Art Fag Heaven

During my time in Vancouver I went to a party where I was the only woman, it was primarily members of of the Vancouver Gay Men’s Choir. In this environment, my gender was irrelevant. I spoke with at least 5 of the other party goers 1:1 and a few in 2s and 3s, all of them treated me like one of them. Their ages ranged from a few early 30s guys to 70s or 80s.I relished in the soft spoken yet camp expression of the punky butch looking boys, it was a true delight. Short shorts, white leather motorbike jacket, 3cm spacers in the ears, plaid pants held up with suspenders and accompanied by black combat boots.  There were many neatly manscaped beards, as on most faces of the men I met in Vancouver.

The place was in West End, in the middle of gay town, a penthouse with three balconies. It was exquisitely decorated. Rich red feature wall, table set with ornate china, a mirror with an embellished antique style gold frame, vases of modern looking bouquets. My inner art fag was in heaven.

Inukshuk: From artist Ben Houstie's page on Cap & Winndevon

Inukshuk: From artist Ben Houstie’s page on Cap & Winndevon

I was introduced to one of the hosts of the party as I was about to leave. A framed piece on the wall caught my eye. It was of a group of four hummingbirds, they were colourful but in the traditional native shapes. It was exquisite, I’d never seen anything like it. The vivid colours were striking, the space between the birds reminded me of seeing a group of hummingbirds furiously buzzing around a feeder at a friend’s lakeside cabin. From my days of studying anthropology I recognised the Northwest Coast art. My attention was diverted mid-sentence, I immediately expressed my appreciation of the piece. The host responded with “I have more, you can have…” I didn’t quite hear the end of the sentence, or maybe didn’t believe what I thought I heard.  He went off and came back with a large art folder, easily 100cm by 60cm. It had several pockets with different prints, at least 10-20 of each. He started pulling out prints as he told the story of meeting the artist, and commissioning him to do some images, going with him to the art store to get supplies, asking for some in brighter colours. It took him a while to find the hummingbird one, he pulled a few others out while he was finding it. One of a bright green heron, a duck, a spirit bear, a dragonfly, salmon, Inukshuk (not traditional to Northwest Coast art), sun rays, many brightly coloured except the salmon. The salmon were traditional red and black. He pulled them out saying we could have them, I felt unsure, was this for real? Was he really offering to give out prints of this artwork?  I was flabbergasted.

He talked about the business arrangement he had with the artist, Ben Houstie, and that he’d worked with Bill Reid (the most well known native artist in Canada), that his work was on the old $20 bill. He talked about the challenging relationship with Houstie, who had been ripped off in the past, the stories of others in the art industry who had been greedy and disrespectful. Although he didn’t say it overtly, his commitment to integrity in this arrangement, his appreciation of the art and respect for the artist was clear. He wouldn’t value them, it was a big unknown. Especially, unfortunately, while the artist is alive, it can be a bit arbitrary. He wanted us to have these prints so the art could be appreciated. I was so moved, and still a bit incredulous but I accepted the gift, a few others who were there also accepted this heartfelt generosity. My inner art fag was deeply humbled, and my anthropologist self thrilled, yet my activist self was a bit cautious of this man giving art away, though the artist had been paid, how much, we don’t know.

My friend Ashley took the Herron and Inukshuk, I took the sun rays (for my partner, her colours), the duck (for my mom), and the spirit bear (for my aunt). Another person took the hummingbirds, I didn’t want to be greedy, I took what was left. I feel weird about using the world ‘took’. Still in shock and awe we left the party. I didn’t want to leave too late, I had my school reunion the next day and my host, Jason, had left the party early to go to bed and had been messaging me to find out if I was coming home soon, he was going to sleep.

As we walked up to Davie Street to catch a cab with the poster tube of incredible art, Ashely and I still couldn’t believe what had just happened.

Part of me felt quite uncertain about having accepted the gift, and to refuse would have felt even worse. When it was all happening I started to think of offering to pay something but decided it wasn’t appropriate. I felt childlike in my uncertainty. How do you value something like this?

I have spent years learning to value my own work, which is a very different kettle of fish but part of the same question. What is value? Something is as valuable as you say it is and someone else agrees to pay that amount. But in this case the value for me was the experience, the generosity and the gift. For me this is invaluable.

It still leaves me with lots of questions, however. Was the act of accepting this gift respectful or disrespectful to the artist? When the host was asked if the artist was still alive, he said he’d seen him from across the street just recently. For some artists, having their work appreciated is their intention, for some it’s their bread and butter. I’m left with questions, wondering if I am contributing to exploitation of aboriginal artists or if my appreciation of the art and giving it to others is part of paying this gift forward. I am certainly interested in more of his work. In writing this I did some research and found that his art is available on everything from scarves, and notebooks to children’s toys and spectacle frames. In looking at other art sites, I found the hummingbird image and the sun, there were several I’d seen at the party that were not included on the site.

This experience was a perfect opportunity to receive, something I’ve found challenging in the past. In the end, rightly or wrongly, I now have not only this exquisite artwork that I brought home to Australia to put on my wall and appreciate, but also my experience of awe and humility.