The sound carries across the water: a rhythmic drum-beat. Canoes cross the cove and draw up on the sand. On the shore, in a house made of broad planks of cedar, a bent-wood box is hanging from a rafter as a drum, and the family is calling guests to a celebration.
They will talk around the fire, and some will perform with music and dancing, masks and costumes, puppets, stage-effect smoke and blood and actors tumbling through trapdoors. They may tell the story of a time in the dark, when people were afraid and children died — until a spirit was born as a boy and saved them.
“It was a painful time to remember. People did not want to relive the horror of that time. And so it was given to certain ones to keep …” Tlingit storyteller Ishmael Hope begins Raven Steals the Sun.
Visitors can hear him tell it in “Finding Raven: Art and Stories from the Northwest Coast,” a new exhibit at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield.
The show gathers contemporary artwork and work from the 19th and 20th centuries from artists of the Haida, Coast Salish, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw and Tlingit, people who lived and live in the temperate rain forest along the Northern Pacific coast, now Washington State and British Columbia.
Here a mask of Raven as a boy opens his hands to release the sun into the sky. Beau Dick, a painter and activist and Kwakwaka’wakw master carver, made it in his studio at the northern tip of Vancouver Island.
Susan Point, a Coast Salish artist, has shaped a mask in river-green glass. She also works in wood, stainless steel, concrete, precious metals, silkscreening and painting.
The work comes to the museum from Joan and Paul Gluck, collectors who live between Dalton and Key Biscayne, Florida. This is the third museum exhibit focused on their collection, they said, and the first molded around stories.
It brings together images and tales of the bear, the salmon, the sun and many more, to bring the characters alive.
Joan Gluck finds the connection powerful. If she saw the image of a boat and animals in pairs, she said, she would recognize the Ark and know the story behind it. So the museum wants to give the stories behind the raven on a drum made by Kwa-guilth artist George Hunt Jr., or a cape with the abstract shapes of diving whales.
They have gathered these stories with care. Curator Maria Mingalone worked with Hope, guest curator and researcher Lucy Brotman and Aldona Jonaitis, director of the University of Alaska Museum of the North, to reach out to those who keep them.
As Hope tells a story, he begins with the elder and family who have given him permission to share it. Among the Northwestern peoples, Paul said, storytellers may own stories as clearly as physical objects.
The head of the family may tell tales at celebrations, Joan said. Hearing a story at a gathering, they would bring it home and re-tell it, and so families have evolved their own ways of telling a story.
“It’s a very rich tradition,” Mingalone said. “The literary history is profound, and of a quality we don’t get to experience because we don’t speak the language.”
Hope compared these storytellers to Lord Byron and the Romantic poets, she said, and he wanted to respect their authenticity and accomplishment.
The Glucks have heard Northwestern art compared to Renaissance art in its quality and importance, they said, and Northwestern artists inspired Modernists in the early 20th century — in the way they formed a creature or a scene from a few simple shapes layered in complex patterns, or condensed a three-dimensional figure into two dimensions.
The Glucks first met and fell for these traditions of story and art when they were young. As newly married medical students, Paul said, they traveled across country on a shoe-string, camping at National Parks, and they began to learn about Northwestern cultures.
Later, when they were able to collect art, they returned to this early love. They talked with artists and gathered books.
They commissioned Tlingit artist Ken McNeil to make a pole for them with a beaver and an eagle in warm, golden cedar wood. In a traditional house, Joan said, this kind of sculpture can support a roof beam.
These carvings are commonly called totem poles, but they are misnamed, Paul said. They often tell the stories of the people who live in the house.
For this show the Glucks have lent a film of McNeil as he puts the last touches to the carving. He kept in touch with them as he worked, Joan said. Early on he sent them a film of his studio with the spruce and fir standing behind it, and he told them he was going into the forest to find the tree that would release the spirit of their pole.
He shaped it with an adz and curved knives, and his studio would have held the sweet tang of cedar wood. It is a healing scent, Joan said.
If you go
What: ‘Finding Raven’ show of work by artists from the Pacific Northwest and including Haida master carver Robert Davidson, Kwakiutl master carver and storyteller Don Lelooska, Coast Salish artist Susan Point, Kwakwaka’wakw artist and mask maker Beau Dick, and Kwa-guilth carver and dancer George Hunt Jr.
Where: Berkshire Museum, 39 South St., Pittsfield
When: Show runs through Oct. 30, 10 a.m. Monday to Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday
Event: Raven’s Ball, 5:30 p.m. to midnight, Friday, June 10, with live entertainment and dancing
Storytelling app: Downloadable anywhere at berkshiremuseum.org/app
Museum Admission: $13 for adults, $6 for children, free for children age 3 and under
Free audio tour app available for smartphones phones and tablets; tablets available to borrow
Information: 413-443-7171, berkshiremuseum.org
This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle; my thanks to Features Editor Lindsey Hollenbaugh. In the photo at the top, Stan Wamiss’ Thunderbird appears in a show of contemporary and recent artwork from the Pacific Northwest at the Berkshire Museum. Photo courtesy of the Berkshire Museum and Paul and Joan Gluck