Editor's note: Anchorage Museum of History and Art generously referred Resource Library Magazine to the author and copyright holder of the following catalogue essay. Anchorage Museum of History and Art will present John Hoover: Art and Life, a retrospective exhibition, May 12 through September 29, 2002. This biographical essay is reprinted with the permission of the author, Julie Decker, who may be reached at (907) 272-1489. If you have questions regarding the exhibition or the lavishly illustrated catalogue, please contact the Anchorage Museum of History and Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

John Hoover: Art and Life

by Julie Decker

 

Early Carvings

Hoover and an Edmonds' neighbor had worked together in 1958 in Hoover's backyard to build a fifty-eight-foot Alaskan limit-seiner out of wood. Modeled after the fishing boats commonly used in the Northwest and Alaska, the boat was made almost entirely of old growth fir, with white oak from Tennessee making up the ribs. Hoover had learned to build boats from a shipwright, a master craftsman, in Cordova.

Hoover and his neighbor lacked the proper power tools for building the boat, however, and had to shape the timbers by hand. The boat, the Aldebaran -- named after one of the brightest stars in the northern hemisphere -- is still working today out of Port Townsend, Washington. Building the Aldebaran made Hoover see possibilities for applying his woodworking skills to art. He began to think about trading his brushes for a chisel. "It's natural for a painter to turn into a sculptor," said Hoover. "A lot of people paint first. It's just a natural progression, I guess. I don't know whether you have to be able to paint first to be a sculptor or not, but probably."

Hoover's daughter Martha remembers that while her father was working on the Aldebaran, he would find small scraps of wood with wormholes in them. He would cut the wood into different shapes, not carving them, but cutting out rough figures and fish shapes. He would then hang them, like mobiles, from the ceiling of his studio -- a hint of his later interest in creating large-scale sculptures that hung in space. Martha also recalls that wooden floats made by Hoover decorated the fence that enclosed their yard. She theorized that Hoover made these to let everyone know a fisherman lived there. He also practiced his woodworking skills by making traditional Aleut hunting hats, but rather than use the bentwood method typical of most Native craftsmen, Hoover would carve his out of one piece of wood.

Martha sees a strong connection between her father's carvings and the traditional masks made in ancient times in the Aleut village of Unga. "When I see those masks, I can see Dad's work," she mused. "It's not anything studied. He has an ancestral knowledge of Aleut art; an innate sense of ancient geometric shapes and motifs that comes somewhere from within. I think he descends from ancestor carvers." Although Hoover was not interested in replicating Aleut masks, he was looking for ways to combine traditional themes with his new interest in wood, hoping to find a style of his own.

When Hoover first started using wood to create sculptures, his works were oil-painted designs on cedar planks. A spirit board in traditional cultures is a hinged decorated panel featuring a crest (an image representing a family, clan, lineage, or a high-ranking individual) that serves as a prop during ceremonial performances. The figures in Hoover's spirit boards represented spirits, with simplified body forms and stick-like arms and hands. His color use in these early works is minimal, with a white wash used to create the bodies of the figures.

Around 1960 Hoover started carving into the wood rather than just painting on it. He would begin his carvings with a pencil sketch on scratch paper, which he would then transfer to brown butcher paper. He rubbed the paper over the actual piece of wood he intended to carve to get a sense of the contours of the wood. He then rubbed charcoal over the paper to further delineate the contours. Next Hoover refined his imprint with carbon paper and traced it back onto a piece of wood, like a template. "You just can't start carving a piece of wood unless you know what the heck you're doing," says Hoover. Ancient Alaskan and Northwest carving (bentwood boxes, utilitarian and other objects) also involved the use of templates like those Hoover had devised, but he modified the tradition. The designs used in his templates are his own, not ancient patterns.

These early, fully realized carvings were also Hoover's version of spirit boards. The form was inspired by a collection of ancient Coast Salish spirit boards at the Washington State Museum in Tacoma whose simplicity and primitive nature Hoover admired. His own spirit boards were produced in a Northwest style but with his personal interpretations of the Coast Salish and Tlingit and Haida Indian myths that inspired them:

When I first started carving, I did as many do: by imitating the Northwest Coast carvers of Washington and Canada. I picked the Salish style, not the regulated approach dictated by so-called experts who were and still are dictating what is Indian Art. You don't have to be Indian to create Indian Art; all you have to do is be able to learn how to carve and then "follow the rules." Salish art is different. There were no rules. It was crude but powerful spiritually. It was important to the people. Imagine the whale hunters getting into a log dugout canoe and going searching for a whale! You had to believe in yourself to do this!

