Arlene Ness Explores Art Through Culture

Arlene Ness Explores Art Through Culture

Our destination for today was the Gitanmaax Reserve in Hazelton, B.C. where we were meeting with Gitxsan First Nations multi-medium artist Arlene Ness. Driving into this scenic area we were struck by the imposing mountains and lush forests with their breathtaking, resplendent autumn colours! It was easy to avert my eyes occasionally to glance up at them, if only for a second. Suddenly, flashing lights in our rear view mirror suggested we were now getting a police escort by the friendly RCMP of this quaint village; we didn’t even know they were aware of our arrival! As I snapped out of it I realized that I had missed a school sign during one of those brief sight-seeing moments, and the police officer’s intention was not one of fanfare. Luckily he gave me a warning and sent us on our way. Without further delay, but well within the posted speed limit, we were once again on our way to Arlene’s place to get to know this diversified and prolific fine artist.

Arlene in front of her Grizzly stained glass

Arlene in front of her Grizzly stained glass

Arlene says that she has been creating art in various mediums ever since she was a child. From following her mother’s and sisters’ examples, to loving high school art classes, to seeking expertise and education from renowned teachers, to undeniably her own drive and initiative, Arlene has never shied away from pursuing art forms that intrigued her. Life inspires Arlene, and depending on what peaks her interest be it her mood, the seasons, her family or nature, she may indulge her creativity in carving masks, stained glass, jewellery, paintings and drawings. She has even undertaken the enormous task of carving totem poles under the tutelage of master carver Earl Muldon. How does one person manage to spread her creative energy around to all of these disciplines and excel at them, on top of raising four children and teaching First Nations fine art at the community college? From what I observed of Arlene she has this zen-like calm about her and knows how to set boundaries and balance her life so all aspects work in harmony. With her art, she doesn’t try to force her creativity in any one direction, but rather she takes guidance from her environment, embraces how she feels and lets it come to her. She is the proverbial water flowing around the rocks.

Hummingbird Dreams

Hummingbird Dreams

Click on images to enlarge:

The beauty of Arlene’s fine art transcends all cultural boundaries. Her style reflects the traditional Northwest Coast Native Art form lines which she maintains strict adherence to when working on art forms of the crests and symbols of other clans. When working on her own family’s crest and symbols she allows herself more freedom to include her own contemporary designs and interpretations. She is of the Giskaast clan; the traditions, stories and ancestral knowledge being very important to her, and it is her desire to pass down that knowledge to future generations. Her art work is an expression of herself, her culture and of the love she has for her natural surroundings and all its inhabitants. Seeing one of Arlene’s beautifully carved masks, for instance, invokes curiosity about the meaning behind it, and one does not have to be of Gitxsan ancestry to appreciate the story it tells or marvel at the craftsmanship. Though the oral history of each clan (adaawx) that is shared with succeeding generations is of primary cultural importance to the clan itself, the art that Arlene creates is the physical heirloom of her ancestry but is there for all of us to appreciate and enjoy.

Learn more about Arlene and her art as Corinne chats with her. Feel free to comment below and share on social media.

The story of Copperhaired Woman in "The Return" above can be found on Arlene's website

“The Return”


The story of Copperhaired Woman in “The Return” can be found on Arlene’s website

Click on images to enlarge:

Bent Cedar Boxes Handcrafted by James Michels

Bent Cedar Boxes Handcrafted by James Michels

Above: Recently completed stunning Wolf and Hummingbird urn box.

James Michels is a Cree/Metis artist that pulls himself between his longstanding passion and experience as an accomplished musician, and his newer passion for creating and perfecting his Bent Cedar Box works of art. It was through his six years of journeying on the road playing music with his band within the pacific northwest that he came across the expert carvers and bentwood box makers that he would observe for hours on end and learn the skills and art form.

I had never heard of a bentwood box before until I stumbled upon James’ website. After looking at the magnificent boxes and panels, the uniqueness and beauty were evident, but there were many unanswered questions such as “where did they originate?”, “what are they used for?”, “are they still used today?”.

James Michels

What exactly is a bentwood box? The best explanation is an excerpt from James’ site:

“Bentwood boxes are one of the most outstanding items manufactured by Native people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, including parts of southern Alaska, western British Columbia and southern Washington. Made by kerfing and steam bending a single plank to form four sides, the containers with a height greater than their width are called boxes, while those with a length greater than their height are referred to as chests. Historically, boxes came in various sizes from small (measured in inches) to massive (large enough to provide seating). Some undecorated, others carved or painted or both. The highly decorated ones were symbols of wealth. Fishermen used boxes shaped to fit into their canoes to carry tackle and supplies. Some were used for cooking (filled with water and hot stones) while others were used for storage of food, clothing, tools, or supplies.”

A bentwood "canoe" box, traditionally shaped and large enough to fit in the bow of the canoes to hold fishing tackle and to be used as a seat

As an addition to the uses for bentwood boxes, James said that he has been getting requests for urn boxes, one of which he was just finishing up when we visited with him. One of the urns that James was asked to create was from a family that lost their little boy. The song below that James wrote and performed is a dedication to that young boy.

