What does the word contemporary mean when you're talking about Northwest Coast native art? Depends on who you ask. The term is hard to pin...

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What does the word contemporary mean when you’re talking about Northwest Coast native art?

Depends on who you ask.

The term is hard to pin down when it relates to the Burke Museum exhibition “In the Spirit of the Ancestors: Contemporary Northwest Coast Art.”

The exhibition’s four curators — preeminent scholar, artist and educator Bill Holm; Burke curator Robin Wright; Coast Salish artists Susan Point (of the Musqueam Indian Band) and carver Shaun Peterson (Puyallup/Tulalip) — have an age variation of some 50 years. Holm was born in 1925, so his frame of reference reaches back to the 1940s. Peterson was born in 1975, so his contemporaries came of age in the 1990s.

Together the four have assembled an exciting show that provokes a richer understanding of native arts, cultures and people. The 60 artists they selected have a similarly broad age span and many different approaches to art.

All the works come from the extensive permanent collection of the Burke and range from prints, jewelry, weaving and carvings to a zany pair of woven cedar-bark high heeled shoes and an Escheresque wall relief cast in pewter-colored plastic by Point. (As important regional artists, both Point and Peterson were voted into the show by their fellow curators.)

The meaning and style of the artwork don’t sprout from a single culture, but from the distinctive heritage of individual tribes whose traditions were trampled for a time, but not destroyed, by white intervention. Of course the artists are also doing their own thing, adding innovative riffs and personal symbolism, even if their work continues “in the spirit” of their cultural history.

Exhibition information

“In the Spirit of the Ancestors: Contemporary Northwest Coast Art”: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (until 8 p.m. Thursdays) through Sept. 3 at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, N.E. 45th St. and 17th Ave. N.E., University of Washington, Seattle (206-543-5590 or www.burkemuseum.org).

A shortcoming of the show — and the Burke’s collection — is that it leaves out artists whose work has less obvious ties to their native heritage or who work in video, performance or installation art. Wright says the Burke is open to acquisitions in new media. “We want to educate the public and get the word out that we’re actively collecting…. Our curatorial bias is artists who are knowledgeable about traditional art but have the skill to use those traditions in new ways.”

Like contemporary, the term traditional is subject to interpretation in the context of native art. The artists in this show don’t just mimic the past. The eagerness to experiment and adapt has a long history among Northwest coast native artists, who in the 18th and 19th centuries quickly incorporated European trade materials such as buttons and metal.

Treasured materials

In the 20th century, native artists adopted modern printmaking techniques, cast and blown glass, oil and acrylic paint, whatever. Nevertheless, materials natural to the region are still treasured. One of the finest objects in the show is a blanket of mountain-goat hair spun by revered Lummi elder Fran James, 82, and woven by her son Bill James, 62.

“Traditionally, our people collected the fur off the bushes in the summer time when [the mountain goats] shed,” Bill said by phone from Bellingham. “The original blankets were a mix of mountain-goat wool, cattail fluff and fireweed fluff mixed with very fine shredded cedar bark. Then there was a little woolly dog, a breed specifically raised for their wool … That was all spun together for the yarn.”

These days the Jameses get little bags of mountain-goat wool from friends who find it, bits from a taxidermist and occasionally some from online sources. It can take three or four years to glean enough for a blanket. “People have no real sense of appreciation for a blanket until they try to make it,” said Bill. “Lots of people think they can weave a basket, but I say ‘Okay, try it.’ “

Bill and his mother have devoted themselves to teaching others how to gather, spin and weave, and to speak their native language. “We need to carry on the ways of the people,” he said. “If we lose the ways of the people, we lose who we are.”

The next generation

By the mid 20th century, much Northwest coast culture was close to being exterminated. Where Fran James learned weaving from her grandmother, a younger generation of native artists sometimes have had to discover their heritage in roundabout ways.

“Forty years ago, very few people had any respect for my people and our knowledge,” said Nuu-Chah-Nulth artist Joe David, from the Tla-o-qui-aht Band, of British Columbia. “They were raised by people who said ‘That’s crap, that’s heathenistic; We’re the masters, the chosen society and civilization.’ “

When David, 60, was growing up, he knew he was cut out to be an artist, but wasn’t sure what that meant or where to turn. He learned commercial art in the Job Corps and got a job in the art department at the Bon Marché department store in Seattle. But in 1969, he had a life-altering experience. When he overstayed visiting hours with his wife and newborn daughter at University Hospital, a nurse nudged him out the door, “There’s a nice museum at the university, the Burke Museum, why don’t you go up there?” she told him.

So David walked over to the Burke — and was blown away.

“Here was this collection that Bill Holm had curated and understood and treated properly — it was like, wow! This was not the academic, Mickey Mouse stuff. I was just blitzed. It was just between the eyes, like man, I’ve got to not only study and learn this, but I’ve got to master it.”

He did. David’s two masks at the Burke are standouts, an intuitive blend of time-honored symbolism and individual style. He continues to paint and draw using the skills he learned in the Job Corps (a show of his paintings is on display this month at Stonington Gallery in Pioneer Square) and is also highly respected for the work anchored in his Tla-o-qui-aht culture.

David gives much credit to Holm. “Holm may be the grand master of this art — and he’s not Indian,” said David. “He’s the grand master of our generation. Any opportunity I have to be around that man, I do it.”

David maintains it’s because of Holm and other dedicated educators that there’s been a resurgence of native art and culture: “In the past 40 years this work has been masterfully reawakened or the next stage taken. There is a greater respect and knowledge for our history and culture because of this art movement.”

Looking back and ahead

That reawakening shows itself in an emerging generation of accomplished and dedicated Northwest coast artists. Peterson, who lives in Fife, encourages anyone interested in learning about Northwest native cultures to look with fresh eyes.

He says people tend to have ideas formed by Hollywood and think all Northwest Indian art is the same. Far from it. Each clan and tribal group has its own stories and symbolism, its own ways of expression, and native artists these days are careful not to interpret or judge work done by others.

Speaking recently to a UW class, Peterson said he’s had people come up to him and ask things like “I bought this drum downtown at the Legacy. What does it mean?”

His response: “I have no idea.”

To Peterson tradition means respecting his ancestors while also trusting himself. “There’s rules you learn — you throw them out the window one at a time. You’ll know when it doesn’t work,” he says. To simply replay pleasing forms and style is not enough. “If we’re all just making a lot of pretty things and it’s all aesthetic, it’s kind of empty, with no theory behind it.”

As the interest in Northwest coast art has rekindled, the market for it has exploded. All the money changing hands has sparked a lot of commercial knock-offs and dealers eager to cash in. To Peterson, the machinations of the art market are ephemeral: What really matters lies in the future.

“In the end it’s my name, my native name, that will be on the object I create. 150 years from now nobody is going to know it was hanging on a doctor’s wall. How is it going to further the work of my people?”

Sheila Farr:

sfarr@seattletimes.com