Viewing "For Gerry Hawke" on opening of TERRITORY.

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by Sandra Price

How many different shades of black are there? How many different ways to look at a bear? Forty-three works of art about bears and territory were entered in the recent art show sponsored by the Gowgaia Institute.

The Queen Charlotte venue was the Visitor Information Center, where black display panels were arranged like dark, inter-connecting caves. From them emerged the art works, predominantly black and red: bear fur and bear blood.

Guujaaw’s large cedar wood bear head loomed high in the air. This timeless work with its precise adherence to traditional Haida formlines could have been carved 200 years ago, or 100 years in the future. Guujaaw had not given this piece a title; instead it shared the name with Alice Cervo’s bear portrait just below: “Awakening the Spirit of the Bear”.

The future of bears was addressed by many artists whose works referred to the re-opening of the Tlell River House as a bear lodge. Trophy hunting was a frequent theme.

Alex Rinfret’s life-sized bear of artificial fur and plastic looked like a moth-eaten teddy bear on testosterone. But the belly laughs greeting “Shot at 20 Yards” stopped at the bullet-pierced, red streaked front flank. This was no toy but a stand-in for the real thing. Here one could lay a band on the back of this magnificent creature and feel the moment of impact when the bullet hit.
In “Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Out of Time” W.S. Pierson used black and sunset reds to paint a rifle sight centered on a bear’s head. No question what the next scene would be.

The computer-drawn cartoon of Berry Wijdeven contrasted the fierce expression of a bear rug with the benign look of a gentle, if misunderstood, living bear. Mare Davies-Levesque, Simon Davies, and Michael Nichol Yahgulaanas’ bearskin of charred plywood evoked logging slash left after industrial intrusion into bear territory.

Rolf Bettner superimposed images of bullets – one for every recent hunting kill – onto a bear head, nearly obscuring it. A different twist on the hunting trophy came in Betsy Cardell’s textile, “The Prize”. In its jaws a triumphant bear clutched a writhing salmon.

The works in this show ranged widely, not just in media but also in emotional content. Here was a virtual explosion of intense feelings: rage and anger, honor and delight, frustration and sadness, nostalgia and joy.Manzanita Snow’s large, ornately framed “Dancing with Bears” conveyed the sheer exuberance felt when joining (in spirit) bears at play.

Several artists chose to look at bears in a world unaffected by human interference. Shannon Greenwood used handmade paper, a nearly raw material of the earth, for “Respect Our Ancient Pathways”, a sacred icon for a side alter. Randal Warnock assembled four elements – a bear skull and three bear teeth of different ages – into “Peaceful Cycle”. Pure white, its contrast with the dark-colored works in the show made the attentive viewer stop, and after consideration say, “yes, this can be”. A women and bear cub – “Mother” – emerged from the coral Fred Watmough carved with great precision and sensitivity.

Most of the pieces required words – a title at least – to convey their full impact. Simon Davies’ large white canvas was marked into a political mallet with its name added: “Reduced to Statistics”. Josina Davis’ handmade book bore the title, “What is known about the Haida Gwaii Bear Population”. Open the book; all 36 pages were blank. An eloquent response to the provincial government setting bear hunting quotas without census data. Liisa Laakso’s elegant, texture-rich collage of midden-like layers conveyed our multiple levels of understanding about bears. Her title, “Perhaps They Should Wear Amour”, tied them directly into the pale ontological record and reminded us that we humans play a role in species extinction.
But Kiki can der Heiden didn’t need titles for her two pieces. One was a teddy bear suspended by puppet strings and carrying a white flag of surrender; the other, a teddy bear strangled with a “Love”-embroidered heart pillow. Both were indictments of human intervention, no matter how well-intentioned, often leading to destruction of what we value most.

One work generated much discussion on opening night: Celina Laursen’s “For Gerry Hawke”. Crimson splattered, broken window framed photographs of the late Gerald Hawke, a Queen Charlotte resident who had befriended and fed bears when the moving of the garbage dump abruptly closed their food bank. Laursen included newspaper articles and letters to the editor detailing his story, along with photos of Hawke feeding bears inside his home. The words “slaughter” and “tragedy” juxtaposed with “friendly” and “compassionate” triggered viewers’ memories still fresh after five years.

“Why did they have to close the dump? Can’t they leave well enough alone?”
“It was a great place to take visitors. Remember the three-legged bear?”
“But we created the problem by having an open dump in the first place.”
“How many bears got shot when they wandered into town? Wasn’t it 40 that first year?”
“Gerry’s bears had lost their fear of humans. They were a threat to his neighbors.”
“Someone should have set up feeding stations away from town.”
“The worst thing was just dumping their bodies in a heap as if they were garbage. So disrespectful.”

