Local First Nations artists are working with the University of British Columbia in the hopes technology can help carve out a new niche for their work in the art market.
The B.C. Coast Aboriginal Doors Program is the brainchild of Chris Gaston, UBC forestry professor and university liaison at FPInnovations, and Brenda Crabtree, Aboriginal program manager at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. The program aims to promote Aboriginal artists and is supported by FPInnovations, a non-profit that supports scientific research and technology transfer in the Canadian forest industry.
“Aboriginal art is an estimated $2-billion market worldwide, but only for a few select, high-end artists, with galleries making the majority of the money,” said Gaston. “We hope that the training and application of computer-assisted machining technologies will lead to added wealth for the artists and First Nations communities.”
The free program involved four weeks of intensive lessons from master carvers, held for the first time last summer, in two sessions at ECUAD and the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art in Terrace, B.C.
Ten artists, hailing from indigenous communities across B.C., were tasked with hand carving a 26”x70” door panel made from local red and yellow cedar, wood commonly used in Aboriginal art pieces. The panels have the potential to be used as inside or outside doors.
“The program was a great opportunity to come together with the other artists, and see their different styles,” said carver James Harry of the Squamish Nation. “Artists are typically so involved in their own practice, we don’t often get as much outside perspective on our work.”
The panels, which are functional works of art, take hours to complete, and are one-of-a-kind. Harry describes his design as a “hybrid of Northern style artwork and Coast Salish design,” and features a thunderbird, wolf and bear. He describes the work as a self-portrait.
Once labour costs are factored in, the door panels can be quite expensive. Gaston said some of the more well-established carvers should have their pieces sell for as much as $20,000, which means the pool of potential buyers is quite small. Some artists may feel compelled to undersell their work, in order to turn a minimum profit.
So, how do artists find a broader market without sacrificing or depleting their return on investment?
Enter computer-numerical control technology, or CNC. Commonly used in woodworking, it involves a computer reading a digital code which moves a router, cutting wood into a specific shape and size.
Gaston used CNC technology to produce rough replicas of the artists’ hand carved door panels in two to three hours. The replicas still need to be hand-finished by the carvers, but are considerably cheaper alternatives. The reproductions are priced from $2,000 to $5,000, similar to the difference in pricing between an art print and an original painting.
Gaston ambitiously hopes the lower-cost reproductions will appeal to a larger, more international market, helping the artists make more of a living from their craft.
In order to make that happen, Gaston is working on securing funding for marketing the reproduced panels and plans to take them to home shows in Germany and Japan later this year. He believes both countries are untapped markets for Aboriginal art, in addition to creating interest locally for them in B.C.
“Besides the U.S. and Canada, very few places in the world build single-family homes out of wood, except Japan,” said Gaston. “Wood is a big industry there, and it’s a place that has a considerable interest in Aboriginal art. I have high hopes for success.”
If the door panels make a splash, and a new market emerges for “teched out” carvings, the artists may have a viable business opportunity to cultivate. Any future carvings artists replicate with CNC technology would come at a cost, but could be covered by proceeds from a potential sale.
“It’s taken me a long time to hand finish the reproduction, so multiple orders of the same piece would be very time consuming,” said Harry. “The door panels will be a test to figure out if this whole process is something to consider for future carvings.”