Ts’msyen Transforming shapes the past into high art

CMYK-Goomsm Xsgyiik Necklace


Morgan Green shows me a fierce tattoo of an eagle with its wings spread along the length of her right arm. It’s crafted in the distinct formline of Northwest Coast Art. “I’m the eagle,” she says, meaning the crest passed down through her mother’s clan. “This is my cousin’s work. She uses elements that I don’t, such as this” — Morgan points to a red U-shape in the design — “Ts’msyen are strict,” she says. 

We stop in front of a piece in her jewelry exhibit, Ts’msyen Transforming, at the Bill Reid Gallery. A formline butterfly constructed out of delicate layers of oxidized silver rests on branches that wind together into a circle. Their flow of line is so rhythmic that they seem to dance in the space holding them.

“Yes, I’m also interested in Art Nouveau and Egyptian art,” Green says. “You can see that here. But I have to be careful. Our culture is at the source of Northwest Coast art, so when Ts’msyen come to look at it,” she leans in my direction and nods, “they can be quite strict.”

Born on Ts’msyen lands near Prince Rupert, Green developed her art as a way of bringing her past into the present. It serves as a bridge in the history of her people. “Art was integrated in our life,” she says. “Just by looking at someone’s crest you could tell where he came from and who his people were. Everything people owned was proper according to our law and history.” 

Green is known for her time spent developing both her artistry and her knowledge of her culture. She works in painting, clothing, leatherwork, wood sculpture and jewelry, and yes, she makes her own tools. “I think any artist worth their salt should,” she says. She also teaches and plans to develop a culture centre back home. “All Northwest Coast artists work in the Lower Mainland,” she says, “but our culture comes from our land. It would be nice to return our cultural base there.” 

Kwiaahwah Jones, director of content at the Bill Reid Gallery says, “Morgan works at a very high level. She only started in jewelry three years ago, but when people see her work they ask how old she is. She’s only 30.” Like Reid, Green preserves the art’s legacy, but transforms it in novel ways. 

Reid advanced the use of repoussé in jewelry making; this is a type of sculpture where patterns in relief are shaped into the metal by hammering on the reverse side. Morgan’s techniques extend the sculpture of jewelry into hollow-form construction. “Her work is a perfect example of the high art found here,” says Jones.

Green lets the materials suggest themselves to her. Then she sculpts, solders, and polishes many times to shape the silver, gold, and copper that she works in. “I believe art has power,” she says. “It brings deep structure to the surface, whether it’s an idea or the lost knowledge of a society. It transforms people.” 

Going through the creative process is an emotional experience for Green. “I feel tension before finishing a work,” she says. “It’s because being inside the creative process is important to me.” Most of her pieces stay with her for a long time as she works to perfect them. Then they pass into her community through personal networks, often purchased for use in ceremony. “I like that, though,” she says. “I like that they are danced in the community, have fun and take on a life of their own that has nothing to do with me.”

Ts’msyen Transforming is at the Bill Reid Gallery until September 14. For more information, visit billreidgallery.ca.