Objects of Wonder: Preston Singletary

Objects of Wonder: Preston Singletary

bronze sculpture shown in an airport terminal depicting figures and animals in a boat with oars

Photo courtesy of the Vancouver International Airport, Canada, © Bill Reid Estate.

Bill Reid’s The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, The Jade Canoe is a breathtaking piece, sculpted in clay in the late 1980s and cast in bronze in 1993. Inspired by myths from the northwest coast of North America, the monumental sculpture (13 feet tall, 20 feet long, and 11.5 feet wide) employs the totemic carving style of the Haida Nation of British Columbia, Canada. For me it instills a sense of wonder, as the figures in it nearly appear to be animated.

Thirteen passengers are riding in the canoe. Eagle and Raven represent the main moieties of the tribe. Several subclans are depicted, such as Bear, Wolf, Frog, and Beaver, accompanied by anthropomorphic representations of Mouse Woman and Dogfish Woman. A human figure, described by Reid as the “ancient reluctant conscript,” is paddling dutifully, while a chief or shaman figure sits at the center.

The group is relying on the navigation of Raven, considered the Trickster, who is steering the boat to who knows where. The expressions of the figures range from resolute, surprised, or curious to menacing, biting, swallowing, or disgorging. This might reflect an undisclosed rivalry between clans or projected dominance from an actual historical dispute.

In any case, this piece is a testament to the enduring northwest coastal culture and takes its rightful place in the contemporary art world, where Native or Indigenous art has largely been excluded.

It is also suggestive of a goal of mine to expand Indigenous art through the use of nontraditional materials. Developing knowledge and mastery of newer materials not heretofore associated with traditional arts brings opportunities to render and preserve the ancient codes and symbols of the land in exciting new ways.

Preston Singletary’s art has become synonymous with the relationship between European glassblowing traditions and Northwest Native art. His artworks are included in museum collections such as The British Museum, The Museum of Fine Arts, Corning Museum of Glass, and the Smithsonian Institution.

prestonsingletary.com | @prestonsingletaryglass

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Cover of Winter 2022 issue of American Craft