Anyone who visited Alert Bay from the late 1970s until the early 2000s could have met Doug Cranmer in the carving shed—a basement room in the former St. Michael’s Residential School, a peeling, crumbling edifice next to the U’Mista Cultural Centre, which is adorned with his designs.
Cranmer died in 2006, a couple of months shy of his 80th birthday, but his presence is strongly felt in Alert Bay, on tiny Cormorant Island off the northeast tip of Vancouver Island. A hereditary chief and a carver in the renowned style of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, Cranmer was a master artist who loathed that term and referred to himself as a “doodler” and a “whittler.” (His Kwakwaka’wakw name, Kesu’, means “wealth being carved.”)
That self-deprecating humour and the application of his vision to a wide variety of forms is what informs “Kesu’: The Art and Life of Doug Cranmer,” curated by Jennifer Kramer at the Museum of Anthropology on the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver. Kramer only met Cranmer once before he died, but she has diligently assembled an in-depth portrait of the man and his art through conversations with his family members, especially his sister Gloria Cranmer Webster; with friends and fellow artists, such as clan member Tony Hunt; and with his students, among them bentwood box maker Bruce Alfred.
The exhibition of 119 carved pieces, paintings, prints and photographs has a logic of its own. The viewer is beckoned to different corners of the show by archival audio of Cranmer speaking about his life and works. The quotes in the wall texts between pieces, which draw on those aforementioned conversations with family and friends, bring him alive. Someone recounts how a relative visiting Doug in hospital when he was dying of lung cancer broke down at his bedside. Cranmer removed his oxygen mask and handed it to him, saying, “You need this more than I do.”
The centrepiece of this show is the carved mask of Sagadino, chief of the undersea kingdom, and the carved masks of sea creatures, including the whale, seal, salmon, sea lion, cod and killer whale. To understand the significance of these pieces, one must realize the centrality of the potlatch ritual in Kwakwaka’wakw culture. Cranmer gave his first potlatch in 1974 with a family copper that had been lost at some point and recovered when it came onto the art market. Cranmer inherited the copper (a chevron-shaped piece 67 centimetres in height) and the undersea legend attached to it. But the masks, all carved in 1974, are distinctly modern, sleek and stylized in a way that denotes Cranmer’s hand.
Perhaps Doug Cranmer would not have objected to the designation “master innovator.” “Protean” is a word that would apply to any artist in this northwest Pacific coast tradition: one is both maker and designer, dancer and dance. But Cranmer was also a modern artist—some even might argue he was the first modernist of the Kwakwaka’wakw. The most intriguing works in this show are the abstract paintings, done on mahogany plywood in acrylic paint. Here, he seems to have taken the formlines of the whale and raven, among others, and layered them to make abstract pictures. A quote from him says he stopped painting the panels when they started to look like something again.
Cranmer, who cut a dashing figure in Vancouver in the 1960s and 1970s, opened a gallery and did a wide range of work to make a living, including carving model totems that he called “idiot sticks.” He embraced new technology, using a chainsaw in the construction of totem poles, and he would work anything that came to hand into art. A bowl he carved as the back of a loon is the first known example of its kind. A bear emblem is silk-screened onto a piece of green burlap. His playful mosquito with its long stinger adorns several works. Cranmer travelled a lot and was called on by everyone from Expo 1970 to Knott’s Berry Farm to advise or create commissioned pieces.
A visitor comes out of this show exhilarated, but sad that it is too late to meet the artist.
Susan Walker was the first editor of Canadian Art and is now an arts writer based in Victoria.