and went along with the CDs that I had provided.
One memory, in addition to the beautiful eagle's chanting in the tree tops as the show was being set up, was of a gentleman, who came a few times, pulled a chair and sat in the centre of the room, and just 'be' with the totems. He would quietly sit for up to an hour. The room became highly charged for me in those moments, as it so strongly spoke to me that the totems were speaking. That fact was always evident as people came through to experience the series.
Just thought I'd share that with you.
June 16, 2018: Thoughts
As with my iconography, my close-up Journeying series would be seen by some as more craft then Fine Art. They aren't 'artsy' within the conventional definition of the art world perse. But they are indeed Fine Art, even if they are based on traditional norms and forms. I was first exposed to the art of artsy speak in Banff, but even though I understood it, it just didn’t resonate with me, nor was it appropriate to the work I was doing. Probably because of the nature of my work, I’ve always held to my belief that my art spoke for itself, within its solidity and structure, and from its own passion and love. I’m sure if I was following the path of more interpretive works, then yes, I would need to guide the viewers in how to understand or appreciate what they see. When there is an opportunity to dialog about my work, opinions change (or at least open). The notion of artsy (interpretation) is confined given the focus of the work and honouring the deep traditions of the cultures and the masters. As with photographers, there is a difference between just taking pictures at whim, and that of the thoughtful and artistic choices in selecting a shot (or canvas), with the 'eye' and skills at work. That ‘eye’ and particular set of skills are what separates ones images from other photographers (or painters). Art is all about what comes from within, and the need to create it. Art is also very subjective in how each person responds to it. I may not be seen as a prolific artist, as my pieces are very extensive and require great amounts of time an effort, often a minimum of a month or more. But I am so grateful to be able to create these pieces, even if it means being impoverished. My body of work is my heart and heart. I am also grateful for all artists and their contribution to our world, even though many may not receive accolades within their own lives. Our world would be bleak without it.
April 22, 2017: Musical Easels
My living room, which has become more studio then living room, is a game of rotating, musical easels. The two paintings on the floor have been relegated to the back burner for now, as I need to complete the commissioned Brown Bear painting on the easel on the right, and proceed with the commissioned Blackfoot Sacred Heart Icon on the left. The two paintings on the floor need to be completed in time for submission to the 2017 Sooke Fine Arts Show.
I'm in the final stretch with the Brown Bear, working in the wood grain details.
I just got the icon design inked in this morning. There will be adjustments as I move forward and as I begin to block in the base colours.
October 25, 2017:
It has been slower going in recent weeks. There are those dips in the road where an artist feels the weight of the work and the pressure of trying to support ones family and its medical needs. But even if the progress hasn't been as well as I would like, it is important to trudge along in any case, and work through it.
I was tackling the detailing of the Brown Bear Totem painting, but I was overtaken by the need to begin another totem section. This has been an essential part of this journey with the totems, allowing them to draw me, each in their own time. In light of the dialogs around appropriation concerns, with concerns of First Nations designs being used or re-interpreted by non-Indigenous artists or companies as an example, mine is not to create new artworks in the conventional sense. Mine is not to interpret. I suppose that this self-discipline comes from my years in Byzantine Iconography, where to, I have always trusted the Masters and respected the forms, traditions, symbolism, colours, etc. In doing so, my works avoided error and inadvertently posing questions or scandal. The same can be said for this series, this journey with the totems. I allow myself to respond and to use my skills to capture what I see, and all the details within. It is imperative that I keep adjusting the forms and lines as required, until they are as exact as need be (aware of how precise these forms are from Nation to Nation, imparted with their meaning and movements). I trust the image of the totem and the Master's creation. My task is to capture a facet of a particular moment in time within a totem's life span, preserving the Master's vision and skill. And unlike a photograph, the canvas painting brings a viewer, while remaining true to the original totem, an experience of vibrancy from the totem; the same which I feel when I come in contact with it in real life.
So, being free from trying to come up with an artistic concept for a painting, I can follow the images of various totems as they beckon. And they do.
April 7, 2016:
The move on April 1st turned out to be hellish. We had to leave some important items behind as we ran out of space on the truck, and managed to get on the last ferry crossing of the day! It was 11:30pm by the time we arrived at our new home. My son and I slept on the floor that night.
There has been so many things to take care and things that we need to replace now that we are in our mobile home. We are still surrounded by many packed boxes etc. I will be glad to be passed the point of unpacking and finally being able to sort out our new lives here on Vancouver Island. I am anxious to set up my studio of sorts. Storage is our main hurdle in the new place.
But I am so looking forward to getting back to my painting. The piece and quiet here, and our small wood stove will be conducive to my artwork. I truly hope that the artwork will sustain the monthly expenses, over and above the housing, pad fee, and municipal taxes which my fixed income will cover. It is always an artist's catch-22 when one has to find employment, even when part-time. It inevitably limits the studio time.
