Charles Edenshaw

Charles Edenshaw with his engraving tool and a silver bracelet. Photo by Harlan Ingersoll Smith, c. 1890. Canadian Museum of Civilization. 88926

Charles Edenshaw with his engraving tool and a silver bracelet. Photo by Harlan Ingersoll Smith, c. 1890. Canadian Museum of Civilization. 88926

First, I would like to wish all of you a very happy and creative New Year. During the brief break I had between my two teaching terms, I was able to take in an exhibition of Charles Edenshaw’s work that I enjoyed very much. I intend to take my Jewellery Art & Design students there for an art history field trip in a couple of weeks, but I thought I would give you a short review of what I saw.

Charles Edenshaw (1839-1920) lived and worked on Haida Gwaii and was already well-known and recognized in his lifetime. He is considered the foremost Haida artist, a standout among Northwest Coast artists, and is internationally renowned. He left an important legacy, not only in his work, but through his descendants as well, such as his grandson Robert Davidson, an internationally acclaimed artist himself.

Charles Edenshaw Exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery

Charles Edenshaw Exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery

This exhibition, organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery (October 26 to February 2, 2014), is the first major survey of this incredibly prolific artist. Over 200 pieces are presented in a wide range of materials and techniques, including metal, wood, argillite, weaving, and carving. On display, are totem poles, canoes, transformation masks, model long houses, chests, platters, bowls, spoons, canes and, of course, jewellery.

Charles Edenshaw. Argilite platter.

Charles Edenshaw. Argillite platter. Pre-1899

Haida Gwaii Map

Rose Spit, Haida Gwaii. Photo: Royal BC Museum

Rose Spit, Haida Gwaii. Photo: Royal BC Museum

I had the opportunity to visit Haida Gwaii twice, a few decades ago. Back then, it was still called Queen Charlotte Islands. It was renamed Haida Gwaii (which means “Islands of the People”), to acknowledge its aboriginal origins, as part of the Reconciliation protocol between the Government of British Columbia and the Haida people. This archipelago, constituted of two main islands surrounded by over a hundred smaller islands, is located on the North coast of British Columbia, just south of Alaska. The overnight crossing from the mainland, 150 km on the rough open seas of the often stormy Hecate Straight gives a taste of how remote and wild this place is. It is home to pristine old growth rainforests and species that are found nowhere else in the world, and to astounding cultural artifacts, like Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and its totem poles. On both occasions I was taken not only by the wild beauty of this place, but also by the power and the spirit of the natural world. While there, everything was fodder for my imagination, I always had very vivid dreams, I often felt the urge to draw, to write or to make sculptures or jewellery. Each time, this creative energy fuelled me for several months afterwards.

Totem Poles at Ninstints, Haida Gwaii. Photo HelloBC

Totem Poles at Ninstints, Haida Gwaii. Photo HelloBC

Charles Edenshaw was remarkable in his ability to harness the spirit of Haida Gwaii, transform it and create magnificent works of art. The exhibition shows his evolution as an artist. We see him early on in his career explore European designs and iconography, and masterfully incorporate them in his work, surprisingly revitalized. We see him draw on his ancestral Haida traditions and stories to build his own distinct vocabulary of shapes and forms. Anyone who has been on the West Coast knows how powerful and exuberant nature is here. Northwest Coast Native art is highly formalized, as if Native artists want to bring some order to this chaotic world. Images are contained in strongly defined ovoids and S and U shapes that are organized into larger forms, all interconnected to fill the entire surface of the piece. Charles Edenshaw’s technique is precise and controlled, whether he is working in wood, argillite or metal. In his silver and gold work, his engraving is astounding. Hand engraving is a demanding technique that requires a lot of finesse and control; curved lines are the most difficult to achieve. In Edenshaw’s work, the lines, despite their precision and their control, are never rigid or contrived. Elegant curves flow, seemingly with ease, connecting the different areas of the design organically. Take for example his series of silver and gold bracelets which features themes that he revisits several times. Each individual piece, thanks to subtle details added or to different inflections of the lines, remains equally fresh and strong. They may be similar pieces, but not copies drained of their energy and spirit.

Charles Edenshaw. Silver bracelet. Photo : Vancouver Art Gallery

Charles Edenshaw. Dogfish bracelet, silver. Late 19th cent. Photo : Vancouver Art Gallery

Charles Edenshaw. Argilite chest.

