ALL IN THE FAMILY: The National Gallery of Canada Features the Legacy of Charles Edenshaw

Outside the National Gallery with sun shining through the glass and a poster of a bracelet advertising Charles Edenshaw

A family’s remarkable resiliency in spite of the odds.

This weekend at the National Gallery of Canada the exquisite exhibit of Da•axiigang, the Haida name for the the artist Charles Edenshaw, is closing.

Charles, or “Chinni Charlie” as he is known to his family, was born in 1839 but despite the 175 years we are removed from his physical presence on earth his spirit continues to speak through the hands of his great grandchildren.

Silver bracelet with Haida carvings Charles Edenshaw. Sea Bear Bracelet, late 19th century silver. McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Photo: Trevor Mills. Image courtesy The National Gallery of Canada.

The exhibit is housed in the galleries that are usually reserved for the Inuit Collection. This intimate space is well suited for the story of Charles and the family ties that are presented in the exhibit. As you read through the information provided you understand how important family was to him and how important he is today to his descendants that refer to him by the Haida word (Chinni) for grandfather.

When you turn left to enter into the first room of the exhibit you are met with a piece that spiritually roots the work. It is unlike the rest of the collection of platters, hats, walking sticks, and silver spoons that look as pristine as if they have come fresh from the artist’s hands. It is a cradleboard that Charles youngest daughter, Nora, identified as being hers and may have also been used for his other three daughters – Emily, Agnus, and Florence – who came before. It is worn down with the wear of practicality from safely securing babies to backs. Simply carved and embedded with abalone shells, it starts off an exhibit that includes work by the men who are descended through two of these women – James Hart and Robert Davidson.

Just beyond the cradleboard is a fantastic Transformation Mask by James who is also the hereditary Haida Chief. On the other wall Nangkilslas: He Whose Voice is Obeyed is the other Transformation Mask by Robert that bookends a bentwood chest attributed to their great-great-grandfather. A photograph on the wall beside Robert’s mask shows the one by their Chinni which inspired both of them as master carvers. Now too fragile to travel with the exhibition the strength of his descendants skill fills the void left by its absence.

Transformation Mask, circa 1882-1890: wood, bird feathers, animal fur, pigment, leather copper. / VANCOUVER ART GALLERY

In the accompanying book for the show Chief James Hart writes:

“Chinni Charlie “wished he could leave his hands to us” meaning he wanted to leave his talent to his family. In the end he did. The ones who carry on in the family like to say that “we get it from Chinni Charlie and Nonni Isabella – it runs in the family.” 

Nonni Isabella was Charles wife, known also by her Haida name Qwii.aang. A talented artist in her own right, the exhibit showcases the work that she did with Charles, her partner in life and art.

Her skill as a basket and hat weaver using spruce root can been viewed up close and personal. The exhibit includes many examples of her work woven with tedious precision. Charles would paint her pieces infusing them with more layers of meaning to teach the “Haida Way”. These beautiful objects also speak to the relationship between spouses who were creatively inspired by each other’s talent.

A wide brimmed hat woven out of spruce root and painted in Haida designsCharles and Isabella Edenshaw (attr.). Eagle Hat, c. 1890 spruce root, paint. Museum of Anthropology, The University of British Columbia. Photo: Trevor Mills. Image courtesy The National Gallery of Canada.

In this generation the spirit of Nonni Isabella is embodied in her great-great-granddaughter Lisa Hageman Yahgulanaas. Lisa is a talented textile artist who “weaves in the geometric style of weaving known as Yelth Koo or Raven’s Tail” embracing the complexities of the art form as her Nonni did.

Outside the National Gallery with sun shining through the glass and a poster of a bracelet advertising Charles Edenshaw

Charles Edenshaw (attr.) Model Pole, c. 1890–1905. Argillite. Image provided by the National Gallery.

A cultural strand was not severed.

The night of the opening you could witness the thread of Charles’ legacy stitching the past to the present as family members from the temperate West Coast arrived to the chilly winter of Ottawa to be present and pay their respects.

When I ask artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas to tell me what is important about his Chinni’s work when viewed in a contemporary context he replies:

“my great grandfather worked in one the most important traditional styles, the tradition of innovation.”

Long before Picasso happened upon the African masks that inspired him to produce a radical new style of painting, Charles was soaking up what arrived in his world that was ‘exotic’ and foreign to him. Reading the newspapers and books that landed in his lap from faraway lands, he would cut out what interested him to hang like an inspiration board on the walls where he worked. Animals not indigenous to the terrain of Haida Gwaii, like elephants and lions, started to make appearances in his work but with an incorporation that seemed natural when viewed amongst the Haida symbols.

