Constellation of FrogsHaida chief James Hart scatters eagle down during the blessing of his work of art, Frog Constellation. The giant carving, which reflects an old Haida love story, is in the atrium of Saywell Hall, Burnaby campus.

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Haida carving a love story

May 28, 2012
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James Hart, Haida chief and master carver, scattered eagle down at a Haida blessing ceremony May 28 for his huge, red cedar work of art, Frog Constellation, at SFU Burnaby.

And Haida singers, dancers and drummers joined in the celebration.

The giant sculpture is in the atrium of the Saywell Hall building (arts and social sciences), between the SFU First Nations Student Centre and SFU’s Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. It stands 5m high x 2m wide x 3.5m long.

“This piece suits the space,” said Hart. “It’s really wonderful to have it out here in public view. It was in storage for a while, and I actually forgot about it while it was in storage. . . . Now people will be able to see it here.”

Hart earlier explained the story behind the carving: “The story is an old Haida love story. The frog king took a young man’s lady, and he couldn’t find her. . . . An old gentleman told him where to look, so he dug in the ground there and frogs came out; millions of frogs came out. The last one was the frog king, with the young lady on his back, and so he got her back.”

The carving was inspired by a photo of an old, small carving by an unnamed master of Haida art, probably done in the 1870s. Hart saw that photo only once, and then only for a brief glimpse.

Frog Constellation took Hart 3½ years to complete, ending in 1995.

“I carried on with our traditions from our ancient folks, from our ancestors. I like to keep that in mind all the time when I’m creating and telling our stories. It’s important for us to carry on with this. . . .

He and president Andrew Petter thanked the donors, Ivanhoe Cambridge, Westminster Management Corporation and the Bill Reid Foundation, for bringing the carving to SFU as a gift.

Frog Constellation was originally commissioned by the Bentall organization (whose assets were later taken over by SITQ, which later merged with Ivanhoe Cambridge) for a building co-owned with Westminster Management in California. It was never installed there and, instead, went into storage in Vancouver, owned jointly by Westminster and SITQ.

Twelve years later, George MacDonald, then director of the Bill Reid Foundation and the Bill Reid Centre for Northwest Coast Art Studies at SFU, initiated the idea of retrieving the sculpture.

In September 2011 the Bill Reid Foundation gifted its entire collection of Northwest Coast art, worth more than $10 million and consisting of 158 works (including 112 masterworks by Bill Reid) to SFU. In return, the foundation is contracted to continue managing the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art in downtown Vancouver.

Hart himself apprenticed with the late Bill Reid, working with him on some of his most famous pieces, including The Raven and the First Man (now at the UBC Museum of Anthropology) and The Jade Canoe, at Vancouver international Airport (and on the back of the paper Canadian $20 bill).

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