April 27, 2016 Moving Forward
I'm taking it one day at a time, aware that much needs to get done, and timelines to meet. This particular move had an added component, even though having more living space for my son and I, I didn't have adequate storage for my reference books, archives, etc. I've had to be brutal in my purging (which began when we ran out of space on the rented truck on April 1st). 27 days later, most of the boxes have been dealt with, even though there are still some things that I haven't found yet. Every square inch of available storage space is used up, and I have enough garbage and paper recycling to fill the van.
I was finally at a point yesterday where I could safely unpack both the St. Thomas Aquinas icon and the Thomas Merton icon. I can now gradually get back to writing those, knowing that I have two critical items to take care of as well; filing my 2015 taxes (which I still need to sort through) and preparation of my submission for the upcoming Sooke juried Art Show this summer. The booklet of Patent Palladium (25 - 3"x3" sheets) arrived yesterday for the Thomas Merton icon. It will be an interesting introduction to working with Palladium. I'd always avoided any silver leaf or white gold as both tarnish. But Palladium has a silver finish and doesn't tarnish. But it will be a different process as i will need to use a different base colour other then the traditional red bole for gold. One question that I need to check into is the sealer that I use. It is pretty clear and has very little colour to it when new. But all varnishes darken a bit with time, which is fine for gold leaf, and I'll need to test it on a sample to see if it alters the silver finish. If so, I will have to order a new sealer from Calgary.
My new studio space is definitely different from the one in my previous condo, but as with all spaces, there are pros and cons to each. There have been a few trade-offs.
- My new studio space is less defined but the living room nook is adjustable as required.
- I have lots of natural light whereas my previous studio had none. My studio table has a northern window and the easel area has an eastern exposure.
- I have no way of adding track lighting in the new space but I've improvised 2 mic stands with clip-on halogen flood lights which may be a bit too bright but I can adjust their positions as I need.
October 11, 2016:
It never surprises me when a new icon goes down a different direction then originally planned, especially when a new design is in the works. I received a voice mail yesterday from Father Laboucane with a simple enough question for the icon, which set another level of thought into motion. I had a great chat with him today which allowed me to process my thoughts and address my own footing in the process, in that it always came from a sincere place and sensitivity to the community the icon is for.
So the icon is percolating and will guide as always. I'll redevelop the design within this new direction. I'm sorry that I can't go into the particulars of the transition at the moment. I want to receive a seal of approval on the new design before I present it online. All I can say, is that it will be completely new, and with a focus that addresses a need.
March 23, 2015:
My very expensive installment of archival quality paint has arrived, minus the Cadmium Red that is still to come. It has more then doubled in price over the last few years and no longer available on Canadian Art Suppliers' shelves. How much you ask? For this shipment of 9 - 16 oz jars along with the Red still to come, came out to $1300 after a good discount.
It can only be special ordered directly from Golden in the States now. It technically hasn't been discontinued but you have to pay through the nose to get it. Some of my favorite colours like Phtalo Blue and Cadmium Red Dark can't be ordered anymore. :-(
And people don't believe you when they ask you about your costs... But this High Load paint can't be compared to the regular acrylic paints. Its signature is a much greater % of pigment in the paint. You can use a fair bit of water without losing the intensity of the colours, and it doesn't fade over time. I work very thinly in my style.
May 30, 2015 : Mixing Colours
I do love to mix colours. It is my favorite thing to do. I am thankful that I have had a keen sense of colour. It is usually a challenging task as there are so many choices to make and determining what colour(s) is missing.
A colour is one thing on its own, and then there is the fact of how an acrylic colour changes when it dries. Then there is using the same colour on two sides of the icon (or canvas) and it looks like two different colours, in relationship to the other colours next to it.
Deciding on the base colours (and combinations of) for a piece often requires tweaking; too bright, not bright enough, too cool, too hot, a blue looks grey, or green, a colour looks dead next to the other base colours, etc. And as any legitimate artist will attest, white and black rarely factor in as these with make a colour muddy. I did have someone who said they had taken post secondary art courses for awhile, and advised me to use white and black to brighten or mute a colour! Ummm! No!
For example, I wasn't happy with a starting colour tonight which was an orangy red ( almost a Cadmium Red Light ). It looked too orange against the other Phthalo Green colour. Adding a darker Cadmium red corrected the orange but turned it too much to red and still not dark enough. So I added some Burnt Sienna to darken it and to add some red brown to it. It still was looking too red against the Phthalo Green so I added a bit of Cadmium Orange which did the trick. Now, how to describe the final colour... a coral/redish brown? Thankful that I don't have to give a precise name for it, it just works. But no white or black anywhere.
