Any art exhibition is an opportunity to check expectations at the door — particularly when it is Indigenous art displayed at what the curator describes as “ground zero” of European colonialism in Oregon: Willamette University. The school is built on the site where missionary Jason Lee in the early 1800s embarked on converting Kalapuyan natives, with their own beliefs and cosmologies, to his Protestant faith. Lee, the Oregon Encyclopedia notes, “exemplified the effort to convert northwestern Indians to Christianity and assimilate them into Western culture.”
Faced with David Boxley’s brightly painted and impossibly smooth wood carving of a tribal storyteller encircled with images associated with the Tsimshian Eagle Clan, my response was to marvel at how new it looked. If we consider that Indigenous peoples lived in the Pacific Northwest for 15,000 years before Lee arrived, it is new: It was made in 1988.
Boxley’s piece is included in TRANSFORMATIONS: The George and Colleen Hoyt Collection of Northwest Coast Art at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. TRANSFORMATIONS runs through Dec. 17 in the Melvin Henderson-Rubio Gallery; a companion show in the Print Study Center upstairs, TRANSITION to PRINT, runs through Dec. 3. Both feature some, though not all, of the artwork from the astonishing collection that has been promised to the museum by the Hoyts, who have spent 35 years methodically collecting Northwest Coast art.
My reaction to Boxley’s Legend Adaox, curator Rebecca Dobkins told me during a walkthrough, was not uncommon. I realized that my expectation was rooted in biases that historians of Northwest Coast art have exhibited themselves. Nineteenth-century settlers seized a lot of the art created by Northwest Coast tribes — which for the purposes of this show extend from the mouth of what the Upper Chinook people called Wimahl (one of many Indigenous names for what European settlers called the Columbia River) up to what the Tlingit called Anáaski (Alaska). As recently as the 1970s, white people were most likely to encounter this art in natural history museums, where the implied significance of Indigenous art and crafts is to be found in its presumed utility, not in aesthetics — not because it was beautiful.
“You’re not the only one,” said Dobkins, who has been with the Hallie Ford since it opened in 1998 and teaches anthropology at Willamette University. “I can’t tell you how many shows we’ve done where someone assumes that something that was made last year was made a hundred years ago. It’s a reflection of our deep miseducation in this country. I’m convinced that we have national amnesia, which we’re beginning to dislodge a little bit.”
With Dobkins curating the museum’s Native American collection, the Hallie Ford has walked that talk. TRANSFORMATIONS marks the tenth time Indigenous art, most of it from North America, has filled the Melvin Henderson-Rubio Gallery, the largest exhibition space. The print center has featured roughly the same number of shows, many curated by Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, with whom the museum has partnered for years. Most recently, Dobkins and Crow’s Shadow put together Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts at 25 in 2017.
The pandemic hampered Dobkins’ efforts to connect with artists whose work appears in TRANSFORMATIONS, but suffice to say the show has been in the works for years. George W. Hoyt IV, descended from the Portland Hoyts and a 1958 Willamette alum and trustee, first encountered Northwest Coast art around 1970, when he took his school-aged sons to see a woodcarver whose work had appeared in the Arts of the Raven exhibition in Vancouver, British Columbia. Hoyt and his wife, Colleen, over the decades became dedicated students of art from this geographic and cultural ecosystem, amassing a considerable collection that fills their cabin near Mount Hood and which museum director John Olbrantz calls “one of the finest private collections of Northwest Coast Native art in the United States.” The exhibition includes three floor-to-ceiling images of the art-filled cabin that are so large and vivid that you’re tempted to step into them.
Including several pieces in the lobby, the two exhibitions feature more than 100 artworks by 44 artists, nearly 30 of them still living. Nearly a third of the works — masks, carvings, and prints — were made since 2000. Roughly another third were created during the final two decades of the 20th century.
The earliest piece is a bear mask, carved from alder during the 1950s by Mungo Martin. It was acquired by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer who worked at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, which had hired Martin in 1952 to lead a totem pole restoration project in a local park. The piece remained in the officer’s family until the Hoyts bought it in 2017.
Born at Fort Rupert in British Columbia in 1881, Martin was a key figure in what Dobkins calls a mid-20th-century “upsurgence” of Northwest Coast art. The word choice is a response to another Western bias that scholars initially were guilty of and have since shuffled off. Terming this flowering of native art that began in the 1940s as a “renaissance” implied, Dobkins explained, that Indigenous artists were reviving something that had been lost. It is yet another example of how, even with the best intentions, language becomes a tool for erasure.
