It's a question I hear often, "how do you make art"? or "what is your process"?. It's a complex idea to which I've never had much of an answer but for good reason I think. I work in different mediums and that aside even, ideas come from, well, who knows where really. As a child I used to stare at wood grain while bored at different places and see images of faces. In my youth I'd spend hours creating watercolor paintings on the back of old 3x5 postcards of a small stream I fell in where I remembered seeing Mount Ranier (Takopid) in my view with big blades of grass on either side of it. That said, in the art form I practice there is an approach and discipline that defines it. When veered off from it is understood visually.
It's been a long time since I've thought about it but the concept of 'the curse of knowledge' comes to mind. It's the point at which you've done something so long that it's nearly impossible to explain how you got to where you are with the knowledge you've acquired. It's not out of ego to state this but as art goes there is a point that one takes ones own path.
I'm forever grateful to my family and mainly my grandmother who saw that I wasn't likely to become a lawyer or doctor. I was fortunate to have the support to embrace my gears towards music and art. I think my real growth came from the resistance of people doubting me heavily in my venture to understand Coast Salish art really. At the time I was learning only a handful of artists were making works inspired by the historical pieces which are few in comparison to some other tribes. It was there that I found inspiration to explore that small segment and see what could be brought back to our people of today.
Long story short, the Northwest Coast is more than totem poles which by the way cannot be read as hieroglyphs as have been published. Stories are as complex as you are willing to look when it comes to anything.
It's been on my mind lately how it is I create the things that I do because I don't want to fall into a pattern which has been a large critique about Northwest Coast Native art in general. There are many tribes along the water and interior all with unique stories to tell orally and visually.
I have great admiration for Greg Colfax who was an early mentor after my first, Steve Brown. He was the first artist to make me think about the deeper meaning of characters. Today people want to reduce iconography into icons, a consumable and digestible understanding. Eagle is honor, Bear is strength. What is overlooked is the depth of each tribe, each family and what those things mean, namely when it comes to history of tribal people, the cress and stories are individual and within them all a deeper story.
For me tonight I've been struggling to design a blue jay within a paddle. I originally thought, I can just design a profile of the face and make a wing, maybe the tail feathers or the feet. I erased so much over a day I had to start a new sheet template. I paced the room, listened to some music took several breaks and sat back at the design table.
I had the basic outline and head of the blue jay with some minor modifications with an eraser. Somehow, somewhere in letting go I started to think of what Kai Kai (Bluejay) means as a being from our people. He was the rescuer of the songs. Long ago the sky was low and people were hitting their heads and worked together to push it back up which is a story of it's own. But when the sky was raised somehow the bird people were separated from their songs. The bird people gathered and held a contest that whomever could retrieve the songs would be the winner and choose where the songs belong. In somewhat predictable fashion it starts with the underdogs, the smaller birds all the way up to Eagle who fails in his attempt. The Kai Kai stood up determined and the people laughed at him pointing out how they went through the ranks of flight power already. So he asked what they had to lose by him trying and Eagle didn't want to be shown up by his smaller stature so he told him they would go at the same time. They flew up and Kai Kai made it nearly as high as Eagle but just at that point he jumped on his head and at Eagles frustration still climbing he pushed off his momentum to seize the songs.
It's a story that tells us to value effort, and not underestimate the power of the underestimated and the power of what can be achieved when working together.
The break through I had personally in my design struggle was to think about Kai Kai as an individual. Perhaps the song was a love song he treasured of his own for his mate. Maybe he had lost a bet with teti ed (Hummingbird) or maybe he'd been scorn by Eagle and had something to prove. Regardless, songs are important to us all and in that context, Kai Kai had his own song, whatever it might be it was his. When all was done, he gave the songs to the smaller birds who have the more pleasant of them to our ears today.
I decided to venture into that moment where Kai Kai found his own song amongst the stars and the other bird songs in that design. It is in itself in what western culture would deem "piggy-backing" on. All the same with all that explanation it's only one painting and one idea among many and it's by far not a process but what comes from the need to take time for a stillness and receive those ideas.