Unlike his later pieces, Hoover still did not carve on both sides of these panels, rather only the front of the planks were treated with tools. Phoenix Bird, 1968, is a simplified frontal view of the Phoenix as it rises out of a flame (Native legends have the Phoenix bird rising every two hundred years). Here, Hoover has created a louvered effect for the background, carving layered stripes into the wood. The wings of the Phoenix bird, too, are layered to create the illusion of feathers. At the tips of the bird's wings are two human faces, representing the spirit helpers.

Almost all of Hoover's work incorporates some representation of human form. The faces almost always hold the same serene expression. They are inspired by Madonna figurines of the Okvik period, dating back to approximately two thousand years ago. The small walrus ivory figures have been found scattered throughout Alaska and are considered the oldest remnants of the Northern maritime culture. They represent the spirit, or inua, which means "owner" or "indweller" to many North American peoples. Inua is the all-pervasive spirit with whom the shamans were able to communicate. Every object has its inua -- even air possesses one. The human inua is the soul.

The faces and figures in Hoover's work are also symbolic of Native ancestors, which are very important in all Alaska Native and Northwest Coast cultures. In Northwest Coast art, a human portrait often represents an ancestor figure, who is no less real for being mythical. Full human figures may also be guardians -- protective talismans -- or personifications of such environmental phenomena as the sun. In most Northwest Coast art, when smaller animal figures are carved in relief on the cheeks or foreheads of human faces, the figures represent spirit helpers. They signify the shaman's gifts and skills, which include powers of transformation and access to sacred knowledge.

Hoover gathered much of his information about ancient cultures from books. "I was never lucky enough to experience any real traditional material. I had to read about it. Luckily, I was able to take traditional material and make it into my own vision. I am thankful for that gift." One of the books Hoover remembers listed three thousand Indian tribes of the United States from A to Z and described each of them; others described some of the unique myths and legends of the Aleut peoples. During the late 60s and 70s a friend who was a book dealer interested Hoover in ethnology books from the Smithsonian Institution, in which he found some classic illustrations of early Northwest Coast art. These books acquainted Hoover with his own heritage and with other Native cultures. They featured types of masks, descriptions of materials used in making ceremonial objects, tools for hunting and fishing, traditional decorations found on utilitarian and ceremonial objects, and folklore and mythology. The books influenced Hoover more than any artist or art movement. It was through reading these books that Hoover discovered the narratives he wanted to tell visually. It was the books that gave him an appreciation for what had been lost and what could still be preserved. The excitement he felt when he looked through the books was exhilarating and Hoover sought to find other books about the Aleuts and the peoples of the Northwest Coast.

One of Hoover's most beloved books is Shamanism: The Beginnings of Art. Written in 1967 by Andreas Lommel, the director of the National Museum of Ethnology in Munich, the book describes shamans as the first psychologists, doctors, and artists. Of shamans, Lommel writes:

Unlike the medicine man, the future shaman acts under an inner compulsion...a psychosis that is emerging for some reason or other [and] is so strong that the only way out open to the individual attacked by it is to escape from its shamanistic activity, that is to say, essentially by means of artistic productivity, such as dancing or singing, which always involves a state of trance.

Hoover is interested in the shaman more than any other figure in Native American culture and history. He has also studied the role of the shaman in a community, the powers of the shaman, and the shaman's relationship with spirit helpers:

For the shaman, pieces of wood, rocks, and stones are alive and possess energy. A rock has a body, a log has grain. Shamans are the original psychologists. They draw out images from the subconscious. They bring what is fearful out into the open, so that people can cope with it.

Many North American Indian myths concern the powers of the shaman. While in some cases the shaman inherits his role, it is more common for him to be summoned by the spirits, usually against his will, who drive him out into isolation until he achieves enlightenment. When he or she then accepts this vocation, all the secrets of the universe are revealed and a relationship with spiritual aids and guides can begin.

Shamans can be vehicles for transformation, which is one of the overarching themes in Hoover's work. Although he never found a book specifically addressing the shamanic powers of transformation in Aleut culture, Hoover believes transformation is a concept that spans all religions, and that it is what draws others to his artwork:

The transformation mythology, that's one of my main themes, and people relate to that; they find somehow a religious connotation to it, a spiritual adventure, which is good, but I don't do that on purpose. It seems to come out in my work. Although I can't myself transform into any other shape, I can through my art. And transformation has become very important in my art.

