If you haven’t heard of Doug Cranmer, yet, you will. In fact, if you have seen the sights in Vancouver, whether as a local or a tourist, you likely have seen his work without even knowing it! Not only did Doug restore the totem poles in Stanley Park, but the poles in the replica Haida village outside the Museum of Anthropology are the result of a collaboration between Doug Cranmer and Bill Reid, another famous indigenous carver from British Columbia.
Knowing just the basics of his life, it might be easy to think of Doug in stereotypical terms. Born in 1927, he was a hereditary ‘Namgis chief who encountered the residential school system and learned to carve through observation of skilled relatives like his step-grandfather Mungo Martin. Yet Kesu’: The Art and Life of Doug Cranmer shows how Doug resisted the typical to create a singularly dynamic body of work as unique as the man himself.
The exhibit is arranged in five modules, each named to reflect an aspect of Doug’s personality: Doug the contrarian, pragmatist, individualist, iconoclast, and mentor. However, no man is an island, and Doug Cranmer’s work was not created out of thin air. Who influenced him along the way?
Doug’s artistic experience did not end with his step-grandfather, Mungo Martin, or his work with Bill Reid. In the 1960s, Doug was involved in the contemporary Vancouver art scene through his art gallery, the Talking Stick, on Granville Island, and he also had a long-term relationship with Vancouver-trained textile artist Judy Tweedie. Tweedie worked hard to generate publicity for Doug’s work, and supported Doug’s incursion into areas such as silkscreen work and abstract imagery. Doug’s style became even more diverse in the early 1970s, when he began to borrow form elements and imagery from other northern Northwest Coast groups, such as the Tsimshian. This was fueled both by his own imagination and the desire to find a unique commercial niche. His success in this meant that his pieces carried a famous name as well as a unique personal style.
His fiscal security was strengthened by his longstanding relationship with the staff at MOA. Doug had proven himself talented and reliable doing both restoration and original work, which MOA was glad to support through commissions, educational contracts, demonstrations, and a residency. His success was not bound to MOA, of course, as Doug contributed to other museums and played a large role in Expo ‘86.
Within his own work, it is easy to see aspects of Doug’s own character, such as his humor, his attention to quality, and his individuality. Though his influences can be traced to many varied communities, he was very independent-minded and experimental, often doing “something different just to be different” (98). The point is that these experiments would not have been possible without Doug’s personal history and later relationships with various
people and communities. Doug would be the first to call his work a job over a vocation, although his actions and emphasis on understanding the meaning behind quality work speaks volumes. He understood well the practicalities of his position. His skills, learned from others but honed by himself, as well as his innovation, historical understanding, and down-to-earth way
of seeing his work combine to show us the portrait of a remarkable man who was able to create a niche that only he would be able to inhabit. He was a man of settled paradoxes, who valued understanding the stories behind pieces, but also created affective art objects using the forms of his ancestors with a style all his own.