THOM, Ian M.

Author Tags: Art, First Nations

As a Senior Curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Ian Thom has written numerous books and catalogues including The Cartoons of Arthur Lismer and Gordon Smith: The Act of Painting (D&M) with Andrew Hunter. Smith of West Vancouver was first recognized as an important modern painter in the 1940s and he won first prize in the first Biennial of Canadian Painting in 1955. In 1960, he was chosen to represent Canada at the Sao Paulo Bienal. Thom also selected and briefly described 100 ‘masterworks’ of B.C. visual art for Art BC (D&M) starting with the likes of argillite carver Charles Edenshaw, totem pole carver Mungo Martin, watercolourist John Charles Collings, sculptor Charles Marega and Emily Carr. Familiar names are augmented by some less predictable choices, along with a brief overview of B.C. art. Thom has included 84 artists in chronological order. Thom has also edited books on David Milne and Robert Davidson. Thom received his Master of Fine Arts degree from UBC and has had senior curatorial positions at the Art Gallery in Victoria and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
A Modern Life: Art and Design in British Columbia, 1945-1960
Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast
Emily Carr: Collected
Shore, Forest and Beyond: Art From the Audain Collection
Masterworks from the Audain Art Museum


Murals from a Great Canadian Train (Art Global/Libre Expression, 1986)

Andy Warhol Images

A New Angle on Canadian Art

Gordon Smith: The Act of Painting (D&M, 1997). With Andrew Hunter.

Art BC: Masterworks from British Columbia (D&M, 2000)

A Modern Life: Art and Design in British Columbia, 1945-1960 (Arsenal Pulp, 2004). Co-edited with Alan Elder.

Takao Tanaba (D&M, 2005)

Thom, Ian M. & Charles C. Hill & Johanne Lamoureux. Emily Carr (Douglas & McIntyre, 2006).

Challenging Traditions-Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast by Ian M. Thom (Douglas & McIntyre 2009) $60

Shore, Forest and Beyond: Art from the Audain Collection; with Grant Arnold (Douglas & McIntyre 2011) 978-1-55365-929-7 $55.00

Emily Carr Collected (Introduction by Ian M. Thom) (Douglas & McIntyre 2013) $19.95 978-1-77100-080-2

Masterworks from the Audain Art Museum, Whistler (Figure 1 2015)

[BCBW 2015] "Art" "Carr"

Challenging Traditions-Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast by Ian M. Thom (Douglas & McIntyre $60),
Review (2009)

What constitutes contemporary First Nations Art?

Should the contemporary First Nations artist adhere to the past as closely as possible? Or should he or she challenge tradition, adapt to it or even deny it?

For Challenging Traditions, Ian M. Thom, senior curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, has interviewed 40 artists who are using classical First Nations forms in innovative ways.

He has selected artists “working within or referencing traditional First Nation aesthetics.” Therefore some experimental artists of First Nations ancestry, such as Brian Jungen (he of the Nike shoe masks and the whale-made-of-lawn-chairs) are excluded. He describes the highly successful Jungen as “more influenced by conceptual and environmental concerns than by languages of his ancestry.”

Fair enough, but when we begin to go down this road it becomes a slippery slope to question whether it is necessary at all to group artists by their ancestry. That is where some historical perspective becomes useful.

From the years 1882-1951 aboriginal cultural practices—such as the potlatch—were criminalized.
It was not until 1958, in an exhibition to mark the centenary of the province of B.C., that First Nations art and objects were exhibited with artworks made by European migrants. It was not until the following year that aboriginal people were granted the right to vote federally (they were granted the right to vote provincially in 1947).

In 1971, when The Legacy exhibition opened at the British Columbia Provincial Museum in Victoria, the curators sought out younger artists who were producing new work and commissioned pieces from them. Other factors contributing to what Thom sees as an enormous growth in production and interest in First Nations art over the last forty years were the increasing use of the screen print and the development of marketing.

Paying homage to the past was important, but so was paying the rent.

Traditional apprentice and mentoring programs also played a part in the resurgence, as did the Emily Carr University of Art and Design and the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art in Terrace.

