Spotlight On: The Giant Pacific Octopus

Online Exhibition

We are shining a spotlight on that marvelous cephalopod of the deep, the Giant Pacific Octopus! (Don’t call it a sucker.) This tentacular spectacular lives in the North Pacific ocean along California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Alaska, Russia, northern Japan, and Korea. It can be found from the intertidal zone down to 6,600 ft, and is best adapted to cold, oxygen-rich water. (And cold water is what the PNW does best.)

This brainy buddy is ranked as the most intelligent invertebrate. Giant Pacific Octopuses are commonly kept on display at aquariums due to their size and interesting physiology, and have demonstrated the ability to recognize humans that they frequently come in contact with. These responses include jetting water, changing body texture, and other behaviors that are consistently demonstrated to specific individuals. They have the ability to solve simple puzzles, open childproof bottles and use “tools”. The entire body of the octopus is compressible, so they are able to fit through any opening slightly bigger than the size of their beaks (the only hard part of their bodies). Their arms are muscular hydrostats, which lengthen, contract, and contort. Octopuses are poikilothermic or cool-blooded, and have three hearts and blue, copper-based blood. Now, that’s something to put on a resume!

Unsurprisingly, the octopus also has a rich history of being rendered as a character and spirit helper among the indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest. In this online-only exhibit we’re highlighting some of the creative ways in which our contemporary artists honor this intelligent, fascinating creature.

Detail from “Spirit Helpers Pole” featuring octopus tentacles. By Scott Jensen (Non-Indigenous/Adopted Tlingit).

“The Octopus is a remarkable, unique, eight armed sea creature. The final spirit helper –  its transformative nature is represented by its natural ability to incorporate its body into its surroundings and its means of capturing and devouring its prey. It has the ability to change colour, shape and even texture, as well as to eject dark ink in self-defense. It constructs its dwelling place by moving rocks and pebbles, it examines its environment, collects food and defends itself by raising its arms and seems to use its large eyes for intelligent observation. The natural behavior suggests both supernatural and human connections. Octopus is common in shamanic art, undoubtedly because of its amazing transformational abilities. It is also a crest in some religions- among the Tsimshian Eagle clan, for example. Among the Haida, Octopus feature in legend and myth, but is not a crest.

Myths speak if giant devilfish monsters that occasionally devour canoes and sometimes even entire villages. Octopus is a powerful potential sea spirit helper, often shown in complex compositions involving other creatures. In some tribal cultures, eight is considered a magic and auspicious number, which adds to the appeal and power of Octopus. Octopus is a servant of Kumugwe’, chief of the undersea world, and is also a symbol of great wealth in Kwakwaka’wakw mythology.

Octopus is identified by long tentacles that have round marks, often in double rows, representing suckers; a fluid, invertebrate body; Round, high, head, large eyes; and a short beaked like mouth. Tentacles and rows of suckers often appear elsewhere on it as decorative motifs or visual puns; they may also form anatomical elements (such as eyebrows) on the faces and bodies of other creatures, to indicate transformational abilities and shared spirit power.”

Excerpt from Understanding Northwest Coast Native Art by Cheryl Shearar.

Exhibition Dates:

May 23, 2018 - June 24, 2018

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