I will use some white to create lighter tint of a colour but never just white alone. I will always add another colour if I want to gradually work to cooler, warmer, pinker, bluer, as I go along. For darkening a shade of a colour, I will very rarely use black. Depending on the colour, I will use Burnt Umber for warm colours, Raw Umber for cool, but my all time favourite is Anthraquinone Blue. I generally avoid black in my iconography as it generally represents an absence of God's Light. What will seem black in my icons is anything from the Anthraquinone Blue, a dark Violet, a dark green or blue, a dark grey etc. They will vary depending the other colour(s) they are with. The same goes for white as highlights. Most often the highlights are very light pinks, blue, etc. but appear as white in relation to the other colours.
And there's the whole problem of mixing greys!! A tricky colour. Some of the challenges stem from the black being used as many commercial paints can have any number and ratios of colours mixed into them. It can make for surprises when you add it to colours or to white. Many will be variations of a warmer black (brown black) versus a blue black which is easier to control.
Sept. 30, 2015:
When I started in iconography 30+ years ago, I was virtually alone in the field in Western Canada and I was able to fill a need within both Latin and Byzantine churches. But in resent years, there has been a great surge of iconographers and students of iconography, and with it, for the most part, I have been left to the side. I suppose it is a natural cycle, but difficult none the less, as I have reached my retirement years with only a small CPP and Old Age Security. Artists don't have any retirement plans and benefits. I had also hoped that a mural project that I had presented to a parish would someday be finalized, by I was recently informed that the committee had decided to go with a American iconographer, whose style they preferred. Another reality in a artist's life.
In the back of my mind, I have always known that I would have to keep earning an income in my old age, so long as my health allowed. I had not thought for a moment that there would come a time when I would be discriminated against because of my age, making finding employment next to impossible. Employers either set your resume aside as being too old, being over experienced, or not willing to take the time to see how I can be of use to them. They have the false notion that they can get more longevity out of a younger employee, while stats show that younger employees are on the move and looking for other opportunities.
So, in faith, I gambled everything to make a go once again of working at my iconography and painting full time, as I had just as much of a chance having enough sales and commissions while being in my studio using my gifts, and matching working full time at an entry level minimum wage job (and not having any time to be in my studio). Even if my health diminished some, I can still paint, while a job becomes finite.
But after 2 years+ I seem to have reached a major hurdle where I just no longer have the finances to continue, and the horizon seems totally empty of future prospects. This makes me of heavy heart, and very concerned about that may mean for myself and my son who I support because of his disability. So there is much to think over while keeping myself open in discerning other doors that may present themselves - an hopefully VERY SOON.
Grateful for those who have supported me and believed in my work along the way, and I remain hopeful that God will smile upon this lowly artist.
My son recently recommended that I keep a journal about my transition in my painting, especially with the totems. I guess it always comes down to time and the real fact that, during a major transition, you are too preoccupied with the stresses and challenges on hand. When leaping into a new direction, there is no way to know what is around the corner on any given day. Adjusting and coping day to day makes it somewhat difficult to take a step back to take an overview of the progression (or regression) to date. I suppose it wouldn't hurt to just jot down notes each day and not worry about making sense of it all (the big bigger) until later. But it hasn't been my pattern to journal my art activity through the years, especially during the 35 years in iconography.
In my iconography, aside from my simply monogram and year the icon was written on the back of an icon, the nature of the work generally requires a certain level of anonymity. There is the catch-22 where on one hand, you need to promote yourself in order to become known and get more commissions, but then, with sacred works, the icons themselves have nothing to do with the iconographer when venerated or contemplated. On a few occasions, I was even challenged that I put my monogram on the back of each panel. For some church commissions, when the back of the icons needed to have the same wood finish as the iconostasis it is set within (the frame or screen in front of the sanctuary in the Byzantine Rite), the monogram can't be included. But if you play the anonymity too well, you find yourself still virtually unknown after building a significant body of work. Also in iconography, the artist can't see himself/herself as a typical creative artist, but bound to creating within a tradition which has very distinct guidelines and restrictions.
So, in transitioning back into my original painting from years ago, the ingrained iconographic work ethic is hard to set aside and open up again to the possibilities of creative options. Faced with that blank white canvas, where do you begin? The acrylic medium was a given, but what do I start with? The first step was to return to a painting I had started back in 2010, of a young seal peering through an ice hole. When I had reached the half way point on it, the realities of unemployment in Winnipeg were such that I had to take drastic action and look for work elsewhere. (It was an incredibly difficult time for my son and I. He, as a young man now, had decided that he wanted to stay in Winnipeg, and would rent a place with his buddies. So the whirlwind of finding a job led to Vancouver and the most complicated move of my life. The painting was packed along with the studio and off I went; heart-broken to leave my son behind. In 2011, my son joined me on the west coast.)
