Traditionally, tribal artists of the north-west coast of Canada create their totemic images of animals (similar in purpose to our heraldic devices) by rearranging a limited number of conventional motifs: a fin shape on one device might, for instance, serve as a feather on a bird or an ear on a bear, and so on. Using this idea, students can compose their own designs for an animal or mythical beast, like the one below, after making their own collection of template shapes from a study of resource material.
At the same time they have to solve the problem of how to fit their designs into a circle or rectangle, as Canadian native artists might have done to decorate a plate or a box.
With drawings complete, students can then paint their designs, taking the colours beyond the traditional flat red, white and black and experimenting with complementary contrast, colour moods and tone. These last stages of the project can lead to very individual work from students who can lend a three-dimensional quality to their paintings and, with the use of a personal colour scheme, can see their work transcend mere pastiche of the work that inspired it. Extension exercises for students who set the pace might include collage, printmaking and ceramic decoration.
I have also found story telling (each animal in native mythology has a legend attached), and short exercises on symbols, useful starting points if time allows.
Because the basic designs are stylistically simple to reproduce, students of all abilities will finish with a sense of achievement, with the more able using the brief as a springboard for more ambitious work.
As a Canadian I hold this project close to my heart. Many of the initial resources were bought during visits to the University of British Columbia's Ethnographic Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto. Much, however, can be gleaned from the Horniman Museum and the British Museum.
Also very useful as background information is Bill Holm's book, Northwest Coast Indian Art: an Analysis of Form (Douglas and McIntyre).
Tom Hardy Head of Art, North London Collegiate School, Edgware LEA