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


A Sculptor Finds His Form

In 1968 Hoover was ready for his first major sculpture show, which was held at the Collectors Gallery in Bellevue, Washington. Hoover's wife, Barbara, participated in the exhibition as well, displaying the paintings that she had created since 1963, when she had picked up John's paints and brushes while he was on a fishing trip and began her own artistic career. Her works, which combined many painting styles with Indian themes and symbols of Christianity, were included in the 50th Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists at the Seattle Art Museum in 1964 and won third prize in Seattle University's 5th Annual Exhibition of Religious Painting and Sculpture the same year. The Hoovers exhibited together in several two-person shows until the couple separated in 1977.

Most of Hoover's thirty-one pieces in the Collectors Gallery exhibition were iconological -- spirit boards as well as totemic designs on false houseposts. Some carved masks were included as well. The carvings were smaller than Hoover's later work -- only two or three feet in height. Hoover's houseposts were inspired by the Salish houseposts he had seen on trips to the nearby Tulalip reservation. "They were altogether different from other Northwest houseposts," recalled Hoover. "They were simple and mysterious." Hoover was experimenting with interpreting myths in this exhibition -- particularly myths that he hadn't seen visually interpreted before. The work represented Hoover's early dependence on traditional forms, although he was inventing his own versions of these forms. Later, references to such traditional objects as houseposts and totems would become more obscure.

The Collectors Gallery exhibition was the validation Hoover needed for the artistic path he had chosen. The Bureau of Indian Affairs purchased all but three pieces from the exhibition for its permanent collection. The remaining three sculptures were given as gifts to visiting dignitaries by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The same works purchased by the Bureau became part of a traveling exhibition that was featured at the Edinburgh Arts Festival later the same year. The exhibition was created around the concept of the continuity of Native American art forms -- showing older, traditional pieces alongside contemporary works. This was the first time such work was shown outside the Unites States and the exhibition traveled to Berlin, Santiago, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City as well as being featured in Anchorage. Curator James McGrath of the School of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe identified Hoover as a forerunner of contemporary American Indian arts, along with other contemporary artists Kevin Red Star, a member of the first class of the Institute of American Indian Arts during the early 1960s, who is known for his imaginative portraits of Crow Indians of the 1890s, and Nathan Jackson. Nathan Jackson, a master carver of totems from Southeast Alaska.

With the money Hoover received from the Bureau's purchase, he bought a collection of Northwest Coast art that included approximately four hundred baskets and ivory carvings and several large totem poles. The collection had been owned since 1932 by Mrs. Jack Vincent, who had bought the contents of an old trading post in Edmonds. "She was a widowed lady who had this stuff down in a basement," Hoover remembered. He discovered the collection when he responded to an inquiry from Mrs. Vincent about repairing one of her totem poles. "I went down there and it [the totem pole] was lying in the alleyway, all wet. I said, Well, I could probably fix it, but we've got to get it some place where it will dry out. I can't glue it together like this." Vincent took Hoover to her basement where he saw an endless array of Native-crafted pieces. The collection included many utilitarian objects -- knife handles, halibut hooks, sinkers and floats, hide scrapers, and such esoteric objects as seal wound plugs -- carved out of stone, bone, horn, wood, and walrus ivory. There were five totem poles (artists unknown), measuring from five-feet to twenty-feet tall. The collection also included almost three hundred baskets from all over the United States and Alaska, two hundred ivory carvings, a bead collection, beaded bags, clothing, Eskimo bows and arrows, and some curios.

