A Brief Background of Contemporary Northwest Coast Native Art
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Perhaps only in the latter half of this century, the Art of North America's Northwest Coast Native people
has risen to its well-deserved place of prominence in the Museums, Art Galleries, and private collections
of the world. Original works such as Masks, Totem Poles, Bentwood Boxes, Limited Edition Prints and Serigraphs
by Native Artists have become highly demanded items in the marketplace. People of all regions of the
world share an appreciation of the Art of the Northwest Coast with its distinct representation of animals,
humans, and mythological beings depicted in bold, stylized realism or interpreted in the abstract.
This art form has evolved through many changes in a relatively short time, particularly in the field
of wood sculpture (e.g. Masks), and printmaking. We have seen new and innovative variations in both form
and color (e.g. Joe David, Beau Dick, Joe Wilson) in the relatively recent past. These recent decades
have been marked by an Artistic and cultural renewal for many Artists and communities, a retracing of
roots and traditions with the guidance of community elders and the retained works of Artists of previous
days. Through this process of renewal and re-discovery, Northwest Coast Artists have found their own
cultural distinctions, which has underscored regional differences, but also has provided opportunities
to participate in the styles of their neighbouring peoples.
Native Art of the Pacific Northwest Coast only started to receive wide recognition and appreciation in
the late 1960's. The resurgence in cultural, religious and spiritual concepts began to occur after the
Canadian Government revoked its anti-Potlatching law. At about the time when the culture was being discovered
by the world the energy of the Northwest Coast Native Art revitalization was already strong and steadily
expanding. Founded on the cultural background of their ancestors the slim but unbroken chain of Artists
and cultural practitioners carried the traditions to the new Artists who came up to expand an already
solid base of knowledge and experience. Today there is an amazing amount of talented Native Artists.
The Artists produce pieces for traditional ceremonial use including the complex mechanical Masks that
were used in historic Potlatch ceremonies.
The Native people of the Northwest Coast are usually considered six distinct peoples. The Tlingit, the
Haida, the Tshimshian, the Kwakiutl, the West Coast (Nootka), and the Coast Salish. Each retains a rich
cultural and Artistic tradition that is conveyed through their masterful Artistic creations. The specific
geographical area that the people of the Northwest Coast inhabit is the long narrow strip of shoreline
that stretches from Puget Sound up to the Alaska panhandle. This area is heavily forested by the dark
green conifers of the temperate rainforest. The forests provide abundant wood for the carvers to craft.
The work of Mask making is, therefore, a natural expression through a natural medium. The closeness these
people share with the land is a major part of their cultural identity and how they view themselves. The
ceremonial Masks of the Kwakiutl are made, primarily from red cedar, which has an easily workable, straight,
soft grain. The resource-rich environment of the Northwest Coast, with its abundance of food and wood
made it possible for the peoples, in the past, to devote time to their elaborate social and ceremonial
life during the winter months.