Art for Sale

The Task The Process Learning Advice Resources Evaluation Notes to the Teacher

Your art brokerage firm has been contacted by a rich entrepreneur. She made millions of dollars developing computer games, but her real interest is art. Currently she owns a vast European art collection including pieces by the famous artists VanGogh, Miro, DaVinci, and Rembrandt. However, her recent travels to the Pacific Northwest have piqued her interest in the cultures of that area. She has decided to add three pieces from that region to her collection. It is your job to research the art of the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, and other tribes of the Northwest Coast and to select three pieces from that culture to add to her collection.


Northwest Coast Natives lived in villages in plank houses. They used canoes to hunt, fish, trade, visit, and make war. Art was not thought of as something extra, but as an important part of everyday life. The people lived in an environment created by the artisans in their village. Northwest Coast symbols adorned oil bowls, pipes, masks, combs, the outside of their houses, and their canoes.

Their sculpture and graphic arts were the "written" record of the people. One purpose for creating the art was to make the spiritual world visible and present to the people. The Northwest coast people believed in animism, an early form of religion.

Another purpose for creating art was to make the social system visible. Emblems were used to distinguish different social groups and to symbolize their history and privileges. They were shown on many material possessions, from ceremonial robes to totem poles. Often these possessions were given away in a ceremony called a potlatch.

A third reason for the Northwest Coast people creating art was to decorate functional objects, such as food baskets, canoe paddles, eating utensils, and wooden boxes to store blankets and clothes.

Northwest Coast artists distort figures in nature by using only essential parts (i.e., eyes, joints, ears, and feathers) and rearranging (splitting) these parts within the design. (Can you think of a 20th century artist that is known for doing the same thing?) Sometimes the artist put faces in body spaces, ovoid joints, or at the base of an arm, leg, or tail. They also stylized, or simplified shapes as opposed to picturing them in a realistic fashion. Animal and human designs represented either totems or spirits.

Some questions to consider about Northwest Coast Art elements as you progress through this project: