Native Indian Artforms

Last summer we took our kids hiking in the Canadian Rockies. Post-hiking, we wandered through tourist shops in Jasper. While the kids did extensive research in the stuffed animal section, I found myself captivated by images of Native Indian art. I briefly contemplated why this caught my attention. But then the moment was gone and I completely forgot about it.

Later in the fall, after posting images of the new series 'Realize' to Facebook, a viewer commented that the work reminded her of WestCoast First Nations art. Native Indian Art was added to my 'To Research' list.

Realize2 detail1
Realize2 (2009) 24" x 24"

When I eventually got around to reading Jim Gilbert's Learning by Designing Pacific Northwest Coast Native Indian Art, I began to understand the underlying concepts and techniques that were catching and holding my attention. Gilbert reviews 3 core concepts in his brief introduction to Native Indian philosophy: 1. Constant change: everything is either coming together or coming apart; 2. Wholeness: all things are inter-related; 3. Pattern: change occurs repetitively in cycles and patterns.

When it comes to art+design theory, Gilbert states that Pacific NW Native Indian artists develop art according to a strict set of rules and principles that govern the organization, compositions and color of work. Once the design system is mastered, the artist has a flexible vocabulary with infinite creative potential. The foundational form is the 'ovoid,' a powerful shape, conveying notions of continuity and contained power. Gilbert traces the evolution of all other forms from the ovoid. Complex exterior formlines, interior design elements, finelines and units are combined to pull the viewer into the self-contained, animated universe of the design.

Things that are staying with me:

1. My abstracted nature-inspired visual language is constantly evolving. I am always looking to expand and extend my vocabulary and love the idea of this endlessly flexible vocabulary.

2. The intentional use of negative space is something that I spend a lot of time thinking about with grout elements. Formlines and interior spaces can remain solid black and are given equal importance in the overall composition to the white or colored design elements, units and finelines. 

3. I see the circle form as one of my "obsessive forms" (an Andy Goldsworthy term) and have watched it change from centered and symmetrical (i.e., Trace (2005) to offset and irregular (i.e., Impel Study1 (2009). This new reading of the foundational ovoid form as conveying contained power and cyclical continuity is so compelling. Gilbert talks about the significance of ovoid form and nonconcentric interior shapes to suggest movement and latent activity that threatens to break out.

4. Depth or perspective is limited or portrayed with simple techniques (ie foregrounded/backgrounded elements) in Native Indian art. Gilbert reads this as intentional and important to avoid losing clarity in the designs. My current work imagines mind and innumerable synaptic connections; my goal is to use depth and layering to imagine the the immense complexity of synaptic connections.

5. I would also love to find the equivalent of the continuous external formline that contains the design. My current work uses the circle frame to demarcate attention or focus or clarity. My search for authentic and coherent exterior formlines continues.