Communities practicing shamanism believe that most illnesses are the result of a loss of one's soul. The shaman cures the person by retrieving his/her soul. Shamans have "spirit helpers" who assist them in their search for a sick person's soul because if the soul is not found the patient will die. A spirit helper can change into a loon underwater, or into a bird that can fly, or a forest animal, to find the soul and return it to be put back into the patient. "I have become associated with birds in my art. Birds were, and still are, very important to me with their ability to transform into spirit helpers," said Hoover. Hoover's artwork is often a representation of these spirit helpers, and many of the titles to his work include the word "spirit" such as Wolf Spirit and Owl Spirit.

 

Materials and Methods

Hoover took care to select the best of tools and materials. He bought lumber in hardware stores, including cedar and mahogany. Cedar soon became his wood of choice. The cedar Hoover uses in his carvings is almost one thousand years old and comes from the forests of western Washington. Cedar flourishes along the rainforest coast of the Pacific Northwest, together with spruce, Douglas fir, hemlock, and other conifers.

All marine-oriented peoples of the Northwest Coast who lived in or near the great evergreen forests and consider cedar supernatural have held the wood in the highest esteem. They used the wood of the tree to build houses and boats, while the bark was used to weave baskets, mats, clothing, curtains, and spiritual objects.

Great cedar trees with a true, clear grain are becoming more and more difficult to find along the Northwest Coast, due to logging, the pressure of burgeoning populations, and urban expansion. Many contemporary Native people are working to reclaim their traditional art forms and the cedar tree is central to that art, providing raw material in the form of wood, bark, roots, and twigs. Women are reviving traditional weaving skills, making baskets, and men are carving crest poles, canoes, steambent boxes, masks, drums and rattles. Even large plank houses, traditional community structures, are again being built and used for feasts and ceremonies. Yet the tree that was plentiful hundreds and thousands of years ago for these uses is no longer abundant.

Hoover is fond of the red cedar, especially. Red cedar is found at elevations from sea level to four or five thousand feet and range from Baranof Island in Alaska, southward down the coast of British Columbia, through Washington and Oregon to northern California. The finest cedars are not along the ocean edge, but are rooted in the deeper, moister, more porous soils of lakesides, river estuaries, cool slopes, and rich bottom lands. In the shade of dense forests, cedars reach up for light, and the resulting tall, straight trunk is uninterrupted by branches for much of its height -- a characteristic prized for monumental sculpture.

Beneath the red cedar's pale sapwood is straight-grained heartwood in shades of reddish brown, with a characteristic scent. Red cedar has better insulating properties than hardwoods, but it is not as strong. Air spaces and cleavage planes inherent in the cedar makes this both a very light wood and allow it to be readily split, important traits for Native Northwest Coast builders. Cedar is a very soft wood for carving, making the final sculptures quite soft and fragile as well.

For many generations of Northwest Coast peoples, the cedar tree was valued because it could be worked in so many ways with a minimum of tools. Woodworking skills were refined over time, and the simplicity of the tools employed is actually a testament to the skills, knowledge, and experience of Northwest carvers. A major woodworking industry developed along the entire Northwest Coast wherever cedar grew. Today, a revival of woodworking flourishes along the Northwest Coast, and several top artists are taking on apprentices in order to pass on the craft.

Woodworking was solely the task of men in ancient Northwest cultures. Men constructed containers for fishing and hunting gear, tools, household implements, dugout canoes, houses, and many other things. Men's carving tools were very personal items, each tool made to fit the worker's individual hands and ways of working. Sometimes, a specific tool was devised for a particular need. These were treasured items, and a woodworker often sculptured the handles of his tools with intricate crest figures. The hammer, wedge, and adze were the three basic tools, while a number of other specialized tools were used for specific techniques or tasks.

Because Hoover never lived within an Aleut community, he did not have master Aleut carvers to teach him their ancient craft and was largely self-taught in the techniques of woodcarving. He did find some books that showed how to make and use carving knives, methods that were used long ago. While working as an artist-in-residence in Japan and the Pacific Islands, Hoover learned some ancient Eastern carving strategies, which he also adapted to suit his own craft and style. Hoover says the tools he has used over the decades have become sacred objects to him. One, which he believes is prehistoric, is a large, smooth rock that he uses to put the characteristic indentations into his work.

Even when using the ancient Eskimo tools to finish the finer aspects of his carving, Hoover has modified them, changing each as necessary to fit a particular project. He also uses power tools, including a band saw, sanders, and other aids. "You have to adapt," said Hoover. He works with the grain, following the natural lines of the wood. He employs power tools in the preliminary stages of carving to cut away the bulk of the block of wood: "When I first started carving I used Tlingit, or Southeastern carving tools -- crooked knives. When I got to doing larger things I started using gouges of all different sizes, pounding them with mallets." Hoover relied on an adze when he first started carving, but later turned to electric saws to cut away large portions of the wood and using crooked knives for more detailed work.

