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What Is Northwest Coast Art?

October 29, 2019
First Nations Map of Northwest Coast

From the Tlingit in Alaska to the Coast Salish in Southern British Columbia and Northern Washington; the Pacific Northwest is home to more than a dozen First Nations. It is an area of exceptional linguistic, cultural, and artistic diversity.

The brief discussion of Northwest coast art below outlines some of the major cultural art styles. For simplification, a number of Indigenous cultures have been grouped under one heading, as the artistic work of these cultures exhibits many similarities.

Haida art is often described as monumental and classic. Artists will depict creatures with abnormally large heads with the rest of the body in smaller proportion. Still, the overall look of Haida art is balanced and symmetric. Blank spaces are rarely left unadorned, and the bold form line has finely tapered points, giving it a very structured look. Haida print makers often use red and black exclusively, which are traditional pigments used in Haida art.

Kwakwaka’wakw art is extravagant and striking. Two dimensional graphic art is often composed of many small elements to create the overall design. Variations of typical design elements are generally used in repetition to project an energetic, active state. Most artists prefer traditional colours like black, green, red, white, and yellow. Some popular subject matters for Kwakwaka’wakw art are the Thunderbird and Sisiutl.

Coast Salish art differs from other Northwest coast art in that it is more minimalist in style and to the point. Faces have few distinguishing features, and designs are highly geometric in nature. Traditionally, the most common motifs in Salish art were Thunderbird, otters, and salmon. Coast Salish artists use ovals, trigons, and crescents as major design elements, rather than ovoids and u-forms (form line art). Some of the finest historic Salish carvings are found on the spindle whorl. Spindle whorls are used for making yarn. Many Coast Salish artists pay tribute to the spindle whorl by incorporating its design into their work.

Nuu-chah-nulth art is geometric, featuring straight and rectangular shapes. Even natural elements, such as clouds and water, can have an angular look. The art is flowing and flexible. Form lines, if present, are fluid and have more lenient rules than other Northwest coast styles. In addition, artists tend to leave open spaces blank, instead of filling them with elements of design. The Nuu-chah-nulth were whalers primarily, so much of their traditional and contemporary art depicts whales and images of Thunderbird. Nuu-chah-nulth artists have historically been quick to use new bright colours as they became available.

Tlingit art, especially two dimensional design, is similar to Haida art. In fact, the art of various northern groups displays similarities of style, since the cultures were closely connected through trade. The most notable and dramatic Tlingit art pieces were totem poles. They were rare further north, but a common sight in southern Tlingit territory. Tlingit art features round faces, rather small noses, wide-lipped, open mouths, and strong associations with shamans.

Tsimshian art has a look that is crisp and clean. Human figures are lifelike and often express emotion. Tsimshian art tends to be personal and positive. Some traditional elements of design can be detached from the main body of the motif. This gives the appearance of movement and lends vibrancy to the design. As in much of Northwest coast art, legends are frequently depicted. Tsimshian styles often place figures closely together for contrasting effect and to add variety.

Heiltsuk art adheres closely to the northern form line of the Haida and Tsimshian. It is characterized by narrow, light lines and designs with bilateral symmetry. Particularly characteristic is the use of red and green pigments. Heiltsuk artists are well known for portable, carved pieces such as bentwood boxes, masks, spoons and ladles.

Nuxalk art has a very unique style that can only be found in Nuxalk territory. Artists often use a very vibrant blue, the Bella Coola blue in their works. The Nuxalk are known for their masks and monumental sculptures, easily recognizable by their rounded, bulging faces with leaf shaped eye orbits. There is a real flowing quality to the exuberant colours applied to their sculptural work.