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Well Made

Raven and the First Men, Bill Reid. Photo credit: Meredith Arnold

One basic quality unites all the works of mankind that speak to us in human, recognizable voices across the barriers of time, culture and space: the simple quality of being well made."
- Bill Reid, Haida artist, Vancouver BC

Just days ago, at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, I stood in awe of floor to ceiling totem poles of the coastal native tribes of the Canadian Northwest. Collected and archived from a period of several hundred years ago to just past the end of 19th century - and reinterpreted and revived in the 20th century and today by artists such as Bill Reid - these ancient cultures speak through the silence. They communicate, as Reid said, across time. Through the artistry of the hand-hewn canoe, the enduring totem, the plaited basket left behind by long ago generations for modern discovery. The MOA display area for these totems, a vast soaring open space, constructed of rough cedar poles supporting glass walls rising three plus stories, barely accommodates some of these magnificent artifacts. Many totems are larger in diameter than three men might wrap their arms around - some of them cut and shipped in segments, they are so tall. Painted and unpainted, aged salt-stained gray, cracked, fragile, these totems are the long ago work of living peoples of today. The stories of these coastal peoples, their legends and family histories, are carved into the iconic shapes of raven, bear, dog fish, whale and human, to name just a few.

As I explored the museum, I found myself studying the "multiversity galleries," collections of fascinating and diverse examples of crafts and cultural arts of Pacific peoples that range from the Polynesian and Asian to the Inuit. The connection between objects well made and enduring cultural linkages began to emerge as I studied the collective display. The use of porcelain masks in ancient Japanese Samurai Noh Theatre, for example, reflects a similar importance in the carved and painted masks of Northwest native dance. Weaving patterns in basketry from Northwest coastal communities represent patterns of handcrafted art reinterpreted elsewhere around the Pacific. My illuminating day among the old carvings echoed with the enduring power of art. The voices of the past are heard by the people of the present in the things they have made.
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