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.
Imagination (2000): Like the second act of a three-act play, Susan Point’s second piece inspired by the fragment is more subtle and internal to the artist. For Imagination, Point looked back in time. “I imagined the artist deep within the rain forest,” she explains, “along the banks of the Fraser Canyon, where this particular piece was found, simply sitting and engraving the piece of wood on the forest floor.” Point pursued this image with extensive research, discovering unusual plants, like candy stick and ghost pipe (both from the Indian pipe family), which the artist may have seen while he or she carved. She also added bearberry, or kinnickinnick, a plant used as tobacco, and she included large slugs, creeping beneath the foliage. Now, instead of seeing the fragment as part of a box, Point imagined it to be a woodblock, used for printing or stamping a mark wherever the artist wanted. Thus, in Imagination, the fragment, which is included in the body of one of the slugs, is reversed, as it would be for stamping. She also turned the fragment so that the grain was running vertically, as opposed to its horizontal direction in Images.
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.
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