Have you ever looked into the eyes of a totem pole? Noticing the details of their form can be a helpful clue when you are just learning about the differences in carving styles between Northwest Coast First Nations or even between individual artists of the past.
The late, great Nisga’a artist, Norman Tait (May 20, 1941–May 21, 2016) learned to look closely at how the eyes were carved on masks, frontlets and totem poles when he began to study the art of his ancestors. Even late in his life, he would look deeply into those eyes to connect to them and try to uncover their secrets.
Whenever Norman would enter MOA’s Great Hall, he would walk with purpose toward his old friend and ancestor, the Eagle-Halibut pole of Laay’. This towering pts’aans, or totem pole, is thought to have been carved between 1860 and 1870, and is attributed to Oye’a’, the masterful Nass River carver Norman referred to as his great-great-great-grandfather and silent teacher. “Nisga’a style is right here,” he’d say, pointing to the form of each figure’s nose, cheeks, limbs, and most importantly, eyes.
“Oye’a’s poles are always looking down,” Norman once told me; “It’s a trick to get the eyes to look straight ahead and still have them looking down. I don’t know why Oye’a’ did that; I don’t know what meaning there was behind that, because nobody recorded his thoughts back then. If they did, they all died with it.” For Norman, those eyes meant something more than a formal challenge or a trick to copy and eventually master through his own monumental work. Solid and opaque as the red cedar from which they were carved, the eyes helped set in motion his lifelong quest to make them his own: to see inside them and through them a distinctively Nisga’a view of the world and its expression through art.
In 1975, Norman was invited to work alongside conservator Roy Waterman to restore the fragmented Eagle-Halibut pole of Laay’ so that it could be put on display at MOA. He was able to work with the pole hands-on, reassembling and replacing damaged and missing sections, looking for clues in historical photographs, and tracing Oye’a’s carved forms and lines with his own knives. A century after the elder carver’s death (c. 1875), Norman was learning to read and anticipate the master’s vision, his angles and gestures, his techniques, his knife marks and sculpting of underlying structures. “I really caught that style as much as I could,” Norman told curator Marjorie Halpin in 1998, “although my style is just slightly different than his. You can’t really catch another person’s style and copy it right down the line. It’s impossible.”
Maybe it’s a paradox that through his search for the specific, tangible qualities of Nisga’a sculptural style, Norman Tait ultimately helped to focus attention on the art’s less tangible aspects—those that have carried and translated Nisga’a knowledge over the land as well as through time and into the present—those that depend on living stories, genealogies, language, and geographical places as much as on the nuances of form and the shape of an eye.
To see more photos of Norman Tait at work, explore the Ronnie Tessler fonds in the MOA Archives online catalogue, which document a canoe project by Tait from 1986–1987.