Susan Point: Spindle Whorl
At the Vancouver Art Gallery until May 28
“It’s hard to imagine what contemporary Coast Salish art would look like without Susan Point.” I made this observation in 2008, in a review of her carved cedar gateways, then newly installed in Stanley Park. Point, I added, “has almost single-handedly recovered her people’s graphic and sculptural traditions from obscurity”.
So, okay, I’m quoting myself, mostly because I’m gratified that my beliefs are so well proven by Point’s major retrospective exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Through her energetic exploration of form, design, and materials, she has created a huge body of work that has strongly influenced younger Coast Salish artists and is yet distinctively hers. Her art reflects the history, beliefs, and cultural traditions of the Musqueam people while also revealing her highly individual ideas and perceptions.
With over 100 two- and three-dimensional works, ranging from silkscreen prints and digitally altered cellphone photographs to sculptures in cedar, glass, bronze, and handmade paper, Susan Point: Spindle Whorl is the largest survey of her art to date. It is also a major institutional acknowledgment of her pioneering and sustained accomplishments. Installed mostly chronologically, the show is bookended by Salmon, the small, breakthrough screen print Point made at her kitchen table in 1981, and a series of large, wall-mounted, circular sculptures created in the past year. Among the references in these most recent works are winter nights Point has spent in the Cariboo, in Twilight (Moon and Stars), and the traditional bulrush mats she recalls her mother weaving, in Tapestry (Bulrush Mat).
Curated by the VAG’s Grant Arnold and Ian Thom, the exhibition focuses on work that takes the Salish spindle whorl as its overarching theme and recurring motif. Usually consisting of a wooden disk with a hole at its centre, mounted on a tapered wooden shaft, this object traditionally was used by Salish women when spinning yarn out of raw wool. (Look for Bill McLennan’s illuminating essay about it in the exhibition catalogue.) In ancient and historic times, the whorl was carved on one or both sides with geometric, nature-based, or figurative designs. Although the meanings of these designs have yet to be fully understood, it is generally believed that they signified more than mere decoration.
In Point’s early art-making days, when she was working as a legal secretary and contemporary Coast Salish art was virtually nonexistent, she began researching spindle whorls in museum collections, adapting their engraved circular forms as a recurring motif in her printmaking and, later, in her sculpture. She was learning, Arnold writes in the catalogue, to reconstruct a vocabulary of Salish graphic design that was quite different from the better-known design elements of more northerly Northwest Coast First Nations, and that had been largely effaced by colonization. It seems significant, too, that Point was reclaiming the idea of the spindle whorl, since spinning and weaving have traditionally been women’s work in Coast Salish society.
Point takes the whorl’s formal and symbolic possibilities to wondrous heights—and, again, through a range of media and materials. (When she first began working in glass, she was reprimanded by art dealers for using a “nontraditional” medium.) Her imagery, much of it based on the animals that are important to the Musqueam people, includes eagles, ravens, black bears, salmon, orcas, frogs, and butterflies. Thunderbirds and Thunder Lizards also appear, along with other supernatural entities. The spindle whorl’s circular form itself takes on symbolic resonance in Point’s art, signifying not only the sun and the moon but also the cycles of life and of the seasons. The circle can represent the human face, too, as seen in the big, cast-paper sculpture Children of the Earth and the silkscreen print of the same title.
One doesn’t immediately think of Point as a political artist, yet much of her work has an underlying social, cultural, or environmental message. Frogs, whose song once signalled the changing seasons on Musqueam land, are for Point “the canary in the coalmine”, symbolizing vulnerability to global warming and environmental degradation. Nowhere Left, the title of both a woodblock-puzzle print and the woodblocks themselves (fitted snugly together, framed, and mounted on the wall), is one of Point’s most striking designs, its four frog faces executed in subtly modulated shades of green with soft red highlights.
At the show’s media preview, Thom extolled Point’s extraordinary accomplishments as a colourist who has innovated through her palette and its subtly nuanced application. To this I would add that Point has a remarkable gift for graphic design: she has realized an astonishing number of distinctive images out of a single underlying form, propelling the ancient spindle whorl into the modern world—and beyond.