As viewers, unseasoned in the field of archaeology, we are often thrilled and inspired by ancient treasures. Gold and silver icons or mysterious and elaborate monuments of stone, fashioned by hands working hundreds or thousands of years ago, easily capture and even possess our imaginations. We wonder, Who created this? Why? What inspired this effort? When an artifact is well defined and perfectly preserved for all eternity, it is easy to rationalize our attraction to it. But for archaeologists, and all those with insatiable imaginations, even the smallest fragments can alter a way of thinking or the direction of a creative spirit.
One such fragment was introduced to Susan Point in 1995. That year, the UBC Museum of Anthropology commissioned Point to recreate a group of small Coast Salish artifacts. Her only guides were prehistoric fragments made of antler, bone and wood. Some of these pieces were estimated to be three to four thousand years old. Armed with her strong research skills and a deep understanding of the nature of Coast Salish design, she set to work. The results were included in an exhibition, Written in the Earth: Coast Salish Prehistoric Art, which explored art from prehistoric archaeological sites located in traditional Coast Salish territories. From the details of these small artifacts, Point created new pieces as pen and ink illustrations, colour renderings, and antler and bone carvings. Little did she anticipate, however, that one small fragment of charred wood, adorned with a barely discernible carved pattern, would revolutionize her creative direction.
Although all these shards of the past had a lasting effect on Point, the one that lingers in her mind is this charred piece of carved wood that may have come from the lid of an engraved wooden box over two thousand years old. The piece, only about 21 cm (about 8 inches) at its widest, was found at the Esilao dig site in the Fraser Canyon, where the burnt remains and debris from an ancient pit house were discovered.
Imagism (2000): Still not ready to be silenced, the fragment continued to inspire Point. For her third look at the fragment, she decided not to continue extending the lines. Point and the fragment instead looked to the future. “I considered what the fragment says to me,” she explains, “about the past and what its presence has meant in the present, as well as how it will affect my work in the future.” The fragment has taken Susan Point into new and revolutionary artistic territory. Imagism is a passionate, striking contemporary design. Through the years, Point has mastered printmaking techniques, and with this piece, she has pulled out all the stops, taking risks in combining methods for over- and under-printing to transform her vision of the piece into new and exciting realms. Point’s use of fluorescent colours, pearl essence and a variety of textures is also a departure for her. The fragment, reinterpreted, is still present, but it has undergone a transformation as well. The title for the third print, Imagism, is derived from a modernist movement in poetry that arose around 1912. Defined by American poet Ezra Pound, this style was characterized by concrete language and speech, clear, precise images, modern subjects and freedom in the use of metre. An exact visual image made an entire poetic statement. With Imagism, Susan Point adopted Imagism into the scope of the visual arts. For this third piece, Point no longer looked at what the fragment or who the artist had been. The fact that the voice of that artist, which results from accumulated learning and skill, is still speaking and enabling the transformation of thought and creativity in others, emerges as the central theme. The seeds of the past will grow in the future. “When looking at this fragment, one not only sees a piece of this individual’s illustration, but one also gets a glimpse of that person’s skill and technique, used to make the image precise and deliberate,” Point explains. “This talent developed, over the course of previous generations, making their life better. Myself, and many others, have spent a great deal of time studying this fragment. It’s food for thought. The fragment has become a seed for me, which has given rise to suggest in Imagism how humanity takes from the past as we begin to shape the future of our evolution. I guess my third tribute to the fragment,” she adds, “is meant to reflect the hope I wish for future generations and my belief in the human spirit to continue forever.” The central figure in Imagism is a magnificent creature, part human and part bird, in the midst of a great transformation. The unique printing process for this piece allows the eye of the viewer to be tricked, seeing either creature at one time or another. This transformation illustrates humanity’s quest to reach the stars. The figure is framed by a cliff-like shape, referring to the Fraser Canyon, where the fragment was discovered. The spheres, celestial bodies, along the left side of Imagism, symbolize the leaps of humanity, inspired by our fascination at delving into our past. “The overall image,” Point explains, “suggests endless possibilities for our future.” The fragment, appearing in the bottom sphere, has been altered to fit in the circular shape. This suggests its continuing ability to shape our imagination, even after all this time. The bold use of colour is how Point emphasizes that we can use all means and media available to bring forth our thoughts and, by experimenting with the unknown, expand our skills.
With Images, Imagination and Imagism, Susan Point has made a transformation of her own. The fragment, by its nature, defies explanation. It can’t be contained by the boundaries of what it may have looked like or what its purpose may have been. Instead, it inspires introspection. It has a purpose now, which may be different than it was then. Point’s perspective has expanded. The limitless future has become her canvas and her eagerness to embrace her journey is an inspiration to others.
Coast Salish (Musqueam)
Susan began making limited edition prints on her kitchen table in 1981 while working as a legal secretary. She received several early commissions, which established her reputation for innovative proposals and for completing projects on time, on budget and at the highest level. She took courses in silver, casting and carving, all of which led to monumental sculptures in mixed media, and she was the first Northwest Coast artist to work in glass. She continues to release a number of print editions each year, but her focus has been on commissioned sculpture.
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