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Master Haida artist Robert Davidson: Thoughts on Northwest Coast art

The renowned master artist Robert Davidson has agreed to allow Sealaska Heritage to post occasional teachings on Facebook. Here is our most recent installment, which Robert wrote after SHI’s sponsored a roundtable discussion in July with Northwest Coast artists.

Robert Davidson speaking at SHI’s recent roundtable discussion with Northwest Coast artists. At right, Earl Atchak.The major issues facing artists today and possible solutions include patience—taking time to learn from the Old Masters. Taking time to establish oneself in creating your own market. Committing to be a lifelong student. Once one is fluent within the vocabulary of the Old Masters, the challenge is to expand on it.  

The differences, if any, between art made for the market verses pieces made for ceremonial use

There are many levels of the art but I will focus on three categories created by the Old Masters: Ceremony-sacred, personal-crest, trade-commercial. The same care was given in creating the art whether it was for ceremonial use, personal use or trade. In today’s market, in some cases art made for ceremony becomes a sale item. For example, some collectors of Northwest Coast art prefer that a mask be used in ceremony at a potlatch because it gives it more meaning, and they are eager to purchase such an item.

Has Native art lost its utility in a ceremonial or spiritual context? Does Native art lack connectivity with emotion and spirituality?

Art created for ceremonial use gives it meaning, thus it has emotion and spirituality. Art created for personal use has meaning, and it also carries emotion and spirituality by the owner of the object. Art created for commercial-trade does not have to lose its emotion or spirituality. It is dependent on the creator of the object. There is a searching happening as the art is being rediscovered for meaning. In some cases, there is a blending of Western art with Northwest Coast Art. When one is fluent in the vocabulary of Northwest Coast art, one will realize there is no need to blend the different art forms. I’m not saying this is good or bad but a time of experimenting. One will realize the endless possibilities and challenges of formline. Being a non-Haida speaker, the first song I composed was in English and sung in English at the reopening of the Masset Community Hall. A high school buddy of mine who also didn’t speak Haida was really excited and said to me, “First time I was able to understand a Haida song.” Several times a potential client will ask me, “Why should I buy this object?” “What is the meaning of this piece?”

(Top photo: Robert Davidson at Celebration, photo by Brian Wallace; right photo: Robert Davidson speaking at SHI’s recent roundtable discussion with Northwest Coast artists. At right, Earl Atchak. Photo by Sierra Wilson)