Medallions and amulets are among the most ancient known examples of argillite carving. Over the ages, argillite carving has evolved into monumental sculpture and elaborately decorated art objects. Likewise, this exhibition began as an exploration into the highly sculpted medallion forms, and evolved towards the monumental sculptures associated with the long career of Haida master carver, Christian White.
Christian White was born on Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) and raised in the village of Old Masset. He is from the Dadens Yahgulaanas Raven Clan and his Haida name is “Kilthguulans” (Voice of Gold). He began to carve argillite at fourteen under the direction of his father, Morris White. Haida Gwaii is renowned for producing some of the foremost Northwest Coast artists, past and present. Christian had the opportunity, at a young age, to visit the studios of other dedicated artists and to also study publications documenting Haida art. His greatest influence was the work of the old masters, and particularly his great, great grandfather, Charles Edenshaw.
The contemporary Haida artists have been among the leaders in the resurgence of their culture, contributing major pieces and personally participating in all events. The early recognition of the contemporary artists internationally has allowed many to remain living in the traditional villages on Haida Gwaii and to play larger roles in the community. In recent years, there has been an even greater focus on ceremonial participation, language recovery, and documentation of Haida art and culture - in some cases revealing more history and supplying artists with new subjects to interpret. Christian has been active at all levels of cultural activity.
Christian has been a self-supporting artist since the age of seventeen. An early sculpture, “Man rescues his wife from the killerwhale” was completed in 1978 and sold to his first major patron, his uncle, Oliver White. Over a period of twelve years, Oliver White amassed a small collection of argillite sculptures by Christian, which he later donated to the Haida Gwaii Museum at Qay’llnagaay in Skidegate. Even his earliest works shows an advanced knowledge of Haida forms, and his precision skills as a carver. An ambidextrous carver, he has developed a definitive style of argillite carving with elaborate use of inlays, and he has the ability to create flow and dynamic tension in the interrelationship between the subjects that is unrivaled by his peers.
At the age of twenty-two, a sculpture titled “Raven Dancer” was purchased for the permanent collection of the UBC Museum of Anthropology. His work is now in collections such as the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Royal British Columbia Museum, although an enthusiastic body of private collectors has collected most of his work. His work is currently included in the “Totems to Turquoise” exhibition hosted by the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
In 1986 he completed, with his father, a 36’ Haida canoe, “Seal Hunter” - Xuud Gadjuu, in Morris White’s Haida Canoe Shed, and in 1993, they carved a 42’ Haida canoe, “Eagle Beak” - K’odai tluu. In 1995, Christian and his brother, Derek, carved a 52’ house pole for their father’s chieftainship potlatch, where he took the name Chief Edenshaw.
In 1998, Christian began a Haida arts apprenticeship program to train promising young artists. During the first year, projects included a painted cedar wall screen, paddles, and bentwood boxes. Christian is a member of the Masset Repatriation Committee, which has successfully lobbied to have Haida ancestral remains returned to Haida Gwaii from various museums in Canada and the United States. Over the years, many boxes and chests produced within the apprenticeship program have been presented to the committee to hold the remains for reburial.
In 1999, the program concentrated on cedar mask carving, and they carved an Eagle sculpture that was placed on the top of a new memorial pole carved by Jim Hart - 7idansuu, and erected in Masset in honour of his uncle, Morris White. The following year, the program concentrated on totem carving, producing a 16’6” inner house pole and a 7’ Raven pole, and a 7’ Halibut pole. The majority of pieces produced within the program have been used for cultural purposes. Currently, he has been creating a traditional carved and painted longhouse in Old Masset.
Throughout this period, Christian has continued to carve major works in argillite. Argillite is a slate-like stone indigenous to Haida Gwaii, and particularly to the mountain top quarry at Slatechuck. Argillite is considered a cultural property, reserved for use by Haida artists. The stone at the time of harvest is slate gray, but fine tool finish on the argillite creates a lustrous black patina. Each piece is elaborately designed, and meticulously finished in fine detail and has been hand-polished throughout the carving process. Finally, the piece is inlaid with abalone, catlinite, mother of pearl, and mastodon ivory, and is often set into precious metals. Christian’s narrative style has influenced many emerging artists as well as establishing the future direction for argillite carving as a whole.