HOW TO make something from nothing.
The artist Robert Davidson has been grappling with this question ever since he was a young wood carver growing up in what used to be known as the Queen Charlotte Islands of northern British Columbia, an archipelago that has been home to his Haida people for centuries.
For him, the question is not just an artistic one — turning a blank canvas or piece of wood into a work that will hang in a home, gallery or museum, as do some of Davidson’s pieces now at the Seattle Art Museum and Pioneer Square’s Stonington Gallery.
It is an existential question, too.
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For more than 40 years, Davidson has worked to revive Haida design and totem-pole carving traditions, and a way of life, that had been virtually erased.
From his secluded studio near the U.S.-Canada border outside White Rock, B.C., Davidson, 66, is also charting new territory in Northwest Coastal arts, turning out works that confront notions of what it means to be a First Nations artist, as indigenous peoples in Canada are known, and what it means to be Haida.
“There’s a continual denial that we even exist,” a soft-spoken but blunt Davidson says.
“At the same time, our art is used for tourism, so there’s a conflict happening there,” he says. “But the more our art is featured in major institutions, that will be a testament that we do exist.”
Davidson’s silk-screens, acrylics and wood carvings strike the viewer like something suddenly remembered. They are hauntingly familiar.
We have seen these concise yet wondrously suggestive motifs before: The large, oval-shaped eyes of eagles, or maybe octopi; the gritted teeth of humanoid sea creatures or perhaps monster birds; the flowing blocks of red, black, white, blue, green and yellow that shape-shift in the mind’s eye, beckoning you to see the image within the image within the image.
Davidson, with his head of white hair and mischievous smile, has distilled these techniques and pushed them to an altogether more esoteric place. He has imbued the traditional “formline” style with quirks that can come only from a mind operating on another wavelength.
His “Supernatural Fin” from 2009 is a visual haiku that forces the viewer to stand back and squint. A solitary red circle hovers like an eye above a diagonal gash of red through the middle of a canvas painted stark black. That’s it. What you see may be a fin or the side of a face — or both.
His equally abstract “There is Darkness in Light” from 2010 is a feisty tango between positive and negative spaces, with curving streams of angry red and bold yellow fighting for supremacy above a pool of calming blue, all set against ribbons of black.
Even though a certain level of abstraction has always defined Northwest Coastal art, there is nothing in its history that looks quite like this. Yet Davidson’s use of traditional forms to break up the space, such as the three-pronged “tri-neg” shape, harks back generations.
TO ANSWER that first question, we have to learn how to make nothing from something, how to disappear a culture that had developed over generations.
On the map, the 150 Haida Gwaii islands, as they are now called, come together like a saw tooth in the often-rough waters between Vancouver Island and the panhandle of Alaska; it’s the most remote archipelago in all of Canada.
If you’d come upon these islands as Spanish explorer Juan Perez did in 1774 or Christian missionaries did in the 1800s, you would have found fishing villages with dugout canoes tied up on pebbly beaches and red-cedar totem poles brooding over low-rise communal buildings.
The eagles, ravens and watchmen carved into the Haida’s totems served partly as lookouts for storms and tidal waves. But while they focused on natural disasters, they missed the man-made ones that would actually cripple these islands: A smallpox outbreak that decimated the population around the turn of the last century; churches set up to “civilize” the natives; missionaries who knocked down and burned totem poles; 19th-century Canadian laws that banned Northwest Coastal societies from practicing traditional song, dance, art and ceremonies, such as potlatches and totem-pole raisings.
By the time Davidson was coming of age in the 1950s, when the cultural prohibitions were finally lifted, there was little left of “Haida” culture.
Davidson and his contemporaries spoke English, not their ancient language. Many of his peers were sent off to church-run “residential schools” where they were banned from speaking to each other and told by instructors that their culture was primitive and unholy. No traditional music was performed in Massett, the town where he grew up, when Davidson was a kid — but there was a rock band.
When 16mm Westerns shipped in from the mainland were shown on projector screens at the community hall, Davidson and his friends cheered for the cowboys not the Indians.
One time, an uncle of Davidson’s lectured him about rooting for the cowboys.
“Don’t you realize you’re an Indian?” the uncle chided. Davidson broke into tears. He didn’t want to be associated with people who were always depicted as the bad guys.
The “elimination” of native Northwest Coastal culture, to paraphrase a report by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission released earlier this year, was total. Well, almost.
BY THE MID-’60s, Davidson had moved to Vancouver, where for a time he worked in the studio of one of his role models and a master of Haida carving, Bill Reid, who coached him on how to work with wood. It was a crucial period for Northwest Coastal artists. Major institutions were finally staging major exhibitions featuring works produced by communities that were themselves exploring their cultural legacy. Davidson was floored by the quality of what he saw on display — and from his own people.
But whenever Davidson came home to visit Massett, he’d sit in living rooms filled with sadness and “an emptiness of culture,” listening to elders lament what had been destroyed (or carted off by anthropologists).
“Where once there stood totem poles, there now stood telephone poles,” Davidson recalls in a recent autobiographical essay.
History itself had become an abstraction, a memory shattered by circumstance.
On one of those trips home in 1969, he decided to do something. Still a novice at working with large pieces of wood, he promised that if someone found him a suitable log, he’d carve a totem pole as a gift to the elders, one tangible link to a stolen culture.
He had no idea of the awakening that would result from what he thought of at the time as a simple show of affection.
The 22-year-old Davidson knew little about the myth he would depict on the log, the story of a woman who’s kidnapped by a bear, then gives birth to two cubs who eventually turn into humans. And because there were no examples of monumental totems in town for him to model, he used old photos, museum exhibits and totems by masters of the art form as his guides.
