Duane Pasco’s book ‘Life as Art’ surveys an unlikely career
Duane Pasco’s “Life as Art,” a lavish coffee-table book, examines his unlikely career as a white sculptor-carver working in and helping to revive Northwest Coast Native American traditions.
Seattle Times arts writer
How did an alcoholic, blue-collar laborer become one of the pre-eminent figures in the revival of the Northwest Coast Native American art tradition, without being a Native American himself?
Duane Pasco tells that story with raw candor in “Life as Art” (JayHawk Insitute/University of Washington Press, 200 pp., $50), a lavish coffee-table-book about his career, cowritten with Barbara Winther.
Pasco’s first-person account of his unusual role in helping to bring tribal art traditions back to life is plain-spoken, humbly self-critical and deeply reverent of an artistic heritage he came to feel was underappreciated. (He admits he had little understanding of it himself when he first began sculpting in a Native vein in the 1950s.)
It took some doing, but the alluring subtleties and intricacies of Northwest Coast art helped Pasco tap into a creativity that his youthful anti-intellectualism almost stifled.
“For most of my life I’d had an aversion to museums, or to anything associated with academia,” he admits in the autobiographical essay that introduces the book. “The way I was raised led me to believe that college was for gays and football players, and that only weirdos went to museums. I actually equated the word museum with mausoleum.”
We’re talking about a hard case here.
Gradually, after a failed first marriage and a series of odd jobs, Pasco conquered his drinking problem, happily remarried and began to take his sculpting more seriously. A 1967 exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery, “The Arts of the Raven” (curated by Wilson Duff, Bill Reid and Seattle’s Bill Holm — big names in Northwest Coast Native art), was a key turning point, alerting Pasco to the richness and variety of specific tribes’ and sculptors’ styles.
By the 1970s, Pasco was enjoying some commercial success with his “Native” art. But inwardly he was skeptical about his abilities.
“My formline elements were stiff and angular,” he writes. “I felt I could go no further without making major changes. Since I didn’t know how to do that, I decided to get out of the business.”
Two more Native American art exhibits — one at London’s Hayward Gallery, the other a traveling exhibit in the U.S. — served as wake-up calls to Pasco in 1976. Rather than just superficially drawing on Northwest Coast design in his artwork, he immersed himself in local indigenous cultures and came to believe that knowing the languages, songs and dances of Native America was “integral” to mastering its visual art forms. The proof of this was in the stellar quality of his artwork from the late 1970s onward.
While the first quarter of the book is devoted to Pasco’s life story, the other 150 pages consist of color plates of individual pieces — totem poles, masks, hats, helmets, rattles, containers, etc. — accompanied by Pasco’s lively accounts of the stories behind each of them. Those stories aren’t just his story, but a piece-by-piece account of the rebirth of the entire Northwest Coast art tradition.
Pasco’s technical facility with steaming techniques for creating bentwood boxes, canoes and other vessels put him in the unusual position of teaching some tribes their own lost traditions. His rapport with them and with his indigenous colleagues was generally warm and generous. He acknowledges that it’s unusual for a white artist to work in a Native American tradition, but says he’s had “more negative experiences with white folks, mostly in the form of the press, academia, and a few galleries, than with Native people. I don’t feel that my career has suffered because I’m not Native.”
The work, beautifully reproduced in this volume, speaks for itself.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com