"Expressing Tribal Traditions" Through Northwest Coast Native Art
Northwest Coast Art is a phrase that is frequently used when talking about styles of art created by Native artists from throughout the Pacific Northwest Coast such as the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and other First Nations & Native American tribes of the Northwest Coast of North America. These tribes have been connected to one another through coastal trade for thousands of years and this unique connection can be seen in the use of form and color throughout their artwork.
Traditional forms of Northwest Coast Art can be seen throughout the tribal communities of the Pacific Northwest. For example you can see exquisite totem poles, canoes, paddles, house screens, bentwood boxes, hats, ceremonial robes, blankets, masks, carved wooden household items and copper works. Being known for their bold style and use of formline, Northwest Native Coast Artists tell stories and teach the history of their culture to pass on wisdom from generation to generation and there is evidence of this ancient artistic tradition dating back well over 8,000 years ago. Formline describes the elements that make up two-dimensional Northwest Coast Art.
What really distinguishes Northwest Coast Native Art from the rest is the use of characteristic shapes referred to as ovoids, U & S forms, crescents, and trigons that depict patterns and natural forms such as eagles, ravens, bears, frogs, orcas, humans, legendary creatures and more. Each artist has their own specific style of formline to distinguish themselves whether it be traditional, contemporary, or a mix of both. Colors also play an important part in characterizing who made the work of art and can be seen through a variety of mediums. Traditionally the colors used in Northwest Coast Native Art were the pigments available locally such as iron oxide for the red, copper oxide for the teal, and charcoal for the black which was then mixed with salmon eggs to form a paste like substance to paint on totems and other art forms. Today Native artists use commercial paints due to availability, nevertheless these traditional colors are seen throughout Northwest Coast Native artwork. Many artists have introduced additional colors to identify certain characters within their art, such as green for the frog or yellow for the beaks of eagles. More contemporary styled Native artists stretch the boundaries of traditional formline and use of color.
The most well-known artifacts that share this beautiful formline technique are totem poles. Totem poles are monumental cedar carvings which tells a story, depicts a family crest, or is presented in honor of a special event or memorial. Totem pole carvers also have their own styles of carving that individualizes them and marks their part in preserving the stories and culture that will be passed down to future generations.
Euroamerican culture began making native ceremonies illegal in the 19th century, forcing the Native artist to express themselves underground. When the laws changed in the mid-20th century printmaking became the new medium to share their culture through formline design and the limited edition, numbered prints, increased the awareness and availability for the public to help these artists gain success and appreciation for Northwest Coast Art grew more commercially.
Today, Master Artists like Israel Shotridge continue to train apprentices in the traditional styles and methods of the Northwest Coast traditions to ensure that the culture is preserved and that the legacy continues.