Exploring the Northwest Coast

New exhibition in Maple Ridge focuses on the painted works of Haisla artist Lyle Wilson

Vancouver-based Haisla artist Lyle Wilson at the Maple Ridge Art Gallery

Vancouver-based Haisla artist Lyle Wilson at the Maple Ridge Art Gallery

Over two decades, Lyle Wilson has completed over 70 paintings on canvas, red cedar and rag matboard, ranging in size from a nine-foot high banner to a panel that fits in the palm of his hand.

Despite the large body of work, painting is one of the most “stressful” mediums Wilson practices. The physical act of carving relieves tension, while painting an image is painstakingly built brush stroke by brush stroke. Often Wilson finds himself holding his breath for long periods until a series of brush strokes is finished. His sense of dread only alleviated by the pure joy of finishing a painted work.

“What you see hear is probably the end of my painting,” says Wilson during a tour at the Maple Ridge Art Gallery where Paint, an exhibition featuring 40 of his paintings opened on Saturday.

“I get a lot more satisfaction whacking away at a piece of wood than painting.”

Born in 1955, Wilson was raised in the Haisla community of Kitamaat and went on to study fine arts and education at both the University of British Columbia and the Emily Carr College of Art and Design.

He also undertook an intensive exploration of what he refers to as “the classic Northwest Coast style” while working as a commissioned artist at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC.

The artist’s 20-year association with museum enabled him to study the work of past masters and develop his own understanding and interpretation of the style of painting popularly known as formline.

Paint is the first major exhibition to focus exclusively on Wilson’s paintings and to assemble such a significant body of his work. Wilson is so a renowned and accomplished carver in wood and metal.

Many of the works on display are unique and personalized images of coastal creatures such as orcas and ravens, the undersea world, and several stylized maps of Aboriginal territories.

The exhibition reveals with equal force a contemporary voice that evokes the artist’s concern for the environment and the indigenous Haisla language.  When these pressing themes share space with the historical visual language he has mastered, the two forces are sometimes intriguingly – if uncomfortably – juxtaposed.

This is especially apparent in Wilson’s innovative “word paintings,” in which graceful formline figures are morph into the letters of the English alphabet and numerals.  The visual play is extended further in instances where the painted words are rendered in the indigenous Haisla language, offering a succinct and ironic comment on the lack of congruity between Haisla and European cultural values.

“There are these incredible stories behind the paintings. We want these stories to be shared for a greater understanding of Northwest culture,” explains gallery curator Barb Duncan.

“[Wilson] is sharing so much. He is also leading the way and showing that that doesn’t harm the culture at all, in fact it leads to more understanding.”

An 80-page, illustrated catalogue accompanying the exhibition is also a first for Wilson’s career, as it offers not only a comprehensive visual record of the exhibition, but some 30 essays by the artist that shed light on the paintings.

Throughout his essays are over 80 different Haisla words and their translations into English, reflecting Wilson’s commitment to doing all he can to preserve and promote the strengthening of the language among his own Haisla people.

• Paint is at the Maple Ridge Art Gallery until July 28.

Artist tour

• Lyle Wilson will lead a presentation at the gallery on Saturday, May 12 at 11:30 a.m. and Saturday, June 30 at 11:30 a.m.