by Dr. George F. MacDonald
Over the last decade or two, "recontextualization" has been a buzz-word in the museum community. This refers to the idea of taking the material objects that museums collect and displaying them in a larger context which makes more readily apparent their historical function or relationship to other objects. The forms that recontextualization has taken include the use of mannequins for display of entire costumes, period rooms, and life-size dioramas reconstructing historical or cultural settings. More recently, researchers (particularly archaeologists) have taken to using computers and virtual reality software to help them visualize what they believe ancient sites would have looked like when buildings stood there. We have also seen the same interest from the movie industry in reconstructing credible historical environments, often incorporating photo-realistic graphics, as sets for drama.
The art of Bill Holm and Gordon Miller is part of that same trend, aiming at historical reconstructions with an emphasis on authenticity, but also replete with drama, in the portrayals of people, places and events from the past. In their case, the past of the First Peoples of North America. The importance of their work lies not only in their artistic abilities and imagination, but in the level of detailed research that goes into re-creating historical settings. This virtual exhibition illustrates that work in regard to the traditional cultures of the Northwest Coast, primarily but not exclusively in the period before those cultures changed drastically after the arrival of Europeans. These two artists come from different backgrounds, but both are highly trained artists and both have worked in museums.
Bill HolmBill's early interest was in the Native peoples of the Plains; much of his art depicts settings from those cultures. His years at the Burke Museum reinforced his interest and honed his talents in several ways. It gave him the opportunity to examine close-up Native artifacts in the collections of the Burke and many other museums around the world. From his study he developed an intimate understanding of the organizing principles behind Native art of the Northwest Coast; his book on the basic forms of the art and their functions has become a bible for scholars. At the same time he built up the world's largest photographic inventory of Northwest Coast artifacts, recently made available by the Burke on videodisc. Bill taught himself to make arts and crafts in the various styles of the Pacific Coast peoples -- objects ranging from jewellery to totem poles; together with his wife Marty, who shares his life passion, he learned techniques for making clothing, baskets and other woven items. His interest in Native ceremonies, particularly those of the Kwakwaka'wakw, led him to association with Native traditionalists and to active participation in ceremonies at Alert Bay, Fort Rupert and other villages.
This confluence of artistic ability, craft skills and ethnological expertise has enabled Bill to re-create scenes truly evocative of traditional Native cultures. In particular, his art highlights individuals and their costume and personal items of adornment. It might be added that Bill is also a remarkable teacher of art. Many of today's generation of talented Native artists received training directly or indirectly from Bill.
Gordon MillerGordon Miller's work is the outcome of a similar confluence of interests and talents. He too had the opportunity to become intimately familiar with the material culture of Pacific Coast peoples, through his work as chief designer for the Vancouver Museum. And he had within reach the excellent collections of the UBC Museum of Anthropology, for which he has undertaken numerous commissions -- particularly in creating drawings that place totem poles in their historical settings. In fact, these "pictorial labels" have set a new standard in the museum world.
Gordon is an avid sailor and has sailed much of the British Columbia coast. This personal knowledge of the coastline, combined with his love of nature, are hallmarks in much of his work. In contrast to the work of Bill Holm, whose special (but not exclusive) interest is in people, Gordon tends to focus on specific panoramic settings and often on particular historical events -- his sailing interests are reflected in that many of the events depict encounters between Native people in their canoes and non-Natives in the great sailing ships of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Bill's work also shows an interest in this theme.
Where Bill Holm has an extensive knowledge of Native artifacts to feed into his art, Gordon makes good use of historical photos showing the locations he portrays, as well as visits to those locations to get a feel for the geography, the colour of the sky, the look of the water. He may spend several days camped "on location" -- as he did, for example, at the site of Kiusta village in researching a painting commissioned for the Canadian Museum of Civilization -- in order to prepare sketches showing different views and geographic features. He has a special interest in the coast associated historically with the territory of the Haida, together with the villages that once stood on those shores. His experience at the CBC has inclined him to approach his work from the perspective of a storyboard -- a series of images which, together, tell a story. Using his sketches, archival photos and other historical evidence, his technique often is to create a model of the scene he plans to paint, which allow him to visualize it from different perspectives.
Both these artists produce paintings (as well as black-and-white drawings) that are "museum quality". Not merely in terms of the technical and creative aspects, but in the informed and plausible reconstructions of a way of life now largely vanished, but recaptured in striking fashion through the paintings of Gordon Miller and Bill Holm. It is no surprise that their work is often found illustrating books or displayed on the walls of museums such as the Canadian Museum of Civilization.