Sonny Assu is a graduate of the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design who combines aspects of popular culture with First Nation design elements. As Thom notes, Assu’s work was not universally encouraged within the First Nations community. One of his Uncles for example, told him that he should stop doing such work because “it’s not right, it’s not traditional.” It is that creative tension that makes Assu’s work (to this viewer) interesting.

One of Assu’s more stellar works uses the trademark font, swoosh and iconic red colour of a Coke ad, subverting the ‘Enjoy Coca Cola’‘ message to read ‘Enjoy Coast Salish Territory.’

“I think that it is important that there are artists out there that do the traditional stuff,” Assu told Thom, “because it is important for the culture to reclaim itself, but I am all about pushing the bounds of the culture.”

For Beau Dick, an initiate of the Hamat’sa society of the ‘Namgis people, identity as an aboriginal is integral to who he is. Dick is keenly aware of the push and pull of reclaiming and redefining—aesthetic versus functional, and art versus ritual—that many contemporary First Nations artists face.

“As a young child I saw two worlds colliding…,” Dick says, “As I grew older I wanted to be in a traditional world, and I look around and I see my people suffering because they are putting all of their energy into useless things in our modern culture, whether it is TV or playing bingo.”

Michael Nicholl Yahgulanaas creates a revolutionary mix of Haida imagery and storytelling with Japanese manga (a form of graphic novel). Like many of the artists represented, Yahgulanaas did not at first see himself as an artist although he did always draw. Initially Yahgulanaas’ primary focus was on the social and political struggles of the Haida people and on environmental issues

Yahgulanaas’ first comic book was about tanker shipments of oil and gas along the B.C. coast. In 2001, his first widely published book was A Tale of Two Shamans, the beginning of what he has called the “Haida manga.” It was Yahgulanaas’ Japanese students who compared his work to manga and assured him that it was a respectable art form in their homeland.

Concise, yet broad in scope, Challenging Traditions-Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast offers an important introduction to aboriginal artists attempting to push the boundaries, to tell new stories in a variety of mediums and styles, responding to radical changes in the world while respecting and balancing the old and the new.

Thom’s language to describe the works is blessedly free of art speak, and it’s inclusive and as plainspoken as most of his subjects. He has done a commendable job of representing their stories.


Reviewed by Grant Shilling

masterworks from the audain Art Museum, Whistler (Figure 1 $45)
Review (2016)

from BCBW (Spring 2016)
If you care deeply about B.C., a visit to the Audain Art Museum can be exhilarating. This new $43.5 million facility proves that our artistic output—just like our province’s literary output—is vibrant, stupendously original and prodigiously alive.

We don’t need to take second place to anyone. People from all over the planet can now see the proof in an afternoon. Not only have Michael Audain and his wife Yoshi Karasawa miraculously bought nearly all the artworks on display, they have generated enough support from co-believers to share their art in a fabulous facility (free admission to humans under age 16)—and they have performed this public service with zero help from the provincial or federal governments.

The Audain Art Museum is so new there aren’t any directions yet to find it in Whistler village; let alone a single promotional sign along the Sea to Sky Highway.

Our Squamish-based correspondent John Moore sends this report on the museum and a new book about it by Ian Thom.
But do yourself a favour—see it for yourself. — A.T.


Collecting art can become a passion more powerful, and more persistent, than the often erratic drive to create it. Artists suffer creative blocks, endure fallow periods, detour up stylistic back alleys that waste precious energy and time before proving to be dead ends.

Less ego-driven, more objective, collectors have the luxury of picking and choosing what their judgement and taste tells them is the best of a field that is as wide as the human imagination. Some collectors have been as willing to starve as the artists they admire in order to posses a work that nourishes the soul.
Michael Audain got the collecting bug when he was a university student, buying prints on an undergraduate budget to feed his Art Monkey.

Becoming a successful real estate developer provided the wherewithal to move up to the hard stuff; museum quality pieces by often anonymous First Nations carvers, complemented with works by contemporary First Nations artists like Bill Reid and Robert Davidson, and works by landmark B.C. painters like Emily Carr and E.J. Hughes.

