Kesu’: The Art and Life of Doug Cranmer

A retrospective exhibit – March 7 to September 3, 2012 Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver

by Janet Nicol

Northwest coast carver and artist Doug Cranmer shunned the limelight in his lifetime (he died in 2006), but now a retrospective exhibition at Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology shines a bright light on a collection of his works known as indigenous modern. “It was all about the process,” says curator Dr. Jennifer Kramer. “He was always trying new things. In his work, traditional and contemporary merged without his losing a sense of self.” Kesu’, the title of the show, means “wealth being carved.” Doug Cranmer was given the name by his Kwakwaka’wakw parents when he was a child growing up in Alert Bay. “His family saw him being carved to be a noble person,” Kramer says.

Kesu’ captures the spirit of an artist who would have rather remained elusive. “He hated to be labelled,” Kramer says. He didn’t want to be called a ‘master carver’ if it meant there was nothing new to try. “He wasn’t going to be able to ‘play’ if he was a ‘master’,” she adds.

While Cranmer took on the traditional leadership duties expected of him, he also worked as a fisherman and logger, and in the late 1950s, he met artist Mungo Martin, who showed him how to carve totem poles. Soon after, he was hired by Haida artist Bill Reid and worked with other carvers on the Haida houses and totem poles for the Museum of Anthropology. His life as a full-time artist had begun. Cranmer stayed on in Vancouver, and became very much part of the art scene in the 1960s and 1970s, creating works in several media and establishing The Talking Stick, the first Native-owned gallery in Canada in 1962, which he ran for six years.

Cranmer’s art sold across Canada and internationally but he wasn’t looking for fame and fortune. “Doug Cranmer was part of the Northwest coast renaissance at the same time as Bill Reid, but he wasn’t interested in selling himself,” Kramer says. “He wasn’t into pleasing others. He followed his own internal focus.”

There are 105 pieces of Cranmer’s work in the MOA exhibition, including carvings, paintings, jewellery, prints on burlap and abstract paintings on mahogany. In fact, Cranmer pioneered abstract and non-figurative paintings using Northwest Coast ovoids and U-shapes. He taught and inspired a generation of First Nations artists, and 20 of these artists’ pieces are also part of the retrospective. In 1996 Cranmer left Vancouver to return ‘home’ to Alert Bay. He was still teaching in the island town’s carving shed in the days before he died.

The show centres on a canoe and paddles surrounded by undersea creatures, carved by Cranmer in 1970. “His work is spare, refined, elegant and simple,” Kramer says of the work. “There’s also a painting of a canoe which is abstract,” she adds. “He was using geometric shapes to show a canoe from every perspective,” she says of an abstract painting of a canoe. “I put this next to the carved canoe, so people can look at Doug’s work from many perspectives too. He can’t be summed up.”

Audio elements in the show include interviews with the artist, the sound of chainsaws — a tool he relished, jazz music, which he loved to listen to and the sound of laughter, representing Cranmer’s sharp wit. It also includes details of his life and personality in family photographs — Cranmer’s widow and sister worked closely with the curator. “I didn’t know Doug Cranmer personally,” Kramer says. “But I spoke to over 50 people who knew Doug.”

Reprinted from Galleries West magazine, Summer 2012

Also check out my book review of Jennifer Kramer’s “Kesu’: The Art and Life of Doug Cranmer” in British Columbia History, Fall, 2012.

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