"The big doors [to the basement] opened up and it was dark down there and all I could see -- it was like a dream or something. Stuff was everywhere and I said, My God, what is this?" remembers Hoover. Vincent had slowly been selling the old trading post stock to collectors since 1932, when she had acquired the collection. The next day, Hoover took his five-thousand-dollar commission from his exhibition and another three thousand dollars from his fishing income and bought the entire collection, which contained artwork from many pioneer collections, primarily gathered around the turn of the century. He soon sold two of the larger totems, both ten-feet tall, for four thousand dollars each, recouping his investment. Hoover still owns works from the collection, including some very rare Aleut baskets and an Eskimo ivory collection. He sees them as inspiration -- a demonstration of the enduring qualities of art objects and artifacts as keepers of a culture. In acquiring the collection he hoped to preserve the objects and to allow them to be seen by others. Like his artwork, it was an effort to tell the story of ancient peoples.

Later that same year, in 1968, a choice selection of small Eskimo pieces in ivory and stone from Hoover's acquisition was exhibited at the Center for the Arts of Indian Americans in Washington, D.C., and at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The exhibit, organized by Hoover's friend James McGrath from the Institute of American Indian Arts, was called Quilaut, an Eskimo word meaning "the art of getting in touch with the spirits." It was another milestone in an important professional relationship between Hoover and McGrath and the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

In the late 1960s Hoover began adding panels to his spirit boards, hinging three rectangular panels together to create one unified work. The center panel was the largest, with two side panels half as wide that, when closed, would meet in the middle and cover the center panel entirely. The image shown when the panels were closed was different from the image revealed when the panels were open. Hinges allowed the sculptures to fold back in on themselves, creating alternative images and structures. Polar Bear Spirit, 1971, is one of Hoover's first triptychs in this style. On the larger center panel is the head of the polar bear, carved and painted. Rising from the base of the bear's nose, centered in the bear's forehead, is a human figure, representing the bear's spirit helper. The narrower side panels feature female figures, two stacked figures on each panel, with faces, again representing spirit helpers, carved between their legs. When closed, a simplified line drawing -- painted, not carved -- is visible, with the bear and the human figure united as one. The melding of one creature into another reflects Hoover's interest in the ability of animal and human spirits to move between worlds through transformation.

This tripartite form became one of Hoover's signatures, although he also added the diptych form to his range, with mirrored images. Eventually, almost all of his carvings were more complex than a single piece. Hoover got the idea for creating diptychs and triptychs from Russian Orthodox icons, which were known as "traveling" icons, because the exterior pieces folded up to protect the image inside. Hoover saw this type of Russian sculpture in his youth in Cordova, where his family occasionally attended a Russian Orthodox Church.

In addition to making diptychs and triptychs in the late 1960s, Hoover was also creating masks and feast dishes. Based on the traditional utilitarian wooden feast dishes used by the Salish, Hoover's dishes were large and made to hang on the wall. Most were animal forms, with areas between the raised contours more deeply carved than Hoover's other works; in traditional times these divided areas would have been used to place different types of food. The feast dishes are some of Hoover's simplest forms, including in their use of color. Most of the feast dishes featured the natural tones of the wood or a basic color wash.

Hoover did explore the used of color in his masks and in his diptychs and triptychs, however. When he began to work outside the classical Northwest Coast traditions, he did keep the Northwest Coast colors in his work, including red, white, black, blue, and green:

I try to use the colors that the Indians had years ago. They had ochre from a form of clay; they had white from ashes, blue from copper ore...and charcoal for black. But I didn't mix it like they did. They had a stick to poke up their nose to make it bleed and that's what they'd mix their colors with because they were real sticky and permanent. I didn't go that far.

The colors in early Northwest Coast painting were limited to a few natural pigments before the opening of trade with Europeans. Even the introduction of trade pigments, did not affect the selection and use of color dramatically. The principal colors were black, red, green, blue, or blue-green. Black was derived from lignite, although at times graphite and charcoal were also used. Before the trade period, red was derived from ochers and hematite; later the Hudson's Bay Company introduced Chinese vermilion (Holm 1965, 26). The greens and blue-greens were probably derived from copper or iron minerals. White was occasionally used in Northwest Coast art, derived from burned and pulverized clam shells.

