The Zen of Haida Formline

The Zen of Haida Formline

All summer I was on call while a friend of mine carved a Shovelnose canoe. I had documented the first Shovelnose he carved the year before and we decided the second one should be documented also.

So, everyday I’d wake up not knowing whether I’d have to put on public clothes (as opposed to the ratty old paint covered stuff I wear while working at home), jump in the car and race out to where he was carving to “get pictures of something really important”.

There were many days where the “something important” was nothing more than sandingsandingsandingsanding, or (literally) glue drying. There were other days when I got photographs of awe-inspiring and thought-provoking aspects of the life of an 800 year old cedar tree, or when I got pictures of men working traditional hand tools such as adzes and chisels with such skill, delicacy and precision it was like watching a ballet.

While it was a wondrous thing to be the “eye” and to “memorialize” this significant canoe carving project, it kept me from my own work. Two days ago, for the first time since June, I got to sit down and put my hand to a piece of  Haida formline art. I am working on a classic box design and the moment my hand started  off on that first long arc all the frustration, exhaustion, stress and negative energy slipped right off me and I was transported to a place of bliss.

My hand ran the lines, those sweet sweet curves of U forms and ovoids, the tight relief of trigons, the graceful sweep of long, attenuated S forms, and the challenging complexity of intricate salmon-trout eyes. My body fell into the motions of my shoulder, arm, wrist, fingers, moving slowly and as if in a spell. I could feel small muscles left unused for months stretching awake and greeting the chance to work again eagerly. My eyes moved ahead of my hand wanting to fill in the spaces not complete with the proper elements, but I refrained, only taking in the few inches I was working although wild to “see” the whole design at once. My breathing matched the speed my hand moved, slowing when I came to a curve pulled tight forming the “corner” of a U form, coming fuller and faster as I ran fast the arcs of large ovoid shapes.

About fifteen minutes into the design I set my pencil down and called two of my friends who are also artists. They weren’t home but I left them a message, crowing about how happy I felt, how released from stress I was and able to slip into my own skin again. I hung up with a huge sigh of pleasure and relief, picked my pencil up and went back to work for several more hours.

Box design 0381 edited-1

Traditional bentwood box design

When I was done I took the draft and got it set to trace onto a clean, new piece of vellum. Then I put away my pencils and erasers, turned off the lights over my drawing table and went to bed. I slept deeply, dreaming; dreaming in a formline world. No nightmares, no stress dreams, just long slow ovoids, U forms and trigons sliding off into infinity.

Yesterday I had errands to run, and as usual, when I’m running around town, I call my mom (using my Bluetooth) and we share our day. At one point during our conversation she suddenly asked if I was having a good day. I paused for a moment, not at her question, but to take in the wild flare of yellows, blazing oranges and deep, almost purple reds of the trees bordering the street I was on. Then I responded, “I’m having a fabulous day. Why?” She said I sounded better than I have in months, more alive, happy, fun, and asked me what was different. I thought for just a second, then told her, “I got to draw a a box design in Haida formline yesterday and it just washed me clean. I’m back in my own skin again. I can see again!” She told me she was happy for me, happy that I am back to my real work again, and happy that I have something in my life that can make me feel so good. I told her I feel like the luckiest woman in the whole world, told her I love her and we said our good byes.

I forget, when I’m pulled away from this art to do other things, to document a canoe being carved, to write chapters for books, caught up in editing page after page of old Lummi stories…when I have to spend my days away from the drawing table and ovoids, U’s, and supple S curves, that there is something that keeps me anchored in myself and gives me an intensely profound sense of gratification. I forget that all I have to do is sit down and start drawing, or pick up a brush and paint an ovoid.

How hard is it to just remember this?

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