Norman Tait exhibit celebrates work of master Nisga'a artist

West Vancouver Museum hosting retrospective Finding a Voice: The Art of Norman Tait

Finding a Voice: The Art of Norman Tait on now through Dec. 5 at the West Vancouver Museum. Curators' Talk: Saturday, Nov. 7, at 2 p.m.

"It's a larger than life moment when things like that happen," says Micah Tait.

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Reached Wednesday by the North Shore News, the 33-year-old son of celebrated B.C. artist Norman Tait refers to an enjoyable situation he's continually found himself in over the years when visiting certain public spaces with his father. Norman has carved 39 totem poles over the course of his career, five of which have been raised in the Lower Mainland: at the University of British Columbia, Stanley Park, Capilano Mall and the Native Education Centre. When visiting his father's poles, Micah likes to step back and witness the reactions of those passing by, their admiration for such impressive works juxtaposed within the hustle and bustle of Vancouver clearly evident. "Whenever we go anywhere with dad there's always a big crowd following us because somebody will hear him explaining something to us, something that happened, or a story of the poles. The crowd gathers and everyone's saying, 'Oh, you're the artist? This is your work?' He gets a kick out of it because he gets to tell stories and then the pictures start. It's a great time," says Micah.

In addition to those in the Lower Mainland, Norman has carved totem poles for the Nisga'a Nation, the David Suzuki Foundation in Japan, the Field Museum in Chicago, and the British Royal Family in London's Bushy Park.

A retrospective of the 74-year-old artist's works, including photographs of major public art commissions, carvings (masks, bowls, spoons, and rattles), jewelry (earrings, bracelets and pendants), and prints, are currently on display at the West Vancouver Museum.

Organized by the Nisga'a Museum, the show, Finding a Voice: The Art of Norman Tait, is not only celebrating Norman's contributions to Nisga'a art, but to First Nations and Canadian art as a whole.

"What is special and what is unique about Norman is how he approaches his subject matter," says Darrin Martens, exhibition curator.

While strongly interested in tradition, when referencing stories from his Nisga'a Nation heritage, Norman makes them his own, taking the stories and interpreting them for a contemporary audience.

"It's rooted in tradition, yet he's also very much challenging traditional approaches to depicting narrative and presenting audiences with what are I think very engaging artworks that do have a strong story to tell," says Martens.

Despite the longevity of Norman's career, Finding a Voice, marks only the second public museum exhibition to focus on the artist and his sculptural and two-dimensional works. He's been featured in shows over the years, but the last exhibition fully focused on him was in November 1977 at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology. "He's really excited especially as his first solo show was obviously at the beginning of his career and now this one kind of bookends for him," says Micah.

Further meaningful to the artist is that the show represents a "passing of the torch" as it also features works by Micah, who is learning the Nisga'a traditions under the tutelage of his father. Micah has one of his own masks on display, as well as three that he collaborated with his father on. "I'm very proud of the work that he's done and very proud to be trying to carry on the tradition in the family," says Micah.

"When dad started his career, everything was self-taught. He did have help and encouragement from other artists but as far as his style, he just travelled around New York and Chicago, Ontario, Seattle, wherever there was Nisga'a carvings on display and he just studied them. There were obviously old pieces, there had been several years, like a century gap in time, where there weren't many Nisga'a carvers. So he was studying the old styles, the traditional characteristics and aspects that differentiate Nisga'a from other styles.. .. That's always been important for dad in his work and as such that's something that he's been passing on to me as well and that's become one of my main focuses is maintaining the traditional characteristics of the Nisga'a style as well as obviously my own personal twist," he adds.

Norman's grandson (and Micah's nephew), Kris Stewart, 27, has also been studying with Norman (all three often work alongside one another), and has a solo mask in the show.

"He worked so hard to revive the Nisga'a style and so to be able to keep that life's work alive within the family was a very proud moment for him," says Micah.

The genesis of Finding a Voice: The Art of Norman Tait goes back two years when Martens was then director of the Nisga'a Museum in Laxgalts'ap, in northwestern B.C. Martens is currently serving as the chief curator of the Audain Art Museum, a new space set to open in Whistler Jan. 30. "Everything is on schedule and that's our date that we reveal ourselves to the world and we're very much looking forward to that. We've been holding this so close to our chests now for so long that we really want to show everybody else what we've been doing," says Martens.

Over the course of his career Martens has also served as director/curator of the Burnaby Art Gallery as well as assistant curator and director/curator of the West Vancouver Museum.

During his time at the Nisga'a Museum, he pursued a strong interest in showcasing prominent Nisga'a artists. "Obviously Norman Tait rose right to the top," he says.

He worked with Norman and his family to develop the exhibition, intended to chronicle the history of his production in a variety of mediums.

"It was critically important that when one speaks about the concept of the 'master carver,' that really means that an artist is fluent in a number of mediums, which I think Norman very much is," says Martens. He feels that comes through in the exhibition as well as in a related publication, which allowed for even more of his works to be showcased.

Before its current run at the West Vancouver Museum, which opened Oct. 14 and will remain on display until Dec. 5, the exhibition was debuted at the Nisga'a Museum May 30-Aug. 29.

"It was important to have the inaugural exhibition up in the Nisga'a territory because that is very much about a coming home," says Martens. Born in the community of Gingolx in northwestern B.C. in 1941, Norman is currently based in Vancouver. As the Lower Mainland has been his home for many years, it made sense to have the collection of works then travel to be exhibited here. Even more fittingly, Norman maintained a gallery in West Vancouver at one time, the Wilp's Tsaak Gallery -House of the Mischievous Man, so having the exhibition on the North Shore marks a second homecoming of sorts.

As part of the show, representatives of the West Vancouver Museum are presenting a curators' talk tomorrow, Saturday, Nov. 7, at 2 p.m., featuring a discussion between Martens and Karen Duffek, curator of contemporary visual arts and Pacific Northwest at the UBC Museum of Anthropology. The Museum of Anthropology is among the exhibition partners, having loaned some works by Norman from its collection to be displayed. Martens and Duffek plan to discuss aspects of Nisga'a art, how Norman fits into the continuum of great Nisga'a and First Nations artists, take a closer look at some of the works on display, as well as speak to the show's title, the concept of how an artist works to find their voice.

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