Charles Edenshaw. Argilite chest. late 19th cent. Photo: Vancouver Art Gallery

As I wrote at the start, it is my intention to bring my students to view this show. Nothing can replace the actual experience of being in the presence of this artwork. We do have amazing technology that gives us easy and (mostly) free access to art anywhere anytime, but experiencing that art, just like the environment that inspires it, involves much more than just our visual sense.

Charles Edenshaw at work. Photo: Royal BC Museum, PN 5168

Charles Edenshaw at work. Photo: Royal BC Museum, PN 5168

Charles Edenshaw's engraving tool

Charles Edenshaw’s engraving tool

8 thoughts on “Charles Edenshaw

  1. stuiesilversmith

    Wow, what a fantastic artist. I love to look at the different posts on offer, however it isn’t often I am moved by one. Looking at his tradition and the different medium worked, also his engraving tools. Fair to say the introduction to Edenshaw has sent me on a voyage of discovery I wouldn’t have otherwise made. This in no small part also due to your detailed descriptions; “Images are contained in strongly defined ovoids and S and U shapes that are organized into larger forms”. I have seen this art form many times, your description makes me realise I haven’t truly looked at it. Thank you very much, greatly appreciated, I wish I had a tutor such as you, your students are truly blessed. Very best wishes.

    Reply
    1. metalandmettle Post author

      Thank you for your kind compliments, Stu. Edenshaw’s work is truly moving, I agree. And his tools show the extent of his skills, and the depth of his love for his work. To see more Northwest Coast art, I recommend a visit to the UBC Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver – well, at least a virtual visit! (moa.ubc.ca); check out “collection-online”. There is more of course on Edenshaw. I did not mention his wife Isabella who was an important artist herself. And look up Bill Reid as well. Enjoy!

      Reply
  2. Robert Mclean

    Happy New Year to you, Dominique. I was fortunate enough to have seen a large part of the collection of Edenshaw at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, several years ago. I marveled at his skill and now seeing some of his tools, I am more impressed. It was well worth seeing then and even more now that the exhibit is much larger.

    Reply
    1. metalandmettle Post author

      Thanks for your comments, Robert. It’s nice to hear from you. Happy New Year!
      I had seen Ch. Edenshaw’s work before at the MOA as well, but I thought the exhibit at the VAG was very extensive and did a good job of showing how accomplished an artist, designer and craftsman he is. I hope this inspires you to do more engraving – I’d love to see your latest creations.

      Reply
  3. artdoesmatter

    Dominique, I truly enjoyed reading your coverage of this exhibit. How spectacular a piece of silversmithing is that “Dogfish” bracelet – and to imagine trying to achieve that sort of controlled precision w./ the engraving tool that you’ve pictured here of the artist’s is just boggling to me. I have to mention how primitive a studio-setup it appears he had – as we carry on in the 21st century about how our backs hurt from using “non-ergonomic” chairs, or that our studios aren’t filled to capacity w/ tools; then I see this photograph of Edenshaw, sitting at such a tiny table while he creates. Thanks so much for posting and sharing such an inspiring exhibition. I had not been familiar w/ these islands of BC either, so it’s wonderful to read and see your lovely article!

    Reply
  4. metalandmettle Post author

    Hi Patricia! I am glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for your comments. We are quite fortunate here in the Pacific Northwest – we have such a rich cultural heritage, going way back. And there are quite a few contemporary native artists (sculptors, carvers) who use/reinterpret their traditional stories and vocabulary, but in a contemporary context, to comment on our society, etc. One of my favourite is Brian Jungen, from BC. Maybe you already know his work. If not, check out his masks made with Nike shoes…

    Reply
  5. drawandshoot

    Oh, I love the work of Brian Jungen too! Just amazing.

    Edenshaw’s work feels like it is filled with spirit. What a lovely post, Dominique.
    I’d really love to experience Haida Gwaii! (I missed the deadline for applying to an artiust residency there for a week in the summer but I’ll try for next year.)

    Reply
    1. metalandmettle Post author

      “Filled with spirit”, yes you’re right, Karen – like Haida Gwaii. It is such a special place, mysterious and mystical, landscapes in subtle tones of grey and blue and deep green forests… I hope you get to experience it soon and I look forward to seeing your pictures and your drawings.
      Thank you for your comment!

      Reply

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