Hoover has a deep respect for his material and loves every part of working with wood.

As a child I helped my widowed mother cut wood for our stove. We cut wood in the winter so we could more easily move it to our house on sleds. I whittled firestarters every night out of the driest pieces. These were the substitute for paper to start the fires, as there was very little paper to burn. Wood has always been important to me. The agelessness and beauty of wood, the many different varieties, smells and, of course, the varied densities which make each wood a different challenge to carve and sculpt.

 

Break From Tradition

After working with traditional Northwest images for many of his first works in wood, Hoover began to resist the formal restrictions he thought came hand-in-hand with the style. He began to perceive these conventions as rigid and wanted more spontaneity. So he set out to create something new, founded in tradition, but inspired by his own imagination. "I guess the change was simply artist's prerogative," Hoover said. "I was tired of all the rules in traditional carving. Everything had to be the same. So I broke off to find my own style, like the Cubists or the Impressionists before them."

The Northwest Coast art tradition is identified by continuous, broad formlines that define and outline areas within a design, or sometimes the entire design, forming a grid over the whole of the decorated area (Holm 1965, 35). Formline elements become patterns, or templates, for the creation of art. Representational forms such as eyes, stylized faces, beaks, claws, and tails, are incorporated in designs so that they are symbolic and immediately recognizable. Ancient Alaskan and Northwest carving (bentwood boxes, utilitarian and other objects) involved the use of templates like those Hoover has devised, but the traditional artists were forbidden from deviating from the templates of their particular crest or totem. "They couldn't change . . .an eye or a mouth or a nose," explained Hoover. While some variation is accepted today, a great majority of traditional two-dimensional designs conform to patterns. Individual stylistic variation is found more often on such large sculptures as totem poles and houseposts. Formlines used in both painting and carving follow precise and conventionalized principles, such as split representations of animals.

Stylized images are more common in Northwest Coast art than naturalistic ones. In portraying animals, for example, designs emphasize particular parts of the body, especially the head, which is often large relative to the rest of the creature. Animals are split, sometimes at the head, sometimes at the rear, so that the creature is often shown in two profiles. Split details are not always shown in their anatomical relationship to the rest of the body; sometimes they are completely displaced. The motifs are usually symmetrical. With a simple understanding of Northwest Coast design, one can usually identify the creature being portrayed, despite its stylization.

A key aspect of composition in Northwest Coast art is the complete use of space. A creature may be arranged in the design field in a way that it is anatomically intact, but in another portrayal of the same animal it will be artistically dismembered and arranged to fill the space with little regard for anatomical linkages. Creatures are often skeletonized or shown in X-ray view. Ovoids forms are sometimes used to indicate crucial joints, and the vertebral column, or spine, may be depicted as a series of connected ovoids. Ribs and other skeletal elements are also commonly portrayed.

Hoover studied these Northwest styles, but stretched to find his own imagery and iconography. He created his own patterns, based on traditional imagery, but interpreted with his own artistic vision. Hoover did keep some evidence of formline in his work, in that most of his carvings include an outline that delineates the features of the animal or human figure he is representing. Most often, the outline is the raised part of the carving creating what might be described as contour lines. The wood between the lines is carved lower and is usually a lighter shade, or another color altogether than the lines themselves. The effect is similar to drawing, where charcoal or pencil is used to outline the outer edges of the subject and to create the lines that are imperative for understanding the subject being represented -- ovals for the eyes, an outline of a nose, another oval for the mouth, two arches for the eyebrows, and so on. The rest of the drawing is shading -- to provide further enhancement to the shapes, to suggest depth and shadow, and to add a more artistic quality to the work. Similarly, Hoover uses color and the texture of the carving to create the artistic vision he is seeking beyond just the outline of the form. Also like the traditional Northwest Coast styles, Hoover used stylized images rather than naturalistic ones. As his work progressed, the images would become more and more stylized and more and more recognizable as his own.

The patterns and templates created by Hoover became his storylines. He drew upon ancient Indian myths and legends for inspiration, using the stories as starting points for his carvings. The work is not meant to tell a linear tale, but rather reflects on larger themes, characters, and symbols. For Hoover, the most important thing is to create something uniquely his own:

When I create an original, never-seen-on-earth-before piece of art, I create it out of my own conception, personal experiences, and my own self-rewarding reasons. The only rule in doing so is, when finished, it must work. It must be a true statement of how I feel. Like a poet with words, or a dancer's choreography, the execution is the most important thing. If it works for us as artists, it works for everybody. Everybody can relate to it and recognize it as an art form.

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