Audain was also lucky to find a woman, his wife Yoshi Karasawa, who shared and encouraged his passion for art instead of pointing out that they could have bought a villa in the south of France for what some of these pieces cost.

Together they assembled an unrivalled collection of works by British Columbian artists that spans more than 200 years, a collection unique in its tight regional and historical focus.
Inevitably, Audain and Karasawa hit the wall that lurks in wait for serious collectors; having spent a lifetime assembling a world-class art collection, what do you do with it? Sit back and bask privately in the reflection of your own impeccable taste?
No, you want to share it with others, with the world at large. You could donate it to an established national or provincial gallery, which will be very grateful but will also reserve the right to dismantle your collection and exhibit individual pieces in whatever context they choose.

For people who have invested a huge personal stake in creating a focused collection, this is the equivalent of being drawn, quartered and eaten alive by arts bureaucRats.

As a developer, Michael Audain is no doubt familiar with the business adage, “Go big, or go home.” He and Yoshi opted to go big; to create a museum that would maintain the integrity of a collection that represents their lifelong work together, their vision of the art of B.C., while entertaining visiting exhibitions from international artists as well.

Audain approached several municipalities with a proposal that they might provide land at a nominal cost for such a museum. While some fudged, hemmed and hawed, market-savvy councillors in Whistler pulled the trigger and Whistler, a resort where British Columbians and visitors from all over the world gather, is actually the ideal location for such a culturally significant regional institution.

The Audain Art Museum opened to the public March 12, 2016 taking only three years to build from design to opening; light-speed to observers, but slug-speed to a seasoned developer.
“You feel it’s quick. I think it’s taken a rather long time,” Audain remarked to a reporter, noting he’d planned for it to open six months earlier.

It was worth the wait. Whistler provided one of the last pieces of forested land in the Village and award-winning Vancouver architects John and Patricia Patkau slipped a building in among the trees that combines the vaulted, snow-shedding and light-seeking space of traditional European alpine design with the contemplative austerity of a Japanese temple.

Like a classic Japanese temple or villa, the building is slightly raised, seeming to float among the rich green natural, yet always changing and mysterious, environment evoked by the works it contains.

The book, Masterworks from the Audain Art Museum, Whistler (Figure 1 $45), is much more than just a pumped up brochure or deluxe souvenir. Ian M. Thom, senior curator, historical, at the Vancouver Art Gallery, does a thoroughly professional job of describing the 59 photographic plates that provide a sampler of the Audain Collection.

If Thom sometimes sounds like the anonymous authors of catalogues for famous British auction houses, he must be forgiven, since precise physical descriptions of art works is the core mandate of his job, and he always adds a few lines of a more personal and evaluative nature to his commentaries.
Whether he has produced a definitive guide to not only the museum but to the history of art in B.C., may be a matter for loud beery debate and possible fisticuffs in artistic circles, but he has done a fine job of providing a scholarly and insightful look at the core works of the Audain Collection.
The plates from various sources, are invariably superb, which makes it all the more obvious that sculptural works—old First Nations masks and objects and newer works like one of the smaller versions of ‘Killer Whale’ by Bill Reid or the James Hart wall-size ‘Dance Screen’—works that are three-dimensional—retain much of their power when reduced to two dimensions by the camera lens, while the effect of originally two-dimensional graphic works, whether by Emily Carr or the homo-erotic paintings of Attila Richard Lukacs, actually seem to be drained of some of their emotive power in reproduction.

It should be noted that the Audain Art Museum is a much larger exhibition space than anticipated, big enough to accommodate travelling exhibits. To get the ball rolling, Audain and Karasawa have provided a stupendous array of art from their own collection of works by Diego Rivera and three other important Mexican artists who were muralists.

The Audain Art Museum has now announced it will serve as the only B.C. venue for Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, opening June 18 for a three-month visit.

When one leaves this museum, it is jaw-dropping to realize there has to be a story behind the acquisition of each and every magnificent work of art.

Audain and Karasawa deserve our admiration and our gratitude.


John Moore regularly writes for BC BookWorld from Garibaldi Highlands, near Squamish.