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.
Images (1995): No discernible creatures or figures can be derived from the fragment, only lines travelling with an intent and purpose that will forever remain a secret. Out of these lines, however, Susan Point created Images, an exciting colour illustration depicting eagles, herons and creatures woven in a maze of design. The lines in this limited edition print appear continuous, forever moving through the characters in the piece. “Creating something from this fragment,” Point recalls, “was much like a game I used to play with my kids when they were younger. We would take turns drawing a series of lines and letting the other person extend the image to anything they wanted.” In this case, a Coast Salish artist from two thousand years ago began the game, and contemporary Coast Salish artist Susan Point was challenged to finish it. The unearthing of the fragment from the banks of the Fraser Canyon started a chain reaction. Elements of Susan Point’s own ancestral vision were also unearthed with the fragment, as were memories, ideas and secrets. The fragment found a new and lasting voice in Susan Point. What started as one print has now become three, and a story that, on the surface, began in 1995 is much deeper, and originated a very long time ago.
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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