exhibition cover and products images

Coast Salish Masterworks: Connecting the Past to the Present 2011

Opened Saturday, November 12, 2011

For further details about any of the pieces, or the request an exhibition catalogue, or to join out exclusive mailing list please contact the gallery.

The exhibition features the work of these Coast Salish artists: Jody Broomfield; Rena Point Bolton; Joe Campbell; Tom Cannell; Kelly Cannell; Tom Eneas; Stan Greene; Maynard Johnny Jr.; Patrick Leach; lessLIE; Angela Marston; Jane Marston, Karen Marston, Luke Marston; Shaun Peterson, Susan Point; Leslie Wells; and Joe Wilson. More details available on these artists by clicking here .

Within the Salish community, respected elders are sought for their knowledge of ancestral imagery and narrative so they are greatly revered. They act as conduit between past and present in the arts as well as the traditional mythologies and cultural heritage that bridge the gap between generations.

Salish art communicates the framework in which people live, survive and thrive. The stories embedded in the artworks were originally teachings passed on from elders and handed down over the years. Their artist interpretations provide us with a lens into which we can view past, present and future generations.

Oral traditions are imbued with ethics and morals to teach the young how to live their lives, care for themselves and their families. They are given insight into their ancestral origins and how to approach the spirit world so it may be integrated it into every aspect of their being.

“Tradition to me is like expression, it tells our history. Tradition reflects who we are. I believe that art is a reflection of who I am and where I come from.”
– Artist Maynard Johnny Jr.

Through the new exhibition, Coast Salish Masterworks opening Saturday, November 12th, 2011, the collection invites viewers into the artistic realm of the Salish people and illustrates how artists can journey into the past to give expression to the present – a connection that is still alive and thriving.

By gathering a group of well-established and internationally-acclaimed artists alongside emerging artists, this exhibition highlights the importance of ancient traditions being passed down to the younger artists so they might find their personal voice, while some seasoned artists continue to experiment with new media and pushing boundaries. A viewing of the entire collection will take place at the gallery’s Gastown location, 312 Water Street, and can be accessed online.

Salish ancestors believed it was vital to “never forget where you come from” and left behind traces of their material and immaterial culture as a means of immortality. The legacy left behind was a method used to record their visual language – a formed design pattern seen depicted on functional, everyday items.

What distinguishes the southern Salish style from neighboring coastal styles is its simple composition, open in interpretation and fluid in form compared to the more structured aspects of the northern groups. Over time, varied and bright colours were introduced and incorporated given their access to lush vegetation and plants found in this southern region.

“…there is a freedom to Salish art and design that is unique to [us]. We see it by just looking […] it is everywhere within the range of Coast Salish arts, in the very old and the very modern.”
– Artist Susan Point

Another distinguishing feature is the minimalistic elements of Salish form and design seen primarily as crescents, circles, and trigons (sometimes referred to as u-forms). The crescent shape is symbolic of phases (moon, seasons, life); the circle represents unity and centrality (seen in the natural form of the sun, moon and sky); and the trigon has three surface points with a fourth inner point depicted as an inner cut or element (four is a ritualistic number as there are four directions, seasons and stages of life, as well as the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of human nature).

Simple Salish faces were often depicted in carvings and represented three planes; the forehead, nose-cheek area and mouth area (an open mouth suggests singing or speaking). These faces are an artistic tradition of illustrating the guardian spirits who influenced and protected the people and their land.

Since Salish design is not confined by a set of specific rules, it offers a great range of style possibilities through the use of traditional form lines. The Salish style can be described concisely as sleek, spare, elegant, simple, beautifully curved forms. These forms also provide the artists with a means of association in which to create art as a validation of their personal cultural identity.

“I define tradition as a way of life, a certain way that things should be done. This plays a big role in my art. There are traditional shapes and forms that make up Salish art, and after these are understood they can be arranged in different patterns to create feathers, scales, eyes, etc. This tells me who I am and where my family comes from.”
– Artist lessLIE

Elders would teach through mythologies incorporating various crest figures, celestial beings and supernatural creatures that held mystical powers for the purpose of teaching the young about the inexplicable world around them and how to connect with nature and the universe. These teachings gave young people a deeper meaning and purpose as well as the ability to become strong and carve a path for themselves.

