Bill Holm’s Northwest Coast Indian Art

PrintBill Holm, Professor Emeritus of Art History, and Curator Emeritus of Northwest Coast Indian Art at the Burke Museum, is recognized internationally as one of the most knowledgeable experts in the field of Northwest Coast Native art history. His groundbreaking book, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form, was originally published in 1965 and is credited with having drawn numerous artists into their own practice of Northwest Coast art. The 50th anniversary edition of this classic work offers color illustrations for a new generation of readers along with reflections from contemporary Northwest Coast artists about the impact of this book.

In this excerpt from the preface, Holm reflects on the book’s legacy and adds a note about its formation:

Holm's original cover with his correction.

Holm’s original cover with his correction.

As I look back on five decades of Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form there really isn’t much that I would change today. I suppose that if I had guessed that it would become a kind of hand book for Northwest Coast Native artists, rather than a somewhat technical analysis of the characteristics of Northern Northwest Coast art, I might have written it differently. Probably the first thing I would have changed would be the title, adding the word “Northern” before “Northwest Coast.” Although the geographical limits of the tradition are stated a number of times in the text, artists and some others using it have often skipped the words in favor of the pictures. The result has been that many have assumed that the art tradition described was pan-coastal.

I probably would change a few terms too, and perhaps correct a few questionable statements. My goal in inventing terminology was always to try for really descriptive words. That I sometimes failed to succeed, I regret today. For example, the term “salmon-trout’s head” was lifted bodily from George Emmons’s list of terms given him by Tlingit weavers. I tend now to call this and related design elements “elaborated inner ovoids,” since they almost never represent a fish’s head.  Similarly the design representing a wide, frontal face with long, narrow nostrils, that I referred to as a “double eye structure,” I now call a “two step structure,” referring to the unique arrangement of the formlines delineating the corners of the mouth and nostrils of the face. And its related term, the former “single eye structure” is now the “one step structure.” On the other hand, I still hold to the descriptive terms “tertiary line” and “T-shaped” relief over the terms often used by contemporary Northwest Coast artists, “fine line” and “trigon,” believing that the old terms are more descriptive of the figures’ functions.

Wooden bowl, Haida. The interrelation of two-dimensional design with sculptural form is well illustrated in this frog bowl by the master Haida carver, Charles Edensaw. University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology A7054.

Wooden bowl, Haida. The interrelation of two-dimensional design with sculptural form is well illustrated in this frog bowl by the master Haida carver, Charles Edensaw. University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology A7054.

As the characteristic shapes and arrangements of the elements of northern Northwest Coast two-dimensional art began to become familiar to me I came to the realization that there was a sort of grammar or syntax to it that was not unlike that of a written language.  There were “rules” that transcended tribal and linguistic boundaries on the northern coast and that were followed in remarkable uniformity by artists of all the tribes of the area. Like a written language, it allowed individual variation while still conforming to the rules. Just as a proper and proficient use of writing doesn’t guarantee a great poem or gripping novel, the “rules” of the northern Northwest Coast “formline” don’t automatically result in great art. That is left to the artist.

A short history of the genesis of Analysis of Form is included in the preface. Here I would like to elaborate just a bit. After having completed the work for a Fine Arts Master’s Degree in Painting under the GI Bill, I cast about for a job.  I liked teaching so went back to school to qualify for a teaching certificate. A requirement at that time was that I return to class after a year of teaching. By that time I had a pretty good understanding of the characteristics of the formline system, so I approached my longtime friend, Dr. Erna Gunther, then Chairman of the Anthropology Department and Director of the Washington State Museum (now the Burke Museum) with the proposal that I take a Graduate Research Course from her and write a paper, the subject being “The structure of Northwest Coast Indian two-dimensional art.”

Woven spruce root hat, Haida. A configurative design of a split wolf is painted around the hat in black, red, and blue-green. Private collection.

Woven spruce root hat, Haida. A configurative design of a split wolf is painted around the hat in black, red, and blue-green. Private collection.

Dr. Gunther readily agreed, and the result was the basis for “An Analysis of Form.” The paper lay fallow for half a dozen years, when I was urged by friends to try to publish it. It sounded like a good idea, but I began to realize that it was incomplete, lacking any kind of documentation. It was all in my head. Again I went to Dr. Gunther for advice. This was in the days before personal computers, and she suggested that I try Keysort Cards  to record characteristics and organize the results. I recorded characteristics of 392 specimens on 400 cards and used the results to fine-tune my conclusions.  Then, what to do?

I had no idea of how to proceed toward publishing the study.  One day I was in a laboratory in the Burke Museum, visiting a friend who had generously let me use a picture of a contemporary silver bracelet he owned as an illustration of how the design system had broken down.  Dr. Walter Fairservis, then the director of the Burke, was in the room and heard our conversation.

He came over and asked me what we were talking about.  Dr. Fairservis, an Asian and Near Eastern specialist, was being unfairly criticized by some members of the public for not exhibiting more of the museum’s Northwest Coast collections. I briefly described my study to him. He turned, picked up the phone and dialed it. He spoke — “Hello Don (Don Ellegood, Director of the University of Washington Press), we have a great manuscript here on the art of the Indians of the Northwest Coast.”

And the rest is history…

Upcoming Symposium
March 27-29, 2015

ArtTalk—Conversations with Northwest Native Art is organized by the Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Coast Art and will bring together leading scholars and Native American/First Nations artists to present and discuss current trends and recent research on the distinctive art traditions of our region, both to examine the last fifty years of Northwest Coast art, as marked by the 50th anniversary volume of Bill Holm’s Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form, and to look forward to the next fifty years.

The symposium will accompany the exhibition Here & Now: Native Artists Inspired which marks the tenth anniversary of the Bill Holm Center. This symposium will feature artists and scholars from the U.S. and Canada and highlight current research in the field of Northwest Coast art history. It will focus in particular on Native American/First Nations Canadian artists whose art is rooted in deep understanding of their respective cultural and visual heritage yet is clearly contemporary in its expression. Speakers will include distinguished scholars, as well as young artists who are pushing the boundaries of their traditions.

Learn more about the Bill Holm Center via its website and Facebook page, and about the Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture.

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