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It has been a few years since I moved from the city to the Great Bear rain forest--territory of the Heiltsuk Nation on British Columbia's outer west coast. This fragile, yet enduring ecosystem is one of the last great and truly pristine areas of wilderness in the world. Wolves, Grizzlies, Killer Whales and Ravens abound. The longer I spend in this area, the more I appreciate the subtleties of life here--the curtains of moss and curtains of rain--the conversations between ravens and eagles.
The outside world, in the form of encroaching oil pipeline and tanker routes threaten the entire region, lending a sense of unease to a region that has survived a hundred years of clear cutting and overfishing. The feeling that it is all disappearing is what drives my current work. 
Ravens and eagles, apart from being central to local mythology, sit as sentinels to the forest, watching everything from a proprietorial point of view. Indeed, they were here before us, and, presumably, will be here long after. I am lucky enough to be here to record them.


Over the last ten years, as I have been travelling around with my family and working in different communities, I have been keeping a series of visual journals, I have been using those 9"x12" black hardcover sketchbooks. Each one is--I'm not sure--a couple of hundred pages. They seem to take me about a year or two (closer to two) to fill each journal. My goal is to turn each page into a work of art. I have used any combination of media--drawing, painting, printmaking, collage. Most start as  pen and ink drawings, many evolving beyond. The pages are more or less, but not entirely chronologincal, as I often skip pages (mainly for superstitious reasons) or go back and rework images until I like them. Often pages lay fallow for months before I go back to them, 

 

In the earlier journals, there is a lot more writing, and in the later ones more images, though throughout, the images, especially drawings, are predominant, These are really journals, not sketchbooks, although they contain many sketches. The difference being their function, which is that I view a sketchbook as being a place to collect sketches. Instead, what I am trying to do is work through ideas--to see where the ideas take themselves. Also, they serve as memory and idea storage--reference books for ideas. I go back through my journals from time to time. I will work back and forth through a journal, until it is complete. Complete is not the same as full. They are usually not complete until long after they are full. Once they are complete, I generally will not go back and make any more changes, although it is not out of the question


I work in these books daily, so I have probably filled about 1,000 pages, altogether. My plan is to add a few pages every few days. I don't know how long it will take to add all I have, or if I will ever catch up, but suffice to say, it will take a while.


The first book I have started posting is from 2003-04, the year Cindy, the kids and I spent in Tuktoyaktuk, NWT. The general tone of the year for me was one of adventure excitement and culture shock. It was a great time for us, breaking away from the city and all of the conveniences and assumptions I had lived with for so many years. For example, Cindy asked me to pick up some celery for caribou stew. I bought it without asking the price, and it was $9.80. I taped that receipt onto one page. 


More about this later



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Grade 7 students working on the bent boxes. To see some more images, please see the image gallery on this site.


Bella Bella Repatriation of remains

In the 1970s and 80s, the archeology department at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC excavated a first nations site located at the village of Namu, BC. While Namu is now pretty much a ghost town, it has been a habitation site for around 10,000 years. In the last century, it was the location of a fish processing plant that employed many coastal people, including many from Bella Bella, presently the largest community on the central coast, and current home to around 1400 members of the Heiltsuk Nation.

 

A few years ago, the Heiltsuk began negotiations with SFU to have the remains returned to the village site. As the date grew closer, the repatriation committee asked the school to assist in the process. The remains were to be returned to Bella Bella, at which time they were to be placed in decorated bent boxes, taken to Namu and buried. This was a monumental project. It required the creation of sixty bent boxes, each 12"x12"x24", and an additional few smaller boxes. Each box needed to be decorated with one of the four clan crests of the Heiltsuk Nation: Eagle, Bear, Killer Whale and Raven. The crest designs, which were created for the occasion by local Heiltsuk artist, Larry Campbell, were to be comprised of a black outline, with areas filled in with red, blue and green.

 

Chris Williamson, the woodwork teacher at the time, was in charge of building the bent boxes. Traditional bent boxes are made by taking one board, kerfing it with a knife (in this case a router was used), steaming the wood to soften it, and bending until the two ends meet. The ends are joined, and the bottom and lid are added. I recall being amazed by the huge planks of clear red cedar rolling into the school from the local mill. Chris researched and created cutting and steaming system. He, several of his woodwork students spent much of 2010 cutting, milling and bending cedar into boxes.

