As far as I can tell, all of the tribes classified as Northwest Coast have an ideology and strong identity with stories of transformation. One that goes beyond a classification of general concepts of youth into adulthood. Also, beyond general nature itself, and very deep into psychological territory. I learned of this deep philosophy from one of my mentors and major influences, Greg Colfax, in my formative years as an artist. My first piece that explored this was “Wolf Daughter”, a story of a wolf who fell in love with a human boy from a tribe nearby she rescued from the river. There is a great challenge to depict a story in a single positive and negative composition, and it was there in 2005 that I signed my first print with my Native name; Qwalsius.
Following my time working with Colfax, I went on to spend a great deal of time with my great Uncle—Jerry Jones, (dxsqiusx) in Tulalip—who in turn had George David in his workshop. I went on to work with George on a regular basis, and had an admiration for his philosophy of design. His first words of encouragement were the same as Greg’s, “sketch, draw, draw as much as you can”. That has always been invaluable. It would seem like an obvious recommendation to a young artist starting out, but I discovered that in a marketplace that sought iconography at the time, some artists fell into a place of stamping out productions both painted and sculptural. With these invaluable mentors I was privileged to appreciate a deeper aspect of design very early on.
In those years, George shared this idea that he was taken by a Japanese practice of painting from meditation and raw emotion. Although he never shared the exact origin, it was his enthusiasm for the concept alone that drew me to explore it from a Native aspect, as it has its own roots in Coast Salish traditions, though mainly with ceremony. I wanted to explore an expression that stepped away from iconography in a traditional sense and towards one of feeling in the present.
I recall an essay that [fellow Coast Salish artist] lessLIE shared with me when we met years ago, titled “Snakes and Clowns”, that examined the works of the late Art Thompson, Tsa-qwa-supp (Nuu-chah-nulth). Art was a major influence to so many, and it was well documented he had a difficult life. I only met him once, and it was a positive exchange. I thought of that essay that pointed out that his culture was minimized by observers, which motivated him to create work on a high level of execution. I shared that sentiment deeply, as Coast Salish work has suffered that perception for generations. It was somewhere in there this idea of giving life to two major influences that I decided to tackle an homage to such masters in the crossroads of my formative years.
Needless to say, this piece is inspired from Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker in the recent movie that tackles several pressing issues in our world today. Coming from my perspective, I am reminded of a man who was so taken by fire—and its consuming power—that he became it. It was his persona and very purpose from then on, and the people forgot his name and who he was before. They know only that he became part of that nature.
This view makes use of the general Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth facial format of mask carving that I learned from George. It explores that idea of painting without hesitation, in pure expression. It also utilizes a new format of using digital painting. This work brings together a connection to something that I feel has made my life experience unique, and the place I’ve arrived at as an artist able to express my sincere admiration for my heroes. Art Thompson was known to be difficult, as many genius artists have been in cultures across time. I would think of this as a tribute to him in that he gave everything within himself to his art, and became it. And in that sacrifice he held onto an internal chaos that gave us beautifully-composed order where once an audience saw nothing but snakes and clowns. Paint is only on the surface; it’s what is underneath that tells the story.