In her basement studio in east Vancouver, Morgan Green pulls out a few pieces of handcrafted jewelry she’s been keeping under wraps.
But Green has done something different. She’s taken that style and re-interpreted it with traditional European jewelry-making techniques.
This fusion is partly why she was recognized with a prestigious B.C. Creative Achievement Award for First Nations’ Art on Nov. 19, 2012.
“She works on such a high level,” said Kwiaahwah Jones, a curator at the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver, where Green will hold her first solo exhibition next spring.
Although Green’s career is just beginning, Jones has high hopes for an artist whose promise puts her in the realm of one of Canada’s most famous artists.
“Bill Reid was, and is still today, the most expensive jeweler per gram of gold anywhere in Canada and I think Morgan’s work is so well done – in my hope and in my mind – she’s going to achieve that level. She, like Bill, is going to reach an international market and really make a name for her nation.”
Fusing art forms
That’s high praise for a 28-year-old.
Green is Tsimshian from Lax Kw’alaams – also known as Port Simpson – in northern B.C., the daughter of Tsimshian master carver Henry Green and a Scottish and French mother, also an artist.
The entire Skeena River region was once a hub of Northwest Coast art until the potlatch ban of 1884 outlawed many of the historic cultural practices and artifacts of the Tsimshian and neighbouring nations.
Reclaiming what was lost has been a long and difficult process.
“A lot of the art represents laws and documents and histories from our potlatch culture that have a deeper context. Our totem poles were documents already. They said who lives here and who owns what and that’s not something that’s ever recognized. I think a lot of our nations struggle with that. Everything was just taken away.”
Green’s art draws on this enormous history.
“I’m inspired by the old masters of both European and Northwest Coast culture,” she says.
So Green spent the last decade learning about Tsimshian and Northwest Coast art anywhere she could – in books, stories, museums and galleries around the world and apprenticed under master artists like Rick Adkins, her father, Jordan Seward and goldsmith Gerold Mueller.
The result has been a fusion of Northwest Coast and European styles, expressed through drawings, paintings, fashion, woodcarvings, bronze casts and jewelry.
“Working with classic Northwest Coast styles and then learning new techniques for interpreting, I think that’s what’s really special about her,” says Bill McLennan, a curator at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC who has worked with Northwest Coast artists including Bill Reid for nearly 40 years.
Retelling old stories
McLennan is quick to point out another of Green’s attributes.
“She’s generous in teaching and working with other people,” he says. “I see the role of all artists as teachers: producing work that’s coming into the broader society… you look at the number of people who wear Northwest Coast jewelry now and inevitably someone will ask them: ‘What’s that?’ It’s a very subtle way of informing but people are recognizing that.”
Green embraces this role wholeheartedly.
“All my pieces have their own story. I like to name them all in Sm’álgyax and make sure I research everything,” she said.
She holds out a silver pendant. Large protruding eyes stare from a grinning, mouse-like face.
In the old stories of the Northwest Coast, the same eyes have watched over the youth of the Skeena River for thousands of years.
“Mouse Woman is awesome. She’s like the smallest supernatural creature. She’s the little spirit, the little helper, especially of young people … so I like to put her into everything.”
“Strengthening our youth”
However, there’s more to it than retelling old stories.
“There’s really a deeper meaning to doing this. It basically means cultural repatriation of our art: our land, our space and our art, right?”
Green’s passion shines through in her earnest way of talking about her role as an artist.
“I think what my role is – and maybe this is why I love Mouse Woman – is because I feel the same way as her. The youth is the most important thing. Sometimes we have so many problems in our communities so I think that strengthening our youth and making them see what their culture really is – that’s really important. I had to leave home to get educated, I had to leave home to do everything that I wanted to do and that sucks.”
Having said that, Green knows that she has been lucky in the way her career has developed – using the Internet, a clientele of First Nations buyers, and art grants to support herself instead of relying solely on large galleries and art stores for exposure.
“I think it’s important because our art wasn’t invented to be sold, necessarily,” said Green.
Green hopes that someday she will be able to help bring lost Tsimshian masterworks home and re-carve and raise the totems that once stood proudly in Lax Kw’alaams.
“It’s just all about being home for me. It’s all about explaining to people that this is an extension of me sitting on the river back home. It’s all one thing to me.”