Haida Master Carver Charles Edenshaw Finally Gets His Due

Model Pole, c. 1885 (detail) wood Museum of Vancouver Collection, AA 1622 Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery
Charles Edenshaw, “Model Pole” (1885), wood (Museum of Vancouver Collection, photograph by Trevor Mills, courtesy Vancouver Art Gallery)

With incredible precision through a diversity of materials, Charles Edenshaw evoked the beauty of traditional Haida art at a time when this First Nations culture was on the precipice of disappearing. With an exhibition and extensive monograph, Edenshaw is finally getting a retrospective look at his legacy in both contemporary art and the history of the Pacific Northwest.

Sea Bear Bracelet, late 19th century silver McMichael Canadian Art Collection,  Purchase 1974, 1981.108.1 Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery
Charles Edenshaw, “Sea Bear Bracelet” (late 19th century), silver (photograph by Trevor Mills, courtesy Vancouver Art Gallery)

Released by London-based Black Dog Publishing, the monograph simply called Charles Edenshaw is a beautiful book wrapped in a hardcover embedded with one of Edenshaw’s formline designs in silver. Inside, new photographs by Trevor Mills give fresh eyes to a huge range of Edenshaw’s work, from dark argillite stone pieces based on oral stories, to totem poles that mix contemporary influences like an American-style eagle alongside Haida figures such as the Bear Mother. The book was published alongside a retrospective exhibition organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery, where it opened last fall before traveling to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and now its last stop at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection north of Toronto, where it continues through September 21.

Charles Edenshaw book (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
“Charles Edenshaw” monograph (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
Charles Edenshaw book (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
Inside “Charles Edenshaw” (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
Charles Edenshaw book (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
Pages from “Charles Edenshaw,” showing a house in Klinkwan, Alaska, and a model by Edenshaw (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

Born in 1839, Edenshaw lived through a catastrophic smallpox epidemic in 1862 that reduced the Haida population from over 30,000 to less than 600. Then there were the governmental measures such as revisions of the Indian Act in 1884, restricting tribal ceremonies and art. Edenshaw created art from the late 19th century to the 20th for an evolving market. It was no longer just for Haida that the formline carvings were being created, but for tourists, anthropologists, and collectors. All of this had an influence on Edenshaw’s art, where his meticulous, graceful use of Haida design evoked his passion for telling the fading stories of his culture.

Platter, pre-1894 argillite The Field Museum, Chicago, 17952 Photo: © The Field Museum  (#A114412_05d, John Weinstein)
Charles Edenshaw “Platter” (pre-1894), argillite (photograph by Trevor Mills, courtesy the Field Museum, via Vancouver Art Gallery)

“One can relearn the magic and integrity of the history of the art form by studying his work,” Robert Davidson, a Haida artist whose career owes much to Edenshaw as shown in his own exhibition currently on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, writes in the monograph. Davidson’s essay is alongside interviews with artists on Edenshaw’s contemporary impact, versions of Haida stories, and academic explorations of his techniques and influence on later prominent Haida artists like Bill Reid.

Charles Edenshaw (courtesy Vancouver Art Gallery)
Charles Edenshaw (courtesy Vancouver Art Gallery)

It’s easy to trace now how Edenshaw permeated the Haida art through its wide distribution into museums and private collections, it’s harder to explain why it became so popular in the era. Yet his art still has an immediacy it, while evoking old stories like the creation of humans by Raven. Even if you don’t know the oral tradition behind a work, you can sense a narrative unfolding in his winding designs of killer whales, salmon trout heads, and humanoid shapes.

Edenshaw passed away nearly a century ago, in 1920. As Aldona Jonaitis, director of the University of Alaska Museum of the North, writes in her essay for the monograph:

“Edenshaw can be considered a master who influenced artists of successive generations not simply by working in a style greatly admired and sometimes emulated, but as a model for Northwest Coast artists who, regardless of their adherence to canon and their connection to tradition, embrace the modern world and acknowledge its continual transformation as a source of inspiration.”

Bentwood Chest, late 19th century wood, pigment Canadian Museum of Civilization,  VII-B-1580
Charles Edenshaw, “Bentwood Chest” (late 19th century), wood, pigment (courtesy Canadian Museum of Civilization)

Charles Edenshaw is available from Black Dog Publishing. The exhibition is at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (10365 Islington Avenue, Kleinburg, Ontario) through September 21. 

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