The Transforming Image


For those who love Northwest Coast native art, the book The Transforming Image is a treasure trove of old art made new. It’s an ambitious (and expensive) book that places contemporary interpretations of NW Coast art into context with the older art’s eras and areas. For artists involved in this art form, its huge collection of detailed photos provide an amazing resource to expand one’s artistic vocabulary.



In the 1800’s a rush was made to North America’s North West coast to collect objects from the various Native nations, as it was believed that these cultures were in the midst of disappearing, and chances to obtain, own, and perhaps study the highly evolved art form would disappear too. Today, many of these items, to include house screens (the interior painted division of traditional long-houses) and bentwood boxes sit on museum shelves, darkened by the patina of age, oils, and wood smoke from long dead fires, their original painted splendor seeming long gone.





Through a happy discovery in Canada, it was found that infrared photography revealed that the grey and weathered collection of NW Coast art still held the intricate and nuanced work of long forgotten masters. Government grants funded the amazing work of recovering this lost visual treasure. These images, in shades of grey and black are stunning, but further grants brought in contemporary Native artists who transferred many of these images to new wood and painted them with traditional colors, and we get to see them as they must have first looked to the artists and owners long ago, far away.


The top two images on the left show how two sides of the box look to the human eye, the two images on the right show what infrared photography reveals.

The top two images on the left show how two sides of the box look to the human eye, the two images on the right show what infrared photography reveals.


A Book is Born

Finally, another grant brought together a collection of these images, old and new, into the beautifully produced 274 page book, which was titled “The Transforming image; Painted Arts of Northwest Coast Firsts Nations” by Bill McLennan and Karen Duffek. It honors the past through the printed word, but it is the hundreds of amazing photos that let long gone artists speak again.




This book discusses this process of recovery, but goes beyond simply presenting the recovered images. Through the medium of these recovered images it illustrates the artistic differences between nations and regions, discuss the 800 plus year development of the art’s formal structure known as formline, and tracks individual unnamed artists work. Finally, it looks at contemporary artists work, and discusses the evolving nature of culture and art.




What it Means to Me

I am an aspiring artist who has been inspired by the Tlingit art that I grew up surrounded with. By the time my need to express myself in this art became too compelling to ignore, I was living in Anchorage, Alaska, far from the Tlingit homeland. There is little NW Coast art in the Matsu valley, and much of it is poorly executed. Reading Bill Holm’s exceptional book “Northwest Coast Indian Art; An Analysis of Form gave me the vocabulary to express what, to that point, had been an instinctual, or subconscious understanding of “right” in regard to a highly structured art form.


Through the decimation from western disease, and the assimilation efforts by the governments of the United States and Canada, links to native cultures were diminished. In the vacuum that was created much of the subsequent art lacked the flow, balance, and the tension and release of older art. For the aspiring artist, finding examples of the early art can be difficult, and often the newer art is no longer moored to the art form’s powerful fundamentals. For those looking to connect with truly authentic art, The Transforming Image, and Bill Holm’s book, provide a direct path to this power.




In Conclusion

If you love NW Coast art, I highly recommend this book. If you are looking to express yourself as an artist and practice NW Coast art, I suggest reading Bill Holm’s book first, and then lay your hands on The Transforming Image.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.