“I just hate it when people say, ‘Oh, everything disappeared,’” Dobkins said. “No, no!” Despite racist and reactionary efforts by the Canadian and U.S. governments to stamp out Indigenous culture, its traditions and movements, they persisted. Martin learned from his stepfather and went on to mentor apprentices, helping to revitalize Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw culture after the Canadian government lifted its 67-year ban on the Native potlatch ceremony in 1951. The show neatly reflects this mentoring within Indigenous communities, with title cards walking viewers through the artistic lineages: Walter Harris studied with Doug Cranmer, who studied under Bill Reid; Dempsey Bob was mentored by Freda Diesing, and so on. Pieces by all these artists may be seen in TRANSFORMATIONS.
This mid-20th-century resurgence of Northwest Coast art was accompanied and to some extent boosted by a seminal book published in 1965 by a young artist and scholar named Bill Holm. His Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form was a meticulous study that produced (in English, of course) a language for the methods and styles the artists used: formlines, ovids, U-forms. A display in TRANSFORMATIONS provides an introduction to him with illustrations showing how specific visual elements can be identified, like pieces of a puzzle, in masks, paintings, and totem poles.
That so influential a work on Indigenous art was produced by a non-native “has become a sore point among many, as you might imagine,” Dobkins said. Nevertheless, his name keeps coming up, because many artists working in the 1960s and 1970s were inspired by his research and either worked with or, as was the case with Haida artist Freda Diesing, were mentored by, him. The show notes credit her as one of many artists “responsible for the 1960s reawakening of Northwest Coast art and culture in the entire region.” The Hallie Ford exhibition includes one of her alder masks, carved in 1990, and at least one print.
Diesing is one of many distinguished artists whose work found its way into the Hoyt collection. As the show’s beautiful catalog explains, the collection had as “organizing principle” centered on a touring exhibition put together by the Royal British Columbia Museum during the 1970s and early 1980s. Though the Hoyts did not attend the exhibition, they were quite taken with the 1984 catalog published in association with it: The Legacy: Tradition and Innovation in Northwest Coast Indian Art. It identified 40 artists, most of whom had artwork in the exhibition. Though the Hoyts did not limit themselves to seeking out only their work, Legacy artists became “the touchstones by which to develop their collection,” Dobkins writes in the show’s catalog. By April of this year, the Hoyts had amassed nearly 600 works that represent 30 of the Legacy artists.
One of them, Robert Davidson, is an internationally acclaimed artist who has more work featured in TRANSFORMATIONS than anyone else. A Haida artist, he began carving as a teenager, and in addition to the Legacy show, his work has been featured in several single-person exhibitions across North America. The Hallie Ford show includes nearly a dozen of his silkscreen prints, including one with particularly vibrant blue that is mesmerizing.
But as Dobkins points out, Davidson’s work, which covers two gallery walls, offers a window into the artist’s development over time. His earlier formline images are rendered in what scholars call the “traditional” style described by Holm, but as he grew older and more confident with the forms, he felt free to experiment. These pieces are arranged in more or less chronological order. In a nearby glass case, you can see Davidson’s first print, dated 1968, in which he copied a frog design from a dance blanket. One scholar, according to the notes, “has called the result a ‘visual disaster,’ given that the image is poorly rendered and the red on brown is muddled.” Davidson and his students at the Kitanmax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art at ‘Ksan, Hazelton, B.C., made 650 copies of the card, which is now a collector’s item.
Close behind Davidson is Susan Point, who was raised and still lives on the Musqueam Indian Reserve near Vancouver, B.C. Seven silkscreen prints and a glass sculpture exhibit her signature circular design. Also, Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw artist Beau Dick, who died in 2017, has an eagle helmet and a mask, along with several overtly political silkscreens on display. He was featured in the 2017 documentary Meet Beau Dick: Maker of Monsters, which was screened this month as part of the exhibition.
The show’s catalog, available for $50, includes an essay by Dobkins and has background about the Hoyts, the history of the art form, and some of the key artists whose work is featured. Tasia D. Riley, a research assistant at Hallie Ford, is credited as a co-author. She compiled the artists’ biographies and wrote some of the object descriptions. Riley’s own biography notes that she is of Tlingit, Filipino, and Irish background and is interested in decolonization efforts, a project to which the Hallie Ford and Dobkins are clearly dedicated.
“There’s no such thing as a ‘post-colonial’ world,” Dobkins said. “This university is one of the most colonial institutions in all of Oregon. It’s ground zero for Jason Lee and the missionaries. This is it, this is where it started. I’ve had students here who are descendants of Jason Lee’s first Kalapuyan students from Grand Ronde. So it’s within living memory.”