“From oral tradition… it is clear that nineteenth-century bentwood boxes and chests were as meaningful conceptually as they were important functionally. Not only did they provide a means of cooking, storing foods and valuables, and holding the remains of the dead but they also provided a symbolic way of thinking by means of the container metaphor. The container as a holder of ideas… was emphasized throughout the Northwest Coast. It was a box that the trickster/transformer Raven threw open to release light upon the world, establishing the world and its inhabitants in their present form.”
(Bill McLennan, The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First Nations, 2000, p. 129)
Building of a Bent Box
Bentwood boxes are among the most versatile objects made by the Northwest Coast peoples. Using an ingenious but difficult technique entirely unique to the region, a wood plank – usually red cedar or yellow cedar, cut in the direction of the grain — is notched at three points and then bent by softening the wood with steam to create the right angles. The edges of the plank are pegged, sewn or glued together to create the fourth corner, while the box’s base and lid are shaped from separate planks. This technology has existed along the coast since pre-contact times, and continues to be used in the creation of contemporary bent boxes.
Historic Bentwood Boxes
In the past, bentwood boxes served a variety of purposes from the careful storage of cerermonial regaila, to the storage, cooking and serving of good. These strong and durable boxes could be water-tight and the boiling of fish and other food items was one preparation method used along the coast. Bent boxes were also used as burial boxes that, in some coastal cultures, were traditionally placed inside of totem poles, or high up in cedar trees, to facilitate the transportation of human souls into the spirit world.
A bent box could be elaborately carved and decorated, depicting clan symbols and hereditary stories, but could also be left plain or very lightly decorated, depending upon its purpose. For example, the Tlingit made red corner bent boxes, such as the ones below, for inter-tribal trade. Without crest designs, these boxes could move between owners without conflicting with an individual’s clan identity. Reflecting on this style of box, Bill Holm shared:
“These red-corner boxes are of a special kind. At first glance they look plain and not too exciting because of their simple decoration and the plainness of the wood. But, when we look at them in detail, they’re really pretty grand. From a structural point of view, they’re sometimes the best of the bent-corner boxes.”
(Form and Freedom, 1975, p. 137)
Bentwood boxes exist as much in the present as they do in the past. While historic pieces come to the gallery through the secondary market, new bent boxes are continually being crafted and carved by numerous contemporary Northwest Coast artists, in different scales and with varyingly intricate designs. Carved and painted, or unpainted with shell inlay, there is a continuous stream of beautiful modern boxes following in the traditional, centuries-old technology.
Similar to the bent boxes of the past, boxes created today are not always elaborately carved. “Unity Box” by Cree artist Val Malesku, for example, is a large-scale chest that was hand painted to illustrate the union between Raven and Eagle.
Among the most exceptional bentwood containers are canoe tackle boxes, which are unique in that their sides are bent at such an angle that the completed box could fit inside the bow of a canoe. These pieces show the true mastery of this technology, as the more angular the sides of the box are, the more difficult it is to bend the corners at the appropriate angle.
It is also interesting to note that the actual fabrication of the bent box is often done by individuals specializing in the practice of box bending, which is in itself an art form. While David R. Boxley and Larry Rosso, among others, are known to have bent and carved their own boxes, it is common, as it was in the past, for an artist to source a bent box and then embellish it with carvings and designs.
Box drums, like the one below by Haida artist Reg Davidson, illustrate another way that this bent wood technology has been used in coastal cultures. This drum produces a deep, booming sound when beat with a mallet or the palm of a hand.
Bent Box Commissions
Recently, we have been working on several custom bent box commissions for clients of the gallery. Kwakwaka’wakw artist Rande Cook, for example, just finished the whimsical Eagle and Beaver box, pictured below, complete with abalone and operculum inlay. An interesting concept of this design is that Rande has extended the carving onto the lid of the piece.
Haida artist Kyran Yeomans is also currently busy working on a wonderful chest for a family who wished to capture the special characters of each family member whose personalities will be reflected in the six different creatures portrayed across their bent box. It is always exciting to watch as a client’s vision is transformed into an artist rendering which is then translated onto the wood of a beautiful and unique piece.
Upcoming Event: Raising of Jim Hart’s Reconciliation Pole at UBC
We will be sending out a newsletter in October prior to this event, but we thought we would highlight it today in case anyone would like to plan a trip to Vancouver for the event. Jim Hart has been commissioned to carve a 70 foot totem pole, carved 360 degrees, in recognition of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the history of Indian Residential Schools. Beginning in the early afternoon on Saturday, October 15th the pole raising will be held on Main Mall, near the Faculty of Education building. The bottom 13 feet of the log are uncarved and will be buried in the ground to stabilize the pole, which will stand about 57 feet tall. Perched on top of the pole will be an eagle, which will be mounted separately.
For those who attended Jim’s pole raising at MOA in 2000, you might remember the ropes being attached to the top of the pole and, as a group, hoisting the pole into place. This current pole is in excess of fifteen tonnes so the university is expecting a large crowd to witness and help with the lifting. Further details about this event will be included in next month’s newsletter.