 

Next, the boxes (without lids and bottoms) came to the art room. I screen printed the black image onto each box. This was interesting to me, as I had never attempted printing on anything other than paper or fabric. It wasn't too hard to do, after creating a jig to hold the screen in place. One challenge was that the sides of the boxes are not quite flat. Because the corners are bent, not assembled, the corners gently round back. Also , because they are individually hand made, they are not always identical to one another, so I had to make adjustments on the fly, so to speak.

 

After the boxes were outined, students and community members traced Larry's drawings onto both sides of tracing paper. The tracing paper was placed on the wooden boxes and each line was gone over with a pencil. Because the paper was traced on both sides, the pencil imprinted onto the wood. Each traced area was filled in with colour. Bella Bella Community School students from grade 5 up to grade 12, as well as about 15 or 20 volunteers spent around a month doing the painting. The boxes then went back to the wood shop to have the bases and lids put on. We finished this project in June of 2011.

 

Once completed, I did not see the boxes again until September when many of those involved took a two hour boat ride down to Namu. It was a spectacularly warm late summer day (a rare treat for the central coast) when we headed down for the ceremony. Approaching Namu is, in itself a strange experience. It is one of the many abandoned places in BC that make me marvel at the fact that, for a short time, this decaying place was the center of people's lives. Of course comparitively, the white settlement was short lived. The fish that sustained the Heiltsuk people for 10,000 years were gone after less than a century of industrial fishing.


The ceremony itself was solemn and moving; thirty or forty people including chiefs, elders, students, community members and archeologists stood in clearing in the forest above the town. The sound of drumming, singing and shovels were all that could be heard as the boxes containing Heiltsuk ancestors were lowered into a cedar lined chamber. Oncethe chamber was full, planks were laid on top and finally shovels full of dirt.


It was a rare privilage to be a small part of this project, in which the Heiltsuk people demonstrated their strength and resolve in regaining this important part of their history and heritage.



I remember when I was working on BFA in the eighties, one of my I remarked to one of my profs that I didn't really distinguish between representational and so-called abstract or non-representaional art. He was taken aback and said, "well I guess that makes you a true post-modernist, then. At one time those distinctions were sharply drawn." I'm aware of the debates around this issue, but they never really made sense to me. 


First, all art is some kind of abstraction. As a child, I remember looking at an impressionist painting--a Monet or a Renoir, probably--and noticing that the closer I looked at it the more it broke down into discreet splotches of colour, but as I moved back it clicked into a picture. So, if you were to take a small piece of a Monet painting and magnify it, you might end up with an abstract expressionist painting. I know the two things are different in nature and intent, but, really where's the line?


For me, I am ambivalent about the fact that I easily (maybe not easily; readily?) switch back and forth between nearly photographic realism and colour/ shape exploration, and any admixture thereof. I feel ambivalent, because part of me goes back to the comment by my prof about the nature of abstraction, but at the same time, the two approaches fulfill the same function; to come to terms with reality. One is an exploration of the visual world, the other is an exploration of the mental environment.


That's not quite right. They are both like conversations with the painting (or drawing). "I'll put some green there. Does that work? Good--I'll add more. Wait--I need to curve this line, How is that--not so much--too far" Kind of try this, test that, etc. The content of the conversation doesn't matter, so much as the quality of the conversation--the give and take. 


So, as far as painting, the question is not "are you looking?", but "are you listening?"


One of the first things I noticed when we first moved to Bella Bella in 2007 was the startling contrast between the extraordinary natural backdrop of ocean, islands and mountains and the utilitarian quality of the village. I love looking at the surrounding landscape--the trees, the birds and the way the landscape is sliced up by power lines and poles.

 

My first impression was "what a shame. If only those wires weren't there". But now, I see them as a unique part of the place. It is part of the unpretentiousness of this town. It is a reminder that we are not in a suburb of Vancouver, that this place is an outpost; that even though we have cell phones and internet, we are on the edge of the continent.

 


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