Identifying the Hand of the Artist: Charles Edenshaw


The aboriginal artists of BC’s northwest coast didn’t start signing their work until the 1940s. Not because they had no sense of leaving a physical legacy, but because it was the ownership of a piece—not the creation of it, that mattered.

Back then, artists were high-ranked chiefs to begin with; otherwise they would not have been taught how to produce their work. Ownership of their work thus added to the prestige of the person who commissioned it. As is the case in all cultures throughout recorded history, art collections were symbols of prominence.

The lack of signatures has created challenges for northwest coast art historians. Unless they’re studying the work of Charles Edenshaw (1839-1924), who remains the pre-eminent artist of BC’s northwest coast.

Aboriginal cultures were introduced to European art forms during the course of the fur trade. The Europeans brought items of all kinds, from furnishings and utensils, to clothing and textiles (the walls of Edenshaw’s studio were papered with the London Illustrated Daily News).

Edenshaw used these forms and influences to much greater advantage than did his peers. While carving Haida mythological creatures into an argillite dish, for example, he used these new, non-traditional shapes to give his forms more character and individualism; to make them less stiff, more animated. Meanwhile, his wife, Isabella, was a talented weaver. Her work is easily identified because of her patterns, and because Charles painted the finished pieces. And the main reason that their work is easily identifiable is that, whether carving, painting or making jewellery, Edenshaw’s work carries a particularly high, distinct level of elegance and craftsmanship.

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In Edenshaw’s day, it was extremely rare for an aboriginal artist to be able to live by his art. But Edenshaw enjoyed a worldwide reputation and did very well. While he apparently never traveled further south than Victoria, he received commissions from the world’s major museums, collectors and ethnographers. When the American cities were building their museums, totem poles were de rigueur—now, New York’s American Museum of Natural History has more northwest coast art than do the three major BC museums combined.

Other artists saw Edenshaw’s success and the great demand for his work and began copying it. So identifying certain things, like mid-19th century miniature totem poles, can be problematic. But as Bill McLennan, projects manager at the UBC Museum of Anthropology notes, “People may have tried to replicate Edenshaw’s work. You could still try to. But you’d have to be a superb craftsman. And if you were that good, you could make a nice living on your own.”

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McLennan has put together a small exhibit to show people how art historians go about identifying the work of an artist. There are just 12 pieces, plus a collection of hats (and three gold bracelets never before seen in public). The exhibit is accompanied by detailed photography showing how the experts can state, with certainty, that a piece is the unsigned work of the master craftsman, Charles Edenshaw.


Blitz Magazine, March 2000

Down from the Shimmering Sky : Masks of the Northwest Coast

         Blitz Magazine, July 1998

In Western culture, masks are used to disguise, distort, deceive. The First Peoples of the Northwest Coast of BC, however, use masks as a means of communication — and have done so for centuries. In the largest collection of First Nations masks ever amassed, The Vancouver Art Gallery is currently hosting Down from the Shimmering Sky : Masks of the Northwest. Some of the exhibit’s 175 masks are new, but most come from 57 private and institutional collections in Canada, the US and Europe, and are returning to Canada for the first time in 200 years.

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          Yuppies, incidentally, were not the first avid collectors of aboriginal art — some of these masks were collected during Captain Cook’s early expeditions. Those from the late 18th century and early 19th century are of human faces; it was only after the 1850s that masks depicting animals and supernatural creatures became predominant. In the 1870s, Haida artists such as Simeon Stilthda and John Gwaythil began creating masks specifically for sale. Today, there is a strong community of mask-makers in BC, and there is more interest in producing non-traditional masks that draw inspiration from the secular world.

          Down from the Shimmering Sky includes masks from the Nuxalk, Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, Heiltsuk, Tlingit, Nuu-chah-nulth, Gitxsan, Nisga’a and Makah nations. While the identities of those who carved the older masks remain unknown, there are pieces by Robert Davidson, Charles Edenshaw, Richard Hunt, Willie Seaweed, Arthur Thompson, Mungo Martin, Tony Hunt, Joe David, Tim Paul and Freda Diesing.

          The exhibit, which runs to October, explores the representation of The Human Face Divine, plus the four dimensions of the cosmos as perceived by the various nations. The Sky World, which dominates legend and life, is depicted with radiant sun masks, serene moon masks or supernatural bird masks — of the thunderbird, crooked-beak, raven or eagle. The Mortal World, the realm occupied by real and mythic creatures, is represented by wolf, grizzly bear, sea lion or puffin masks. The Killer Whale is a common representation of the Undersea World, which is equal in mystery and power to that of the sky and is full of threatening creatures; and the Spirit World, which co-exists with the Mortal World but is home to a fearsome ghost who is the keeper of drowned souls, is depicted by masks of strong emotion.

          Some are decorative pieces, some ceremonial objects. Some are ugly, some pretty, some fierce, some gentle. All are powerful icons; each one tells a story and reminds its people of their responsibility to carry on the traditions and values of their ancestors.

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