My earliest exposure to art of the Northwest Coast peoples, or at least the earliest that I remember, came from the Field Museum in Chicago. The collection was tucked away on the main floor, somewhere behind a room full of faceless mannequins dressed in traditional attire from the Great Plains nations. At the back of this room, taking up the entire wall, was a life-size replica of a Pawnee earth lodge. As I remember it, the door into the Northwest Coast/Arctic room was sort of hidden around the back of this lodge (that could have been a decision meant to ease the transition between the two distinct geographical regions, but just as likely the curatorial team had an awkward time finding a good space for that big ass lodge and that was their weird solution*). Whatever the reason, stepping through that doorway always felt like one of those down the rabbit hole experiences to me. And cut to . . .
The gallery was a completely different kind of space. I was large, dark and silent. It still seems a little spooky, even now. I did spend the night in there once, though. It was worth it for that collection. There was the standard artifacts (dogsleds, whaling/hunting paraphernalia, giant crabs, etc.), but what always stuck in my memory was the collection of wood carvings. There is a very distinctive aesthetic associated with Northwest Coast art that makes it instantly recognizable. Wood is the traditional material for most carvings, though the Haida have a long tradition of working in Argillite and many contemporary artists have recently taken up bronze. Whatever the medium, methods are almost universally traditional: artists work their materials using hand tools (axes, chisels, adzes, etc.) and large pieces are erected manually by members of the community. Though the concept and design details often vary based on the needs of the community, themes drawn from mythological, religious, cultural and historical (both societal and familial) sources are especially popular. Figures walk a blurred line between representation and abstraction, with forms that are identifiable as both organic and geometric (or, just as easily, as neither). Deeply-carved lines are complemented by a sparse palette (rarely more than 3-4 colors, if any), enhancing the effects of light and shadow on the piece's surface. Though worked almost entirely by hand, experienced carvers are able to produce a remarkable level of consistency in their treatment of the material, producing near-perfect symmetry and balance. As most objects are worked down from a single mass, joinery is typically minimal (aside from the occasional outstretched wing of a bird, or basic bindings for an articulated mask) and each piece retains strong references to its natural structure.
This faithfulness is not limited to aesthetics, but finds expression in the social life of a piece. As mentioned above, the construction and erection of a totem pole is rarely an isolated act. While the actual production is typically carried out by a single artist or a small group, the commission comes on behalf of the entire community, which takes part in the installation and dedication. Furthermore, once erected, poles are rarely maintained. Instead, in reference to their origins, they are left to the elements until they fall of their own accord (or, in some cases, they are deemed hazardous and removed). This lends to the carvings a sense of placement and fragility not immediately evident from the appearance alone, which allows them to become something more than a narrative or a commemoration. That seems to be the attraction for me. I come for the craft, but I stay for the perspective.
*Now that I think on it, the lodge shared a wall with the Northwest Coast gallery. There was a diorama of a wolf den and some Inuit dwellings on the opposite side. It all makes sense now.
http://www.nfb.ca/film/bill_reid (A short documentary from the Canadian National Film Board, featuring Bill Reid's construction of a totem pole for the town of Skidegate, BC)
http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=7354 (A short biography of Charles Edenshaw, a key figure in the 19th century revival of Haida art)
http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/MainSite/ (The Royal British Columbia Museum - they have a large collection of Northwest Coast art, although their online catalog is under construction)
http://www.nfb.ca/film/totem_the_return_of_the_gpsgolox_pole/ (Another Canadian National Film Board documentary, dealing with issues of ownership in indigenous art)
http://www.spiritwrestler.com (A Vancouver gallery specializing in contemporary Inuit, Northwest Coast and Maori art)