Black was the color used most frequently, primarily for the main formlines of the design. Red was usually the secondary color, used in formlines for details, accents, and enclosures within primary designs. Blue, green, or blue-green were not always used in a design, but rather the elements that might be painted with these colors are sometimes left unpainted, producing the effect of ground or negative space. These areas are considered the third or tertiary tier of the design structure.


Creatures and Cutouts

In March 1971, John and Barbara Hoover's work was presented in a joint exhibition at the Whatcom Museum of History and Industry in Bellingham, Washington. The exhibition was treated as a retrospective, even though it was the first time they were introduced to the art world in a major museum exhibition. In December 1971, Barbara Hoover sold fifteen of her husband's carvings at the Old Theater Gallery in Aberdeen, Washington, while he was in Alaska fishing. The works had been created by Hoover in preparation for a solo exhibition at the Heard Museum of Anthropology and Primitive Art scheduled for January 1972. He had to reschedule the exhibition for 1973 to allow him more time to create new work.

At this time Hoover was exploring more than his rectangular icons and feast dishes. He cut his forms out with a band saw into identifiable outlines of real and mythical creatures. Instead of rectangles, his sculptures had three-dimensional shapes: the beak of a bird, the body of a woman, or the tusks of a walrus. Hoover would only rarely return to the rectangular form after developing his cutout method throughout the remainder of his career.

Hoover was particularly interested in exploring mask forms. Breaking out of the traditional mask forms of a rounded face in a circular shape -- as illustrated in Salmon Woman, 1972, an unpainted mask, and Frog Spirit Mask, 1972, which has a simplified facial form surrounded by radiating feathers -- Hoover began to make his masks in more complex shapes, with faces transforming into animals. Grebe Mask, 1972, has a human face with two grebes rising from the temples. In Eagle Spirit Mask, 1972, an eagle begins to form from the neck of a man. Both the grebe and the eagle masks incorporate various inlays, something else Hoover was interested in at the time. Grebe Mask has inlayed beads for eyes, while Eagle Spirit Mask has ivory inlays creating the teeth and the pupils of the man. Puffin Spirit Mask incorporates a much more abstract human face, with one eye and an meandering line forming the nose and the outline of the face. From the forehead rises a puffin with a small ivory inlay human face, or spirit helper.

The grebes, eagles, and puffins featured in Hoover's masks from 1972 are common images found throughout his entire body of work. The grebe, a diving sea bird closely related to the loon, is a rare creature in other Northwest Coast or Alaskan art. Five species of grebes inhabit the Northwest Coast and Alaska, most of them migrating there in the winter. The grebe was also called upon by shaman.

The eagle, on the other hand, is one of the most important beings in the art and mythology of the Northwest Coast and Alaska. It is respected for its intelligence and its power, as well as its extraordinary vision (both literally and figuratively). Eagles in myth are usually noble characters and are associated with lofty ideals and the pursuit of freedom. The bald eagle is common all along the Northwest Coast, while the golden eagle is known in the interior and in the river valleys that cut through coastal mountain ranges. Eagles are large birds of prey with exquisite hunting and fishing skills. In Northwest Coast art, a powerful beak, curving in a downward arc, identifies the eagle. Eagle is revered as a powerful hunter, but some Northwest Coast tribes occasionally hunted and ate eagles. Shamans believed in the healing powers of eagle feathers and down and used them in a variety of ceremonies and rituals.

Puffins are a favorite of contemporary people of the Northwest Coast and Alaska. The tufted puffin is the species that breeds throughout the Northwest Coast, while the horned puffin is found mostly in Alaska. Puffins are diving sea birds, and images of puffins are sometimes found on shamanic art objects symbolizing great journeys through watery realms. Puffin beaks were often used to adorn ceremonial clothing and regalia objects such as noisemakers were attached to bentwood hoops to create ceremonial rattles. Hoover often depicts puffins in his artwork, usually incorporating a side view of the animal that accentuates its colorful beak and striking appearance..

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