High up on the chalky wall of a gallery, a surrealistic face peers down. With its enormous eyes and beak of a nose, it should seem threatening.
But it isn't. This is a strangely friendly face. And with its steadfast gaze, the mask has the power to pull an onlooker back through the centuries, into smoke-filled longhouses where firelight throws the shadows of dancers onto walls, back further to the day when the inquisitive Raven cracked open a clam shell and, according to Haida tribal legend, the human race crawled out into this world.
That's what the art of Northwest Coast native peoples can do: transport you to a richer, wilder world. No wonder more and more people are collecting this art―and that the Northwest's native artists are flourishing as they haven't for more than a century. Says Seattle-based Tsimshian artist David A. Boxley, "There's an incredible revival going on. We're seeing wonderful work being done, probably much like it was up to a century and a half ago. These are exciting times."
Building your collection
Museums and galleries specializing in Northwest Coast art feature many of the region's major tribes: Coast Salish, Haida, Heiltsuk (Bella Bella), Kwakwaka'wakw (formerly Kwakiutl), Nuu-Chah-Nulth, Nuxalk (Bella Coola), Tlingit, and Tsimshian. Works of art range from masks to carved wooden bowls to bentwood boxes, and from ornate halibut hooks to woven baskets, both antique and modern.
Collecting authentic Northwest Coast native art―even buying a single piece―is not an inexpensive proposition. A drum may cost several hundred dollars. Masks can easily exceed a thousand or more. Still, one good piece can be the focal point of a room and give you endless hours of enjoyment.
Before making a purchase, you should educate your eye. From Portland to Vancouver, B.C., many museums have respected collections of native art. Read, too: the University of Washington Press has 40 titles in print and is considered to offer the best books on the subject. Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form, by Bill Holm (University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1965; $18), is a classic. (For a complete catalog visit www.washington.edu/uwpress or call 800/441-4115.)
Visit galleries, take your time browsing, and don't feel any pressure to buy. "A gallery is a community resource," points out Becky Blanchard, codirector of Seattle's Stonington Gallery. "It's part of a city's cultural life. People should be able to go and spend time, research artists they are interested in, and experience the work in a relaxed, supportive environment."
Find something that you like, then search out other pieces by the same artist. As with any serious purchase, Northwest Coast native art should be considered as carefully as a new stock that you might add to your portfolio. And the art might do even better at increasing in value.
Treasures to hunt for
Masks. Likely the best-known Northwest Coast native art form, carved masks depict family crests or important figures from nature and myth, such as Bear, Raven, Eagle, or Orca. Favored materials are cedar or alder. A good mask will be perfectly symmetrical, with subtle knife marks and a strong sense of personality. A top-quality mask by an emerging artist can cost $800 to more than $1,500, and a mask by a well-known artist can easily run into the thousands.
Halibut hooks. Made for fishing, most are ornately carved from cedar or yew. The hook often features a figure that should be so beautiful that it's irresistible to the halibut. Search for a hook with a genuine bone barb fitted into the wood. A good one by an emerging artist may sell for $1,000 or so. The work of a famous artist may command several thousand.
Bentwood boxes and chests. Used for storage and cooking, boxes are made of scored cedar planks, traditionally steamed in a pit of hot rocks and cedar and sword fern, then bent into shape and decorated with carvings or paintings. A quality box should have smooth corners, with reliefs or shallow carvings. You can buy a small, top-quality box for $400 or so; larger boxes can cost thousands.
Developing an expert eye
Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. 17th Ave. NE and N.E. 45th St., Seattle; www.burkemuseum.org or (206) 543-5590.
Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. 6393 N.W. Marine Dr., Vancouver, B.C.; www.moa.ubc.ca or (604) 822-3825.
Portland Art Museum. 1219 S.W. Park Ave., Portland; (503) 226-2811.
Royal British Columbia Museum. 675 Belleville St., Victoria, B.C.; www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca or (888) 447-7977.
Seattle Art Museum. 100 University St., Seattle; www.seattleartmuseum.org or (206) 654-3255.
Douglas Reynolds Gallery. 2335 Granville St., Vancouver, B.C.; www.douglasreynoldsgallery.com or (604) 731-9292.
Inuit Gallery of Vancouver. 206 Cambie St., Vancouver, B.C.; www.inuit.com or (604) 688-7323.
The Legacy Ltd. 1003 First Ave., Seattle; www.thelegacyltd.com or (206) 624-6350.
Quintana Galleries. 501 S.W. Broadway, Portland; www.quintanagalleries.com or (800) 321-1729.
Spirit Wrestler Gallery. 8 Water St., Vancouver, B.C.; www.spiritwrestler.com or (604) 669-8813.
Stonington Gallery. 119 S. Jackson St., Seattle; www.stoningtongallery.com or (866) 405-4485.