My wife told me that several years ago (before we met), an old friend of hers offered her knowledge and wisdom about the westcoast native art industry. She told my wife that the reason indigenous art is priced so high is because [native artists] need to supplement the cost for their drug and drink problem.
I’m glad my wife didn’t listen to her. If she had, she might not have wanted to have much to do with me when we met.
I can’t speak for every artist out there, but I can tell you that this sort of ignorance puts people like me in a bad position. Now I’m forced to defend what I do and try and fight to prove I’m not wasting my funds. The bottom line is that it’s really no one’s business what someone does with their money, but I can appreciate that no one wants to enable someone’s substance abuse problem.
To put it into perspective, the cost of one piece such as a mask will go to about two months’ worth of living expenses. Will I make another sale after two months? Who knows? But I have to assume that I need to stretch my dollar in case I don’t. I too have operating costs. It sucks up a lot more energy to run power tools and to circulate the air in my shop on one day than it would for most in one month.
It is also part of my job to use extra materials such as hair, shells, and cedar bark. Farming for these items can take days if not weeks (and for hair—years). Any amount of time that I’m taken away from my shop to farm for materials costs me time, and time is money. I can recall spending months looking for operculum shells, and not just any size. They all have to be uniform in size for sets of teeth. When combing through a pebbly beach, looking for one size for one mask, it can take weeks (and only at the mercy of low tide).
Little things such as my phone bill, when I need to make long distance calls to clients outside of Canada (when an email won’t do), running steam for a bent box, travel expenses to meet with potential buyers, creating marketing and advertising – all start adding up. Because I can’t speak for another artist, personally I take no days off. My hours are always 24/7. Before I know it, I’m praying for another sale so I can make it through another two months.
This is why I have recently had to separate delivery and shipping costs from my orders, and why donations are carefully considered to only a few organizations per year.
With all of these expenses and so much time putting in to carving, who has time to drink?
My advice to potential buyers is to get to know your artist. There is no harm in simply asking an artist questions to get some idea who they are as a person. Check for the detail in their art which can indicate how many long hours goes in to one piece. Look around their work space and decide for yourself. Do you see shrines of beer cans, or do you see clutter from a hard day’s work?
In the end, ask yourself if it is important to you that your own hard-earned money goes in to a piece whereby the artist will invest in their craft, or do you simply just want an item without knowing the personal business of who you support?
There is no correct answer here. Customers have a budget too, and I respect that. I too have a budget when I obtain materials and have to decide what’s best for now or later. Do I want to go through a repair job later on, or do it right the first time and keep my reputation as a reliable artist intact?
The value of indigenous art is also precious, even though we still put a price tag on our work. We are people who are proud of our heritage and that sort of love for what we do is priceless.