Saturday, 16 February 2013



Emily Carr is probably the best-known Canadian artist to have depicted Northwest Coast First Nations subject matter. Walter J. Phillips is also well known for his interpretations of the native villages at Alert Bay, Mamalilicoola, and Karlukwees, as seen in a previous blog Sketching Trips: W.J. Phillips out the West Coast. In particular, they both excelled at the depiction of totem poles. However, Carr and Phillips were by no means the only artists to have travelled into the more remote regions of the Pacific Northwest to lend their artistic impressions of the First Nations subject matter they encountered. By the end of the 1920s the popularity of taking sketching trips to the Skeena River Region or the Coast to document the First Nations villages and their totem poles was at a peak. Artists from all over the country and abroad were arriving on sketching pilgrimages of cultural tourism.

Already by the late 19th century in Europe and North America, there existed the concept of documenting the art, culture and customs of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere. This was in response to the prevailing perception that indigenous cultures were both threatened and in decline. In the Pacific Northwest, this was made manifest by the visible decline of the totem pole. The consensus amongst anthropologists, government bodies, and interested parties was that raising awareness about First Nations communities through the proliferation of art and literature would lead to cultural tourism to these communities; and thus, ultimately towards official support for the restoration and preservation of First Nations traditions. In Canada, none supported this notion more fervently than the anthropologist, Marius Barbeau.

Marius Barbeau believed that both exposure and tourism were the key paths to the preservation of First Nations art and culture. Barbeau and artist Langdon Kihn teamed up with publicists of the Canadian National Railway to promote cultural tourism in British Columbia. There was eventual further collaboration with Indian Affairs and the government; whereby and a Totem Pole Restoration Programme was established. It focused on restoring the totem poles of well-travelled tourist routes. Curiously, the restored totem poles were often repositioned in order to face tourist paths more directly. Barbeau travelled with Kihn and later with other artists such as A.Y. Jackson, Edwin Holgate, and Anne Savage to the Skeena River region to document the totem poles of First Nations communities. He published detailed reference guides of the totem poles in the region, and assisted the Canadian National Railway making promotional materials. He ultimately was instrumental in organizing the 1927 National Gallery exhibition Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern with director Eric Brown. Artists who had made a name for themselves at the time desired to be included in this new movement that elevated the importance of native art in shaping a nationalist art for Canada. The continual use of totem poles as subject matter in Canadian western art is now historically interesting in it’s own right.

Although the late 1920s was a peak time for artists travelling to sketch the totem poles of the Pacific Northwest, it is worth noting that artists were exploring and rendering the indigenous inhabitants of British Columbia as far back as the late 18th century through the opening years of the 20th century. The Victoria-based photographer Richard Maynard accompanied ethnologists to the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1884 and documented villages and individual totem poles in his photographs. Emily Carr first travelled to an Indian Reserve at Ucuelet in 1898 and again in 1904; and continued to travel to Alert Bay and Alaska in 1907 and the Skeena River in 1912. The explorer artist Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith painted at Alert Bay in circa 1909.

By: Jill Turner

Photo Credits: 1. Emily Carr, Modern Indian Graves, circa 1932, oil on canvas, 22.75 x 28.75 in. 2. W.J. Phillips, Venus and the Priest, 1930, colour woodblock print 3. Lowrie Warrener, Heat, Skeena Valley, BC, 1931, oil on panel 4. A photograph of totem poles and building facades at Alert Bay, 1919 5. The cover of Marius Barbeau's totem pole reference 6. Richard Maynard, Masset, photograph 7. Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith, Alert Bay circa 1909, oil on board, 9 x 18 in.

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