Click on the player below to hear “I Will Be The Moon” by James Michels.

Join us below with James in his workshop as he demonstrates the fine wood craftmanship of making bentwood boxes:

Indigenous Expressionist Haisla Collins

Indigenous Expressionist Haisla Collins

Interconnection

We traveled down East Hastings to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in search of Raven’s Eye Studio and to meet with Haisla Collins. Haisla (pronounced H-eyes-la) is an accomplished mixed media artist in the mediums of painting, screen printing and drawing, and she is also a blues musician and bead worker. She wanted to share with us a mural which is painted on the side of the building where the Raven’s Eye Studio is located. She and several other artists were commissioned to do “Through the Eye of the Raven” in 2010. The mural is epic and left Gary and I awestruck in its presence. For the people of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside it represents a beautifully orchestrated community effort. Although Haisla and her painting peers collaborated on the subject of the urban aboriginal experience, they also drew ideas from the people living in the community and their personal interpretation of it. The cement canvas consists of all the different parts that make up the whole First Nations community; the people, the neighbourhood, the buildings, nature, animals, traditions, culture and history. It represents pride, hope and unity. If you ever find yourself in the 400 block on the south side of East Hastings be sure to look up, way up as you won’t want to miss it; nor can you.

Amberlith cut titled "A Piece of Me"

Self Portrait

After leaving Raven’s Eye Studio, we walked down a couple of blocks to the Carnegie Community Center which is located on the corner of Main and Hastings in Downtown’s Eastside. The community center was built in the 1800’s and is an incredible piece of historical architecture. It was likely occupied by various other organizations and perhaps businesses in its past but I wonder if it was ever bustling with as much life and activity as it is now. Haisla recently started a job there doing what she loves; art. She teaches people in the community how to paint while researching and strengthening her own skills and giving strength to others at the same time.

Click the thumbnails below to see a larger image of Haisla’s work.

Haisla describes her work as indigenous expressionism. She is facinated by the connections between people and the interconnectedness of their internal and external environments. Her influences include Picasso, Renoir, and Van Gogh as well as more traditional artists like Bill Reid and Lyle Wilson. Her paintings are such that your eyes are drawn to them even if your gaze was elsewhere. When I asked her where her ideas came from she simply stated that she focuses on themes and what attracts her interest at the time. As well, she has a system in place for managing her creativity; when she is feeling creative, she sketches her images one by one and when she is not feeling particularly creative she finishes them. For Haisla, visual art and music have been her outlets for expressing herself in regards to her own experiences as well as her interpretation of other peoples experiences. Having said that, she is also very pragmatic about it and realizes that hard work and hours put in are what you do to become a strong artist. I have no doubt she instills this philosophy in her students as well.

Check out our interview with Haisla Collins as she talks more about her art and the “Through the Eye of the Raven” mural. We invite you to leave comments as well.

Woodland Artist Mark Anthony Jacobson

Woodland Artist Mark Anthony Jacobson

Along a busy Vancouver street in the Point Grey area, sitting in a chair out on the sidewalk, there we meet master Woodland Artist Mark Anthony Jacobson doing what he does best, engaging people with his warmth and energy, and taking a genuine interest in them, something not commonly found in this hustle and bustle world! With Mark it is all about connecting with people, and if they appear shy about coming up to him to look at his art work, he instantly makes them feel comfortable, like an old friend. That affability mixed with his intensity and passion for his culture, beliefs, and life’s work made for a dynamic interview! And so, for the first hour of our meeting we chatted with Mark on the sidewalk in between his interactions with other passersby or friends pausing to say hi.

Like many of the artists we have interviewed, we found Mark by stumbling and searching through the internet world looking for someone that would not only catch our eye, but also be willing to meet with us. Mark was more than both those people! When we first got a glimpse of Mark’s paintings they immediately grabbed our attention, the vibrant colours and dominant features first, and then the less obvious and more subtle content coming into focus as we lingered; finding life within life and always the theme of interconnectedness of mother earth as a common denominator. Be sure to check out our video interview below as he goes into more detail about the shamanistic messages scripting his paintings, and he as the messenger!

Moving from the sidewalk into the gallery gave us some other “in-sight” into Mark’s work. He is one of three First Nations Ojibway artists that occupy the space in the Greenery Native Art Gallery within the Greenery Florist, a unique and ingenious collaboration; a row of aromatic orchids pulling us into the gallery by our sniffing noses and then the eye opening paintings capturing our visual curiousity. A taste from the bowl of Werther’s and it’s almost a complete stimulation of the senses! It is worthwhile to note that Mark is also the first native artist in Canada to launch a Catalogue Raisonné, a project for establishing provenance of his known artworks to date.

Mark Anthony Jacobson with Grand Shaman of the Ojibway Norval Morrisseau (Copper Thunderbird) at their joint Gallery of Giving in Nanaimo 2005

Click on the images below to get the whole picture!

The next eleven minutes will seem like two as Mark’s energy, passion and spiritual philosophy carry us on a journey inside the man, the message, and the mission!! We encourage you to post comments. All my Relations.