Robert Davidson is known as a contemporary visual artist but he is so much more. As a member of the Haida Nation, Robert has worked diligently to reaffirm the artistic conventions of traditional style while embracing necessary attributes of modern culture. This is no simple task.
His work spans decades and includes song, dance and ceremony – as well as all the accompanying artforms.
Descended from a celebrated line of artisans, especially woodcarvers, his great-grandfather was Charles Edenshaw. Drawing on aspects of his heritage, Robert explored traditional techniques at home during a time period when the art was largely unseen. Museums amassed enormous collections of traditional Northwest Coast artistic and material culture but very little was accessible to tribal members.
Robert’s natural curiosity and desire to learn eventually brought him connections with notable people such as Bill Reid, Wilson Duff, and Bill Holm. Information and instruction learned from others was incorporated into his knowledge and understanding of the traditional forms.
No culture remains unchanged. We constantly infuse and adapt to new ideas and technology. Our attitudes and behaviors are also influenced by our exposure to people and objects. Even our language shifts to incorporate new ideas and concepts, words and constructs are created to make sense of change. In the history of the Pacific Northwest massive rapid change occurred in a very short period of time.
Traditional cultures reeled from the impact of so much newness in only a couple of generations. In addition to an influx of new material culture, disease epidemics stole entire generations and the collective knowledge those carriers of culture maintained. Things were lost. Tribal descendants have been challenged to recover what they can…and they have. It is a continual journey.
Coghlin Art Studio and Gallery offers a lovely retrospective on Robert Davidson’s early period of printmaking. In these pieces you can see the strong connections to traditional iconography and visual representation. He remains best-known for his carving, especially totem poles and masks but he also produces drawings, paintings, and jewelry. At the age of only 22 he raised the first totem pole the village of Massett had seen in ninety years and people gathered to practice traditions that had been forced into dormancy by governmental restriction and loss of cultural continuity.
In this video clip Robert explains the importance of understanding the design sensibilities of the past by looking at the Noble Woman Mask:
In this video clip Robert explains how traditional Haida lineage is traced and how great the importance of heritage can be in exploring the art of the past:
(this video is just audio for the first forty seconds)
Robert Davidson and others like him, are important participants in the process of recovering what has been lost. He says that learning the art is like learning a language. It requires more than knowing just the words, to really comprehend the whole you must learn each of the underlying parts. It is like learning to dance again. Understanding the shapes and forms, knowing the meaning behind each movement brings new life to the work.
In the last few decades there has been a veritable renaissance of traditional carving, unknown since the nineteenth century. If you’d like to learn more about art of the Pacific Northwest I can recommend two starter books:
- The first is called Northwest Coast Indian Art by Bill Holm and is the classic text in looking at northwest style.
- The second is called Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast by Hilary Stewart and is equally adept at breaking down the structural components of how to comprehend compositions.
There is also a wonderful video showcasing master carvers of the Northwest called In the Hands of the Raven but it appears to be out of circulation. Should you happen to run across a volume, snap it up and appreciate.
A visit to the northwest provides ample exposure to this style of art but you needn’t travel far. Northwest artists have crossed borders and traveled far distances…you may find some of their work near where you live. Search out the authentic art and spoil yourself with the genuine article.
You won’t regret the time and effort – I promise.
#1 by Donna Galanti on June 4, 2012 - 6:29 am
What amazing artistry and what a legacy he is leaving behind! I think its wonderful this historical art skill doesn’t become lost and artists like Robert keep it alive. I have always wondered about the people and art behind creating a totem pole.
#2 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on June 4, 2012 - 8:32 pm
Thanks for visiting, Donna. Artists like Robert are so instrumental in preserving not just techniques, but traditions and all the ritual and behavior tied to them. His work is truly phenomenal. There’s been an absolute explosion of traditional art coming out the Northwest in the last few decades. After a lengthy hiatus, it’s really awesome to see these traditions be revived. I’ve watched carvers working on poles and it’s a fascinating process. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
#3 by Alica Mckenna Johnson on June 4, 2012 - 2:41 pm
Such amazing work. I grew up in Alaska, so the Northwest style always reminds me of my childhood home. Thank you for introducing me to such an great artist.
#4 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on June 4, 2012 - 8:36 pm
I had to rescue you from the spamfile again! I can’t believe you’re from Alaska and landed in Phoenix…egads. Robert’s work is amazing. Being where you are, surrounded by excellent Native art, I’m glad you now know about the Davidson family. I love to hear him speak, the cadence and timber of his voice was made for storytelling. If you’ve never been to the Heard Museum (its right there in Pa-hoenix), load up the kids and visit. I don’t recall if they have a free day each month but they have some incredible Native art. Now I want to go.
#5 by August McLaughlin on June 6, 2012 - 7:56 am
One of many things I love about blogging—being introduced to art forms I wouldn’t seek out on my own. Love the photo of Davidson carving away at the totem pole. Holy cow, that thing’s huge!
#6 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on June 6, 2012 - 8:45 pm
I agree, August…the internet is so great for sharing new stuff. That was a big totem pole and I wonder how long the complete work stands. Some of them are enormous. In the old days about a third of the overall pole length was buried underground in order to stabilize the above-ground height. Now some of them are mounted on steel rods with concrete bases but some of the more traditional styles are still raised for special events. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
#7 by GREG DERKSEN on January 16, 2013 - 9:52 pm
Would you help me? I need to know if “Killer Whale Transforming
Into Thunderbird” is one of Robert Davidson’s carvings.
I need an artist to illustrate Thunderbird With Lightning Snakes
into a Transformation Mask informed metal sculpture to replace
the grille of a ’63 Ford Thunderbird.
#8 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on January 25, 2013 - 10:28 am
I’m not positive the carving is Robert Davidson’s or perhaps a relative of his…sometimes the attributions are not clear. If you’re looking for an artist to create a design or needing copyright release for use, you can contact Mr. Davidson here: http://www.robertdavidson.ca/contact.php
Good luck with your project!