For the next 3½ months, Davidson worked 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, with the help of his brother, Reg, among others.
Some people in Massett wondered what could be gained by erecting a piece of public art that reminded locals of how much of their culture had been destroyed.
But on the day of the pole-raising ceremony that August, something magical happened.
Davidson keeps an oversize, black-and-white photograph of the ceremony, the first in seven decades, in his studio.
His totem pole lies at the center of a large crowd, four long ropes extending from it. More than 30 men, boys and even frail-looking elders can be seen tugging the ropes, gently sliding and lifting the monument into place in a shallow, angled pit.
Davidson’s father, Claude, presided over the raising with guidance from Davidson’s 89-year-old tsinii, or grandfather, Robert Davidson Sr. Neither had ever witnessed one in person.
Tsinii told Davidson it was customary for the lead carver of a totem pole to tie his tools around his neck and circle the pole while chanting.
Somewhat reluctantly, he obliged.
“There were no words, just the sound, ‘hah, hah, hah, hah,’ like I was breathing life into the pole,” Davidson writes in the book. “It gave me an amazing feeling of elation. I don’t know how long I walked. It was timeless space, a moment that lasted forever. The pole was completed.”
When the pole was raised, the elders suddenly started singing and dancing in the traditional way, drawing on ceremonial protocols they’d kept alive through hand-me-down memories — and practiced in secret all along, it turns out. Haida culture had not died, after all.
That day in 1969 represented a rebirth, nonetheless.
Davidson’s grandfather lived just long enough to see his grandson’s project galvanize Massett; he died three weeks later.
“All I know is that collectively, people were ready for that to happen,” Davidson says. “Each one of us is connected to the ancient ways by a thin thread. And when we come together, we form a thick rope. Each person in that photograph, we were all connected by a thin thread, and that day, we formed a thick rope.”
Davidson has spent the past half century since that day not just creating art but investigating his own sense of being a Haida artist. He needn’t look far. His late great-grandfather was the 19th-century master Haida carver Charles Edenshaw, whose work is on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Feb. 2.
Davidson likes to tell another story that illustrates the importance of cultural hindsight. One day when he was a boy, his father took him and an uncle on a hike on an unmarked creek-bed trail outside Massett.
“On the way up the first 200 yards, he looked back and he said, ‘You have to look back to see where we came from, so you can find your way back home,’ ” Davidson recalls.
One of the interesting things about Davidson’s work is that while it obviously pays homage to the techniques, motifs and narratives that came before, it is distinctly of his own time.
“He’s at the foundation level of reconstructing culture through visual art,” says Barbara Brotherton, the Seattle Art Museum curator who organized the Davidson exhibit that runs until Feb. 16. “For a long time we’ve called it a ‘renaissance’ because it really was a reformulation and a rebirth of visual traditions that had been lost.”
Still, she says, “He’s making the art that he wants to make,” using his own “language of form.”
Brotherton acknowledges that certain factions within the Northwest Native and First Nations arts communities believe that straying too far from the way totems, paintings and other art forms have been done since ancient times does a disservice.
“That’s a big burden for a First Nations artist,” Brotherton says, a pressure that white modern artists don’t necessarily experience.
Guy Anderson and Mark Tobey, for example, freely experimented with the signature motifs and techniques of Native American design in their early paintings from the 1940s.
Some of Davidson’s First Nations contemporaries have succeeded by creating less experimental, more easily accessible works.
“Robert rebelled quite strongly against that,” says Gary Wyatt of Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver, which represents the artist.
He uses a hockey reference, applied to the art world, to explain Davidson’s more experimental approach: “If you can’t go into the corners, you can’t win the game. Robert knows how to go into the corners . . . He has a way of moving your eye through space and playing with the idea of what design is.”
Davidson doesn’t seem worried about the possible clash between his efforts to resuscitate ancient art forms while simultaneously transforming them.
“I don’t say, ‘I can’t do that because . . .’ ” Davidson tells me at his studio, where his apprentice, Tyson Brown, grandson of Bill Reid, paints at an easel. “My thought is more to expand on my understanding of the art form — and also to challenge the viewer.”
Davidson’s bemusement ripples across the studio as he talks about his early career. While the Haida were officially banned from celebrating their own culture at home, they could quietly produce European-style jewelry and carvings for sale to visitors and in cities on the mainland. Davidson cut his teeth in the 1960s by producing $50 brooches and model totem poles that sold for $5 an inch. At the time, art experts considered these works little more than ethnic curios unworthy of a gallery.
“Those $15 and $25 totem poles are now three and four thousand dollars,” Davidson says with a grin.
It wasn’t until the 1970s, after he’d studied the deeper meanings and age-old principles behind Haida art and design, that “abstract impulses” started flowing through his own paintings and carvings, Brotherton says.
“But it’s really taken him all of this time to bring those from the background forward,” she says.
“If you look at pre-contact art, you can see a definite progression in terms of refinement,” Davidson says. “Then there was an abyss. Suddenly there was no one like Edenshaw to carry this refinement forward.”
He picked up where his ancestors left off.
“What was lost was the meaning” in Haida art, he says. “It’s up to us to give it meaning.”
Davidson doesn’t make it easy, but the challenge is transporting.
He never cuts us — or himself — loose from the source material.
“In order for us to regain integrity we have to re-create the foundation,” Davidson says. “We have no more elders. I don’t think of myself as an elder, but I feel that I have enough information that I’m willing to start a dialogue. Collectively, we need to talk about how we’re going to redefine ourselves based on the ancient knowledge that has survived.”
“Now I’m in that place of being an uncle,” he says. “In order to give value to what was given to me, it’s up to me to pass it on.”
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific NW magazine writer. Reach him at email@example.com. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.