The Graphic Works of Susan A. Point

History of Northwest Coast Graphic Art

Reflection of the Sockeye People, Susan A. Point, 1990
Reflection of the Sockeye People
© Copyright Susan A. Point   1990.  All Rights Reserved.

           Historically, the first use of silk screening by a Northwest Coast native artist occurred in 1949. Ellen Neel, a Kwakwaka'wakw artist, had her designs screened onto cloth scarves that rapidly became commercially successful. (Blackman et al. 1981:50). Soon thereafter, a non-native named Charles Greul began to market his silk screen designs on rice paper. His designs, while inaccurate representations of Northwest Coast designs, sold well on the tourist market. It was in part in reaction to Gruel's works that some native artists decided to begin producing silk screened works of their own, hoping to create a better understanding and appreciation of traditional Northwest Coast design (Blackman et al. 1981:50). Henry Speck, a Kwakwaka'wakw artist, had several of his painted designs reproduced in print form in the early 1960s. Around the same time, two Kwakwaka'wakw artists, Tony Hunt and Doug Cranmer, began producing silk screen designs of their own. In 1965, Tsimshian artist Roy Vickers, a high school student at the time, produced his first set of prints. Three years later a well-known Haida artist, Robert Davidson, joined the others in producing serigraphs of his own (Blackman et al. 1981: 50). They too would rapidly gain recognition for their prints in addition to their other artistic productions, and along with Hunt they would make serigraphy a consistent part of their artistic production. In the 1970s, the Kitanmax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art at 'Ksan incorporated serigraphy into its art program, and has subsequently become known for the development of its distinctive graphic style, described as "clean lined and crisp" with elongated, vibrant formlines that convey a sense of motion (Stewart 1979:100). By 1977, printmaking was so popular among Northwest Coast artists that a group of them formed the Northwest Coast Indian Artists Guild in order to achieve greater recognition for their graphic productions (Blackman et al. 1981:50). Thus, the media of printmaking caught on with Northwest Coast native artists, and over the years it has only grown in its popularity with both artists and the public. Since the 1960s, Northwest Coast prints have provided artists with a new way of communicating cultural histories, they have been used as potlatch gifts, thus gaining a cultural status within Native communities, and their sale has secured for many both artistic recognition and a steady income.
           Artists turn to a variety of sources for their inspiration when creating serigraphs. Crest figures from the northern cultures, traditionally represented in three-dimensional carvings such as totem poles and dance regalia, soon found their way onto two-dimensional prints. Oral traditions and stories were re-told visually in the new media. Museum collections were studied for their rich caches of historic objects and photographs, which could be copied and reinterpreted by print artists. A renewed interest in Northwest Coast art, that arose in the second half of the twentieth century, fueled artists' investigations of their cultural pasts. However, serigraphy is a modern media, and as such provides artists with the chance to experiment with representational styles and content. Native artists explore personal experiences, political statements, and even Western religious themes in their prints. As succinctly stated by Margaret Blackman and Edwin Hall, two collectors of Northwest Coast prints, "Artists have realized that silk screens are ideal both for producing traditional Northwest Coast Indian designs and for creating contemporary designs drawing upon traditional motifs and styles. The public has responded to the increasing availability of prints by becoming more interested in, and more knowledgeable about, Northwest Coast Indian design" (Blackman et al. 1980:50). Affordably priced and widely available, serigraphs have become an attractive option for people interested in collecting Northwest Coast art. As in any market, the consumer's tastes and preferences have had an effect on the production of the art form. However, several Northwest Coast artists have continued to challenge their patrons by presenting them with constantly evolving styles and ever changing representations of diverse themes and images. Rather than becoming a stagnant form of "tourist art", Northwest Coast prints have become a vibrant form of artistic expression and exploration, one that interacts with its audience rather than panders to it.


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