Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Salmon Woman by John Hoover

In January 2013, in conjunction with the visiting exhibition "FashionStatement: Native Artists and Pebble Bay" as well as our exhibition "Voices of the River," we are delighted that we'll be displaying John Hoover's marvelous sculpture "Salmon Woman" (1987).

My exhibition label is as follows.

John Hoover
born Cordova, Alaska
American, Aleut/Unangan, Russian
Salmon Woman
Old Growth Western Red Cedar, oil pigment, beads
Loan of the Hoover family

According to the legends and sacred stories of many indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, Salmon may present itself in an animal or human form. In some stories, after Salmon leave behind their physical fish bodies in the upper reaches of rivers, to serve as food for human beings and animals, its spirit can swim invisibly back to the Pacific; under the ocean the Salmon people gather in their human forms.  For the Native peoples of Southeastern Alaska, a beautiful woman manifests herself at the heads of salmon-spawning streams so salmon will return year after year to those same waterways to spawn.

This elaborate version of Salmon Woman was created by John Hoover, an artist of Aleut (Unangan) background. Look closely and you can identify the many animals who draw sustenance from the annually returning Salmon: Bear, Sea Lion, and Seagull. Out of the human woman’s body emerges two large salmon, representing her bountiful gifts of food.  Salmon Woman’s womb is decorated with red beads that symbolize her eggs. Notice that the same red beads were also used to create the the eyes of the woman as well as the eyes of the other animals, thus symbolically binding these forms together.

Coastal First Nations people have harvested cedar trees for millennia, honoring the wood’s versatility and its spiritual significance.  Coastal Tlingit and Salish Shamans were protected by cedar guardian figures, and cedar trees have long been understood as imparting long life and health to communities that honor them.  Carved out of old growth Western Red Cedar, sometimes dating back centuries, Hoover’s work highlights the regenerative gifts of the cedar tree, celebrating cycles of growth, loss, and rebirth.

This free-standing sculpture also powerfully evokes the multiple levels of existence that inform the traditional understandings of the Native peoples of the Northwest Coast: the visible realms of water, land and air, as well as the continuous traffic between visible and invisible domains of the universe.

John Hoover was fascinated by spiritual transformations between human and animal manifestations, a prominent motif in tradition-based Native American art of the region. If you would like to see more examples of John Hoover’s work, in the Museum the lobby you will find a permanently installed, John Hoover carving, Man who Married an Eagle” (1971). This carving is structured as a triptych that reveals a hidden mystery, the protective outer doors represent an Eagle in birdlike shape, while the inner surface depicts human beings morphing in and out of bird form. 

Mark Auslander

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