If you’ve always wondered about that old piece of First Nations art collecting dust in the attic, then Jeff Harris is your man.
With over 30 years experience with First Nations art, Harris, the owner of Seahawk Auctions, will make his way to the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre Saturday (Sept. 28) for an art appraisal clinic as part of the second annual Spirit Within Festival. More than just attaching a dollar value to the prized artefacts, however, Harris wants to unearth those items of particular importance to the local Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations.
“As far as the value goes, it might not be necessarily worth a lot of money but something that is culturally significant,” he said. “There are things that are valuable to collectors, and it’s always interesting to see something that comes up like that, but it’s also something that might be archival. Photos of people who’ve actually been identified, for example, are the sort of things that are … extremely valuable to the archives of a museum to know the who, what, where and when.”
On the hunt for rare Aboriginal works from around the Sea to Sky, Harris often has to rely on his extensive knowledge of the region’s artists and their respective styles to identify and authenticate carvings.
“A lot of times (authenticating a piece) is about recognizing styles that particular carvers had,” Harris said. “A lot of the early pieces, at least half of them are unsigned. In the early ‘60s, (Sea to Sky artists) used to do a lot of carving and painting, and then after that they used a technique of shoe polish, and would use that to give it that sort of antique look to it.”
In addition to masterful, intricately designed carvings, Sea to Sky aboriginal artists are renowned for their distinct weaving patterns, and Harris will be on the lookout for authentic baskets at Saturday’s clinic.
“In the Mount Currie area, they did a very distinct type of weaving,” he said.
Unfortunately for those in Harris’s line of work, identifying the artists responsible for weaving these cherished baskets can prove extremely challenging.
“The baskets are absolutely fabulous and wonderful, but the people that produced them are some of the least known,” he noted. “From 1900 to 1950 they were produced mostly for the tourist market, and so the name of the artist was never really important, which is really a shame because they never got their accolades. The baskets are just such a beautiful art form and people don’t realize the work that goes into making them, but on top of that the help of their family to gather the materials needed.”
While Harris’s decades of experience and extensive knowledge of B.C. First Nations art can shed some insight into the history of specific pieces, he said he’s often the one that ends up learning the most after an appraisal.
“I’ve been doing this about 30 years, and when someone brings in something I haven’t seen before or don’t know about, I actually get more information from them than they get from me,” he said. “There’s such a vast ocean of knowledge that’s been kept quiet. Coming to talk to me is good, but if you really want to know you should go to talk to your elders.
“Keeping these things alive truly is the treasure. The artefacts, they’re all just pieces of wood and cloth. It’s the culture, the thought and the protocol behind them that’s actually important.”
Harris will be at Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Bring in your First Nations artwork for a verbal appraisal. Observers are welcome.