Once finally getting to complete the seal painting 'Welcome World' in 2013, I was back to that blank white canvas! Always interesting how powerful a blank canvas is.
It was important to think through where I came from and what direction would make sense for me. Precision and detail had been so ingrained from my iconography. From that tradition, what do I use as a jumping off point! I have never considered myself a landscape artist, nor saw myself as having that particular skill. But then, artists are their own worse critics.
With some pointers on multimedia techniques from an artist friend, I decided to try my hand in doing a 24'x24' multimedia piece. Using 4 selected images of ancient icon faces and transferring them to the canvas, I then incorporated them together with painted overlay and details, and using some 22K gold to create a sense of the natural wood decomposition through age.
That is where the totems came into play. The idea of aging wood images of the icons in the context of tradition and symbolism was seen as being similar to those of the older totems. That was the bridge I was looking for, and it felt like it was the logical and best route for me to go.
It reconnected me to my lifelong love and interest in First Nations art, especially of the west coast. I was also very aware that I myself wasn't Aboriginal and in no way did I want to be seen as doing work in the same way and within the tradition of the many great Aboriginals artists. The distinction of my recent series of totem studies in acrylic is that I am not carving but using my paintbrush and finger tips. Not being from an Aboriginal heritage and culture, I do have the knowledge or 'right' to create a narrative for a totem pole. But the wonderful totems of the west coast are enduring masterpieces for everyone to experience. One of the most cherished times for me is when I have to opportunity to stand by a totem and set my hand on it; feeling its energy. I've always described it as a vibration from the wood and the spirit of the carver(s) etched into it. This too is similar to my experience with icons. For different reasons, they too have a vibration to them because of the prototype portrayed but also from the iconographer who wrote the image. Both are created out of tradition. Both are are created on nature. Both are created through patience, skill, great effort, and in the end, the prime importance is the totem or icon, and less so about the artist.
And so I began to scan through my collection of totem pictures that I had taken through the years, through the lens of potential paintings. I had no definite idea yet as to the technique I would use etc. I returned to the Museum of Anthropology at UBC to refresh my connection to them and sit within their presence.
I decided to begin with an image of two sections from a totem in the indoor MOA collection. The original totem had been cut into sections in order to transport them and save them as part of the collection. I had determined that, not having a set plan as to how to execute the painting, that I needed to just let the image and painting guide me. It needed to be such for all the paintings as I was in a completely new path of discovery: both 'self' and technique.
When I look back to the first few paintings, I am amazed on how quickly they developed towards the style that I am currently doing. The second painting left me needing to move in a different direction. But I had begun discovering my new technique of using my fingers and exploring the 'undertones' and textures of natural wood. My techniques changed greatly with the pair of Grizzly totems, which came next. Even within that pair, you see a distinct change between the first and second.
It may be that people see a commonality within all my work, but I am always surprised with where each painting went, and the discoveries each presented. Again, it comes down to my original directive to trust that each image would guide the way. So each painting has a different composition, different colour choices, and overall different treatment. After all, each totem is so distinct within itself. I see each painting as a facet, like that within the beauty of a cut gemstone. My paintings are not landscapes depicting full totems, but focusing on each totems, wonderful in themselves, and featuring the beauty and strength of particular sections within the confines of the canvas size(s). In the process, I try to document as much information as I can for each totem so that I can notate their origins when displaying/showing the paintings.
But being true to my sincerity in my love of the totems, I in no way, claim to neither be an expert nor approach the series from an anthropological point of view. I am not just trying to record the totems. Photographs are a better tool for that kind of documentation and recording. I approach the totems in deep respect and allow myself to respond to them at that basic level. Not as an academic. I want to attempt putting on canvas what I experience and share what moves me. I don't necessarily look at images through the initial scan of 'paintings' but I will often go through an image file again an again, and pick those that speak to me the loudest; either composition, the play of light, the patinas of aging woods, the striking beauty of the design, the narrative behind the pole and within each of its sections, etc.
And yes, at this stage of my development, the series may be criticized by some as being work which is very structured and doesn't have the bold freedom of contemporary works. But given my background, and the subject matter, my goal is to catch the essence of each totem, its nobility and enduring beauty. So this is my Journey With The Totems. I am open to where it will lead. The work will evolve as it goes, and like you, I have no idea where that will lead. That is part of the unknowns of discovery.
For now, I am content with the style which I have developed along the way. The series is unique. And I relish in looking at the works so far and yes, there are the anxieties of the unknowns and financial stresses along with the hard work, but I enjoy the wonder of 'How did I do that?!' Discovering that I didn't know was in me.
And I have two solo exhibitions coming up already! Exciting and nervous times.