Northwest Soul:
Traditional and Contemporary Works in the Native Tradition

By Deloris Tarzan Ament

Think of it as Northwest Soul. Northwest Coast Native American art is shaped from the stately cedar trees of the deep forests, in accordance with legends so integral to the Northwest's ancient people that they might have been whispered by the earth itself.

The dramatic masks and dancing regalia, the bentwood boxes and the baskets, bear clear, strong motifs which find echo only in ancient China's Shang Dynasty (1766 - 1122 BC ) a period roughly equivalent to Egypt in the time of the Pharaohs.

Nothing is more purely Northwest. Yet visitors often don't know where to find fine examples of this art, in either its historic or contemporary forms. The Seattle Art Museum devotes a modest-sized gallery to its small but exquisite collection.

More is on display at the Burke Museum on the University of Washington campus. The Burke has the largest holdings of Native American art this side of the Mississippi River. Last year, the museum remodeled and redesigned its galleries, installing an exhibition that places Northwest Coast Native American art in context with art from around the Pacific rim. Beginning July 23, the Burke hosts a retrospective exhibition of the masks, sculpture, wall panels, graphics and poetry of the late, great Tlingit artist, James Schoppert, who died in 1992. Schoppert was an eloquent advocate of bringing a contemporary sensibility into Indian art. His show continues at the Burke through November 1.

Half a dozen art galleries in the Northwest also specialize in contemporary Native American work.

The Sacred Circle Gallery of American Indian Art is housed in the Daybreak Star Arts Center, in Discovery Park. Curator Steve Charles avoids stereotypical "Indian art" in favor of cutting-edge contemporary work in choosing work from across the nation for the gallery's changing exhibitions. Most of the art is for sale.

The elegant Legacy, Ltd. is the oldest and most prestigious gallery in its field. Now the nation's foremost source of Northwest Coast Native American art and artifacts, it began back in 1933 as a curio shop, selling work of sufficiently fine quality that it counted the Seattle Art Museum among its customers.

Over the years, the quality of the Legacy's offerings has been steadily refined. It is a trustworthy source for historic Northwest Indian artifacts. Most of the gallery, however, is devoted to fine contemporary work: masks, rattles, carved boxes, jewelry, and ceremonial gear by some of the finest artisans in the field, including Robert Davidson, and Andy Wilbur. Once or twice a year, owner Mardonna McKillop mounts a special theme exhibition. The Legacy is the only location in the Northwest, museums included, ever to have exhibited an entire show of contemporary totem poles.

The Stonington Gallery's move to Pioneer Square triples its space. It also brings a serious presence for contemporary Northwest Native American artists to the city's contemporary art hub.

A regularly changing series of solo and theme exhibitions feature work by the top producing contemporary artists in the Northwest Coast Native American tradition, including Art Thompson (look for a totem), Joe David (look for a Raven Transformation Mask), Duane Pasco (superb carvings), and Barry Herem (masks and prints). Art on the classic Northwest Native American "Transformation" theme fills the gallery in June and July. This is a particularly good source for jewelry by Native American artists. The Stonington Gallery does more than display art. For the past five years it has organized and hosted a series of classes, lectures and demonstrations by leading artists in this genre. Ask the gallery for a schedule.

Raven's Nest Treasures, a shop on the main level of the Pike Place Market which sells antiques and jewelry along with Native American art, is a good place to shop for soapstone carvings by Alaskan Eskimo artists, some of whom now make their homes in Seattle. Look also for limited edition prints by Tsimshian artist Danny Dennis, and a wide array of carved wood. Since this shop is in a good location to buy directly from Native American artists who stop by, almost anything can appear here.

Glass is a new medium for Northwest Coast artists. Barely a few years old, it's already emerging as an exciting field. Check Vetri, on First Avenue, for glass art by Tlingit artist Preston Singletary, who is among the first and most accomplished artists to use glass as a medium for traditional Native American forms. Singletary transmutes a hand-blown glass cylinder into a translucent totem pole by sandblasting the design into it--a new form of Northwest carving. Blowing hot glass in front of an open furnace, he flares the rim of a bowl into the semblance of a hat brim, reproducing in glass the tapering form of a classic cedar bark rain hat.

Snow Goose Associates, specialists in Eskimo art, are best known for Inuit prints from workshops in the Arctic villages of Holman, Cape Dorset, and Pangnirtung sufficiently popular that would-be buyers at the opening of each new season's prints have their names drawn from a hat to determine the order in which they can select a print for purchase. A fine selection of carvings and baskets are always on hand.

Diane Nelson, a partner in the Bailey/Nelson Gallery at the north end of the Pike Place Market, is a member of the Colville Tribe. About one third of the art she and partner Ken Bailey exhibit is made by contemporary Native American artists. Some of it is done by James Bender, who carved totem poles for Steinbrueck Park, next door to the gallery.

In Port Townsend, a coastal town popular with travelers for the preservation of its Victorian charm, two galleries are devoted to Native American art. The Ancestral Spirits Gallery has three parts; one dedicated to Coastal Native American work, another to Alaskan art, and the third to the arts of the Inuit, particularly the print collections from Baker Lake and Cape Dorset. Owners Annette Huenke and Alex Vinniski are knowledgeable guides to the work.

The 350-member Jamestown S'Klallam tribe operates its own gallery, Northwest Native Expressions, on Port Townsend's main thoroughfare, Water Street. Nearly half of the art in the two-level gallery comes from other coastal tribes in Washington and British Columbia. A branch of the Northwest Native Expressions Gallery in the tribal-owned casino in Sequim was reduced to the status of a gift shop when experience showed that gamblers were, by and large, poor prospects for purchases of fine art. A few very good pieces that remain in that branch of the shop make it worth checking out if you drop in for the games.

Wherever you look, it's important when buying Native American art to know the artist's name. It's the best guarantee of authenticity. If a gallery can't provide the name, be suspicious that the "Indian" carving you're offered may be a production-line knockoff turned out in Southeast Asia.

DELORIS TARZAN AMENT, is a freelance writer about art, design, restaurants, and travel. She was Art Critic for the Seattle Times for over twenty years.

Half Maori and half Nuu-chah-nulth mask by George David. Courtesy Burke Museum

Preston Singletary, Raven 1997. Blown and Sandblasted glass. Courtesy Vetri.

Spruce Root Hat by Primrose Adams, Haida, Courtesy Burke Museum

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