The closing of the dump and subsequent shooting of bears in town had created a communal wound that still festered. The Gowgaia show, and Laursen’s piece in particular, provided a magnet for discussion, one that could help heal a painful era in the community.

Laursen’s piece highlighted another feature shared by other works: more
than one person contributed to it. This was not the usual collaboration where the roles of different artists are acknowledged on the accompanying label. Instead, these artists incorporated writings and images which had first been published elsewhere. Words come to have relevance their writers couldn’t have anticipated; articles from five, ten years ago re-surfaced in collages.
This exhibition would not have had the same impact had it been held off-island. Before even entering the exhibition viewers were aware of being in Bear Territory. A sign was posted on the door: “Please be advised that the Black Bear of Haida Gwaii are heading to the rivers to feast on Salmon. Take care when walking trails and riverbanks.” And more than one person commented that the dumpsters behind the nearby convenience store should have had a bear climbing into it.

Cuddly teddy bears and the antics of gentle fairytale bears were part of the show. After all, most of us were taught as children that bears are cute. What should we be teaching our children today?

Lisa Bland’s appealing photograph, “Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed?” was mounted next to her poem. In it she considered the habits of bears in the wild, their role as prey for hunters, their perceived threat to humans, and our appalling lack of knowledge for them.

Other writings were part of the show. Evelyn von Almassy entered a haiku and her long “Monologue from the Perspective of a Bear, or a Harsh Rant Not for the Faint-Hearted.” Gudrun Dreher wove seven separate voices into her eloquent 10-page compositions in, “In the Land of the Bear.” Among them were bear itself, a Haida song, a Haida story, a young child, and a European visitor.

A polyphony of voices speaking about bears was videotaped by David Phillips for his installation subtitled “Teddy Bear’s Picnic.” It was a lengthy conversation among environmentalists, interested islanders, and bear hunting lodge manager. Questions and concerns were raised, answered, and sometimes left hanging. It was a welcome counterpoint to the almost unanimous anti-hunting perspective of the rest of the show.

To paraphrase part of the taped discussion:
“I object to calling hunting a “harvest”.” Doesn’t harvest imply an investment of labor? Where is the labor provided by hunters who come from off-island?”
“The money that hunters pay stays on the island. And logging has been much more destructive to the environment than has hunting.”

“But look what bear hunting has done to out social environment, to nature. Unlike European, our heritage is not buildings hundreds of years old, but nature. Hunting changes what we have here.”
“All of us were hunters at one time. Some of us till have that instinct.”
“But can’t we channel that instinct? The thrill of seeing a bear can be directed into telling others about it, not shooting the very thing that thrills us. We can evolve, we can change.”

This was forthright discussion in a comfortable setting among people showing mutual respect. It can be one model of a way to understand different points of view, perhaps even to bring about change.
The final work in the Queen Charlotte exhibition was outside the visitor center: a petition asking that bear hunting be eliminated on the islands. Halfway into the evening the petitioner ran out of space for signers to include their names.

For this exhibit about bears and territory artists used their hands to give voice to those who have been silenced by bullets.

“Create an artwork about bears and territory.” This was the challenge from the Gowgaia Institute. We humans have encroached on bears’ territory but have not reciprocated by making room in our territory for them. One exception was Gerald Hawke, who opened his heart, his front porch and his kitchen to bears. What, I wondered, might a room that welcomed bears look like?

To make a quilted wall hanging I gathered fabrics with bears’ pleasure in mind: blueberry print for a tablecloth and huckleberries for a lap quilt, animal pictures on the wall, a big window looking onto a patchwork mountainside of hemlocks and alder, and an overstuffed velvet chair – in black, so it wouldn’t show the bear hair. I titled my piece, “Making Room For Bears.”

Now I know that bears don’t have human emotions and esthetic tastes. But making the piece gave me a way of thinking intensely about bears, no matter how unscientific my approach.

The night before the show opened, I glanced out my studio window. Not ten feet away was a bear – a juvenile slowly padding his way across the deck. Of coarse. Hadn’t I been making room for bears? Then followed a frantic urge to find a camera but not wanting to take my eyes off the bear for even a second. How could I get him to stay around to watch him longer? What did I have to feed him?

Oops, no. Think. If I were to feed him, he might hang around and become one of those nuisance bears that gets shot when too many complaints are lodged. (Bears have proved too smart and the island too small to relocate them; they keep coming back.) Should I report this bear to the conservation officer? If I did, I might be taking away from others the enjoyment of watching this magnificent animal. But if I didn’t report the bear, he might terrify the parents of sleeping child whose bedroom window the bear had broken, as happened near Gerald Hawke’s house some years ago.

I chose to neither feed nor report the bear. Instead, after watching him amble off into the bush, I put the garbage can into the shed and locked the door.