Not only did Charles break new ground with regards to hybridized content but he experimented with materials, like gold and silver, introduced during the Colonial expansion. He incorporated the new with the traditional materials and was able to confidently shift from wood, to metals and then on to argillite as evidenced by the wonderful platters contained in the exhibit. These platters, made of the black slate that was locally quarried yet still labourious to obtain, are transmissions of the oral traditions that still survive in these (post) post modern times.

Outside the National Gallery with sun shining through the glass and a poster of a bracelet advertising Charles EdenshawCharles Edenshaw (attr.). Platter, pre-1894. Argillite The Field Museum, Chicago, 17952 Photo: © The Field Museum. Image courtesy The National Gallery of Canada.

This contemporary legacy goes beyond family to include so many carvers working today. Tlingit artist Nicholas Galanin recalls how his first instructor (Louis Minard) was taught by A.P Johnson, an artist who had some point learned at the hands of Charles. You see the substantiation of Charles in Nicholas’ work. One of his recent creations is a beautifully carved piece titled Indian Children’s Bracelet, a deceptive title for what it really is – child sized handcuffs used to restrain Aboriginal children who were being separated from their families and taken off to schools. (Read more here.)

Outside the National Gallery with sun shining through the glass and a poster of a bracelet advertising Charles EdenshawIndian Children’s Bracelet. Hand Engraved, Iron. Nicholas Galanin. 2014. Image courtesy Nicholas Galanin. 

The Indigenous traditions of the Pacific West Coast, like carving and weaving, have continued to influence the international art scene and the work of Nicholas as well as Charles’ familial successors – Robert, James, Michael and Lisa – are part of collections around the world. But this is nothing new. Even in his time, Charles was recognized widely. In 1902 the ethnographer C.F. Newcombe declared Charles to be “the best carver in wood and stone now living.”

Almost two centuries of international influence! This would be remarkable for any family but the fact we are even able to experience the work is nothing short of miraculous. Charles lived through not one but two small pox epidemics that claimed almost the entire Haida population. The odds were that he should not have survived let alone gone on to thrive as a celebrated artist with an extensive family still practicing in the traditions he learned from his own elders 200 years ago.

Along with the almost complete loss of a people, the traditional ways of being were forced to go underground. The Anglican missionaries condemned the practice of tattooing the Haida clan symbols on skin so bracelets instead of bodies became the place where one could claim their identity. In 1884 the Potlatch was banned and a thriving culture almost came to a halt but was not fully annihilated. Somehow that thinning cultural strand, weakened by ‘progress’ and British expansion, was not entirely severed.The combined four hands of this couple stitched, built, and carved a new path to Sovereignty. They did this all while raising their children – 11 in all.

Today we prosper from the richness they left behind and the talent passed forward.

The Charles Edenshaw exhibit is a love letter to a grandfather, a creative collaborator and a spiritual mentor. This exhibit is a family tale that can inspire us all.

The exhibition ends Sunday May 24 at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. For exhibit hours click here.

More information on the Charles Edenshaw exhibit can be found here.

black stroke

All descended from Charles Edenshaw, artists Michael Nicoll YahgulanaasCorey Bulpitt and Chief James Hart demonstrate that the Haida culture is alive and well in the 21st Century.

Abstracted drawing “Papered Over” (2011.4.25 36″ H X 24″ W) by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. Image courtesy Michael Nicholl Yahgulanaas.

Created with graphites, crayon, watercolour, ink pen and brush, rice paper and canvas support “Papered Over” is a work Michael writes was “inspired by the winter light on clear days in Calgary Alberta will in residence at Mont Royal University.”

Outside the National Gallery with sun shining through the glass and a poster of a bracelet advertising Charles EdenshawWork by Larissa Healey and Corey Bulpitt (great-great-grandson of Charles Edenshaw) at Sakahàn, The National Gallery of Canada. Image by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

Along with Larissa, Corey explains his process for the above work commissioned as part of last year’s Sakahàn, the National Gallery’s International Indigenous Art Exhibit.

“James Hart, great-great-grandson of Charles Edenshaw, and exhibition curator Robin Wright, discuss what makes the Charles Edenshaw exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada, so special.” View on Youtube here.

Outside the National Gallery with sun shining through the glass and a poster of a bracelet advertising Charles EdenshawThe Three Watchmen by Chief James Hart on Sussex Drive in front of The National Gallery of Canada. Image by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.