Salish art was often overlooked by historians and museums due mainly to the lack or rarity of available works as well as the simplicity of the form line compared to neighboring coastal groups, so artists were left without a connection to their past.

In the 1960s, a new activism emerged amongst First Nations peoples causing the re-emergence of their cultural heritage. Families began telling their stories, and elders were called upon to share the rich inheritance of their ancestors through personal knowledge. Over many years, a transition took place whereby Salish people transformed the cultural meaning and splendor of functional items into art. Although many were self-taught artists, they became instrumental in the renewal of Salish style.

“It has become important to me to understand the roots of my people’s art and help make it appealing as well as relevant to our people today. There are those of us who feel that the very art itself helped to signify who we were/are in the world.”
– Artist Qwatsius Shaun Peterson

Around 1961, the reawakening of Salish weaving began to generate income for families who had been supported by their knitting work in the early 20th century. The Spindle Whorl – one of the central tools for weaving used by Salish women and the most emblematic image inspiring Salish artists – was an elaborately decorated object on which beings are depicted. As these whorls were used for processing wool and would whirl in a circular motion, most of the imagery could be read from either top or bottom. The artistic embellishments carved by the men of the village into the whorls may be connected to ritualistic and spiritual practices of the women to purify and gain mystical powers.

Woven items created specifically for winter ceremonial gifts were often made by women from high-ranking families who had slaves to assist with everyday living so they could devote themselves to the prestigious task of weaving. These gifts brought status to the household and demonstrated their wealth. Weavers were held in high esteem and it was, and still is, important for young women to learn the fine art of weaving.

Women from almost every household were involved in basketry and every family had their own methods and creativity. Many of the baskets were decorated with a technique called imbrications in which the dyed strands on the outside of the basket are folded into the coils and sewn down with cedar root. Along with peeled or split cedar root, baskets were often decorated with materials such as beargrass, cherry, cedar or horsetail root that were folded or sewn into the basket.

When Rena Point Bolton weaves her baskets, she says; “it’s a meditation…I think of my elders, I think of my children…and I pray a lot. Our way of living was a good way…as we lived in harmony with nature. One of the greatest feelings I have is knowing that I took part in reviving our ancient crafts.”

Inside the dwellings of the Salish people were house posts carved in deep sculptural relief with their cultural motifs, which stood as central posts or were lined up along to wall to uphold the structure. The imagery depicted guardian spirits or their ancestors, the meaning of which remained elusive as the sources and illustrations were kept private.

The Salish groups that inhabited the coastline were seafaring people who survived on fishing, hunting, gathering, weaving, and wood working. Living so close to the ocean and rivers created the need for canoes that served as the main mode of transport so it was a necessity for Salish people to create paddles. The paddle was adorned with images relating to the water or with crest figures attesting to the right of ownership of the paddler.

Bracelets were originally made of goat horn prior to European contact and the introduction of silversmithing. Goat horn originated from the Cascade Mountains and was prized for its rarity and unique physical qualities.

For potlatch ceremonies, few masks were created by the Salish as their rituals were practiced in a secretive and private manner.

Mask carver Stan Greene notes; “People’s eyes are opening up now and they’re interested in Salish art. The wood carvers in the north thought it was amusing that I wanted to carve, they laughed and said the Salish people did not know how to carve.” He plans to continue “to try to bring out the Salish, the way it was.”

While living artists give new meaning to ancient forms, it’s still considered an honour and privilege for them to uphold the traditions of their people and convey the teachings of elders through their art. There’s an innovative spirit amongst Salish artists today to keep ancient practices alive and vibrant.

“I try to keep a very open mind and learn new things about my culture’s art form with everything I make. There is no substitute for working with experienced artists that have been taught by older, more experienced artists that came before them.”
– Artist Joe Wilson

Preserving oral histories through art is highly valued because it contains a form of reality that is relevant to the modern day human experience, and ensures that the past and present will always continue to be connected.

Coastal Peoples extends their gratitude to this extraordinary group of gifted artists who continue to deepen our appreciation of and respect for the thriving Coast Salish culture.

Coastal Peoples is celebrating their 15th Anniversary in conjunction with this exhibition and it is a privilege for the gallery to share this dedicated Coast Salish collection with past and present admirers of this art form.

Read More