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 Post subject: The Golden Spruce
PostPosted: Mon Dec 05, 2005 3:45 am 
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I have posted this elsewhere, but I'm posting it here. Why? Because of the pictures for which the link is provided. There are several that bring Quan Yin strongly to mind.

Sunday » December 4 » 2005

Making history: ART I Hazel Wilson uses her Haida button blanket maker's skills to depict the life and death of a legendary tree

John Vaillant
Special to the Sun


Saturday, December 03, 2005


Hazel Wilson's one-woman show of Haida ceremonial robes, The Story of K'iid K'iyaas, is not only stunning and disturbing, it represents, literally, the making of history, bead by luminous bead, and stitch by painstaking stitch. The exhibition, which runs from Dec. 3 to Jan. 15 at the Marion Scott Gallery in Gastown, includes 15 lavishly decorated melton wool panels modeled on the ceremonial robes (also known as "button blankets") made and worn by many native people on the northwest coast. Each one depicts a scene from the mythical life and untimely death of the legendary Golden Spruce.

The tree, 50 metres tall and covered in luminous golden needles, was sacred to the Haida people who describe it as a human being who had been transformed. For 300 years it stood on the bank of the Yakoun River in the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) until a misguided logger-turned-activist felled it with a chainsaw.

Hazel Wilson, who was born in Haida Gwaii in 1941, was identified as a maker of button blankets while still a teenager. "They wouldn't even let me cook or fish," says Wilson of the elders in her family who insisted she concentrate on her sewing. "They didn't want me to be distracted." Apparently, these relatives saw the early spark that now, half a century later, arcs and crackles across the pieces in the current show.

Though worn and treasured by many coastal peoples, button blankets are the neglected stepchildren of the northwest coast arts world; they tend to be overshadowed by the masks, chests and monumental carvings we are used to seeing in galleries and public spaces. As a result, this show presents us with a rare opportunity: not only is this the first North American show in 20 years to be devoted to ceremonial robes, it is the first ever by a single artist, and the first to deal exclusively with variations on a single theme.

Traditional button blankets are appliqued, most often with black and red melton wool, and then adorned with buttons and other decorations made of abalone, copper, mother of pearl or plastic. The designs, which usually represent clan crests, are often drawn by men and stitched by women.

However, Wilson, a Vancouverite who left Haida Gwaii with her 10 children in 1971, designs and sews her blankets on her own. While the materials and subject matter remain loyal to her Haida origins, her interpretations have the uninhibited, exuberant feel of a person who has broken free and found her own artistic voice.

Wilson's robes are all about four and-a-half feet high and five feet wide -- a wearable size -- and in each one the central form is the tree, its extraordinary appearance indicated by thousands of gold bugle beads arrayed like spruce needles along the densely beaded golden branches.

In Wilson's hands K'iid Ki'yass possesses the iconic quality of the Tree of Life whose manifestations are manifold. The tree's time-bending journey begins in the ice age and passes through a great flood and a smallpox epidemic before arriving at the fateful present day.

In keeping with the Haida stories about the tree as transformer, its trunk also represents a human torso, alternately male or female, depending on which part of the story Wilson is telling. The faces and bodies, which form the core of the tree, possess an earnest, naive quality, reminiscent of some Mexican folk art.

While this contrasts somewhat starkly with the intricate and exacting beadwork, it gives the pieces a three-dimensional quality. The facial expressions: serenity, solemnity, terror, grief, are unmistakable and deeply affecting, the outstretched arms at once inviting and supplicating. This embracing gesture, which repeats itself throughout the show, is a wordless prayer to the Creator: "Do not forget us." Compared to the stern, aloof quality of so much coastal art, these pieces thrust you into the moment, whether it be one of peace or agony.

In addition to the buttons, Wilson's blankets are adorned with multi-colored beads, plastic bear claws, gold lame, copper and brass disks as well as personal items and found objects ranging from Metis-style beadwork to tiny stone birds from Mexico. To those not familiar with native West Coast art, the forms, themes and ornamentation could plausibly have originated in places as diverse as Oaxaca, Haiti, or Samarkand. In this sense, Wilson's work is Outsider art of the first order.

But what truly sets this body of work apart from its highly formalized counterparts is the fact that these robes link legend, history and the natural world with current events. The series creates a visual suspension bridge between the Haida mythworld and our harsh, shared reality of environmental destruction and eco-terrorism.

The most startling works in the Wilson show are, without a doubt, the final three panels, which depict the felling of the tree. The first shows the male face contorted by sorrow and pain, the trunk/torso patterned with scarlet slashes, and together they beg the question: Is this a forest tree, or Christ on the cross?

"I was speechless," explained gallery director Judy Kardosh, when Wilson first unrolled this blanket on the showroom floor. "I was thinking 'I can't sell this for somebody's living room.'" Indeed, Kardosh's hope is not to disperse these works to her clients around the world, but to keep this unique series together, here in British Columbia.

In the next panel, we see the tree falling: the human figure plummets through space as coppers, historic symbols of native coastal wealth, tumble after him. Red beads, indicating spatters of blood, dot his flowing black hair while the scarlet field behind is hung with iridescent beads, the tears of the Haida who, with so many others, mourn, not just the loss of this beautiful and potent tree, but the great forests that once surrounded it.

In the final scene a small heart set with a single glistening tear drifts above the scene of destruction while a helping hand reaches down from above. If you look closely at the veining in this, the hand of the Creator, you can see the initials "H. W."

jvaillant@aol.com

Vancouver author John Vaillant, is the recipient of this year's Governor-General's Literary Award for Nonfiction, for his masterful book about K'iid K'iyaas, The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed.

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

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