On the fourth floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery, around the corner from a show of historical watercolours by Emily Carr and Charles John Collings, a remarkable event is taking place. In an exhibition room converted to an open studio, Haida artist Jim Hart is executing the biggest commission of his distinguished, 30-year career. It is based on a traditional Northwest Coast dance screen and is five metres wide, more than three metres high, and in some places a third of a metre thick. As he introduces his team of assistants to the Straight, he says, “We’ve been working on it now for 10,000 years.” He’s alluding to the ancient culture that informs this undertaking. They started the actual carving of it, he reveals, “two Aprils ago”.
Created from seven red-cedar logs salvaged from a fire-swept site on Haida Gwaii, The Dance Screen throngs with deeply carved and complexly interlocked crest figures, including Bear Mother, Eagle, Raven, Beaver, Frog, and Killer Whale. It also includes an oval doorway through which dancers in ceremonial regalia may pass.
Hart projects that ceremonializing in front of his work will begin to happen in early 2014, when it is installed in its permanent home. “I can’t mention his name,” he says of the art patron who commissioned the dance screen, “but he has plans for a new museum in Whistler.” Hart smiles and adds, “He’s amalgamating a wonderful collection of B.C. art.” Originally, the dance screen was intended for the interior of a private home, but it has developed into a much more ambitious work and has taken on a public character, in both its creation and its ultimate location. The generous patron, Hart remarks, has given him the freedom to greatly expand the scope of the project.
Based in northern Haida Gwaii and Vancouver, Hart is not only an acclaimed artist, he is also a hereditary chief whose Haida name is 7idansuu (pronounced “ee-dan-soo”). It’s the name of his great-great-grandfather, Charles Edenshaw, also a chief and the most famous of historic Haida artists. Hart carries the mantle of this inheritance with sombre grace. He talks about potlatching as a way of publicly affirming the stories and crests that belong to clans, families, and individuals. For an artist to represent each crest figure with honour and respect, he says, “You had to carve it in a wonderful way. If you check all the old pieces that are in museums, it’s beautiful stuff. These guys were absolutely amazing. Pride in who you were and where you came from.” Not surprisingly, the meticulousness of form and finish he admires in historic Northwest Coast art is reiterated in his own work.
As a group of boisterous schoolchildren passes by, Hart talks about the important creatures he has yet to add to his screen: salmon. Carved separately and suspended by wire in curved niches around the perimeter of the work, the salmon will symbolize the mystery of their life cycle—their growth from hatchlings, their migration out to sea, and their miraculous reappearance as they swim upriver to spawn.
“This piece is really a tribute to the salmon,” Hart explains. “Salmon is the force, because we’ve lived on them for thousands of years.” It’s the wealth of the sea—most especially the abundance of the returning salmon—that has made the enduring richness of Northwest Coast culture possible. “We’re farmers of the sea, and we always make sure that whatever it is we’re extracting from it, we leave enough for more.”
Hart doesn’t talk about the ravages of colonialism, the scourge of overfishing, and the crisis of our depleted oceans. He doesn’t mention fish farms, sea lice, climate change, and the policies of a federal government that seems more intent on extracting and exporting every last drop of dirty oil from the tar sands than on preserving the salmon. He doesn’t have to.
“We need salmon,” he says simply. “They’ve taken care of us for thousands of years, now we’ve got to take care of them.”
Jim Hart and his assistants will be working on The Dance Screen at the Vancouver Art Gallery until its completion, with a hiatus from December 16 to January 2. The screen will be on display at the VAG through 2013.