Things are going well for Latham Mack. The young Nuxalk artist, a graduate of the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art in Terrace and father to a 10-month old son, has been working hard to hone his craft and establish himself in the market. Recently, he was awarded a Museum Research Grants for the Burke Museum and undertook a remarkable trip.
Located in Seattle, WA on the University of Washington Campus, the Burke Museum is home to the Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Coast Art and hosts a large collection of Pacific Northwest Coast. The research grant Mack was awarded is intended to give non-University of Washington artists and other researchers access to the historical collections at the Burke and other museums for research on art from the Pacific Northwest region.
Researching online ahead of time, Mack was able to identify about 30 – 40 pieces of Nuxalk art that he was interested in studying. His longtime mentor, world-renowned Tahltan/Tlingit carver Dempsey Bob, accompanied him on the trip.
The museum’s collection featured Nuxalk art dating back approximately a century, and Mack was thrilled with the opportunity to study such a wide range of artifacts. “The old pieces are some of the best teachers,” he explained. “They are our ancestors and our foundation. The shape, movement, and proportion make it feels as though they are alive.”
One of the most interesting phenomena Mack experienced while studying the old art was the transfer of spiritual energy that they still hold, which results in extreme fatigue for the researching artist. “Dempsey had told me that it would wear me out, studying these old pieces,” he explained. “And it was true! That energy they hold is so strong it drains your body, and by the end of the day I was exhausted.”
When questioned on the comparison of contemporary Nuxalk art to the old work, Mack said that there simply isn’t one. “The old pieces have life in them and they look real because they lived it on a day to day basis,” he explained. “It’s so strong spiritually, you can’t compare anybody to the old stuff. We can’t get to that level even now with all our advanced tools.”
When asked if the old art should be returned, Mack certainly agreed, but he cautioned against bringing it back without the proper facility. “The pieces do have an impact and they should be more accessible to Nuxalk people,” he said. “But they are so delicate they require a specialized facility and the community needs to develop that space first.”
Original Nuxalk art, some of it certainly over a century old, is scattered around the world. While much of it is hosted by large museums such as the American Museum of Natrual History in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago, which are said to contain over a dozen totem poles, some of it is also held in private collections. Mack is familiar with at least one private collector who is making it his mission to recover as much Nuxalk art as possible.
Philanthropist Michael Audain has been scouring the globe to purchase Nuxalk art to bring it back to his proposed Audain Art Museum in Whistler. The 75-year-old chairs Polygon Homes, and has been one of British Columbia’s most active art collectors and philanthropists, giving away $40 million through the Audain Foundation, including $10 million to the Vancouver Art Gallery.
There is no doubt Nuxalk art, both ancient and contemporary, is getting worldwide attention, and Nuxalk students are gaining quite a reputation at Freda Diesing, with some currently attending and more slated to come. Mack said he was very grateful to the Burke Museum for awarding him the grant and encourages other artists to apply.
All of this is uplifting to Mack as he works to establish himself in his art and breathe new life into an ancient craft. “We lost quite a bit of that spirituality, but we are bringing it back to life,” he said. “Every time you dance a piece it comes to life a little bit more.”