Friday, 27 September 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; 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 West Coast to document the native villages and their totem poles was at a peak. Artists from all over the country and abroad were arriving to sketch. Joana Simpson Wilson, a proficient watercolourist, arrived at Alert Bay from Scotland in 1919 and observed the customs and designs on the First Nations people of the village. Today, many of her observations are in the National Archives of Canada.

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. This was in response to the prevailing perception that indigenous cultures were both threatened and in decline. The consensus amongst anthropologists, government bodies, and interested parties was that raising awareness about First Nations communities through the proliferation of art, literature and photography 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, 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. The continual use of Northwest Coast imagery 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 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. Professional and amateur photographs from the late 19th to early 20th century have been paramount in preserving Northwest Coast First Nations art and culture. 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. Edward Dossetter captured village architecture and life in the 1880s as well. Into the early 20th century, advances in technology allowed for silver gelatin printing directly onto postcard paper. These real photograph postcards were collected as a means of remembering vacations, and at Alert Bay where cultural tourism already existed there are many well-known images from 1910-1920 by photographers Emily Ferryman and Reverend Pedersen. The Alert Bay real photograph postcards in this show were all from the 1919 trip of a Boston gentleman, Howard Sprague.

Emily Carr and Historical Views of the Northwest Coast offers a glimpse at the various art forms that have been used to document and aestheticize the art and culture of the Pacific Northwest. The show cover historical photography from Vancouver Island, Alert Bay region and the Skeena region; as well as exhibits works by key artists that are known for their involvement in rendering First Nations art in British Columbia and the wilderness landscape, such as Emily Carr, Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith, W.J. Phillips, Anne Savage, Pegi Nicol McLeod. The perseverance and excellence of these artists have made the subject of the Northwest Coast as iconic as the hills of Old Quebec, the shores of Georgian Bay and the peaks of the Rocky Mountains.

By: Jill Turner

Photo Credits:

1. Emily Carr, Totem Pole 1912, watercolour, 22 x 18 in. On loan online from a private collection for the exhibition Emily Carr and Historical Views of the Northwest Coast

2. Joanna S. Wilson, Alert Bay, watercolour, circa 1919-1923

3. John Webber, Natives outside a Communal House, Nootka, British Columbia, drawing sketch, 1778, from the National Archives of Canada, C-002822

4. John Webber, At Nootka Sound, watercolour, 1778, from the Peabody Museum at Harvard University

5. Book covers of Marius Barbeau's publications

6. Map Showing the Position of Indian Villages in the 1973 facsimile edition of Barbeau's 'Totem Poles of the Gitksan, Upper Skeena River, British Columbia,' in Bulletin No. 61, Anthropological Series no. 12 Canada Dept. of Mines

7. James Blomfield, Cannery Store circa 1900, etching, from the Vancouver City Archives and published in Printmaking in British Columbia 1889-1983. Blomfield was an English illustrator who lived in B.C. for 6 years and documented Native art and design at the turn of the century.

8. and 9. Two historical photographs of Alert Bay from the first quarter of the Twentieth century

10., 11., and 12. Snapshots of the Gallery getting ready for the exhibition and sale Emily Carr and Historical Views of the Northwest Coast

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