Orleans Poet, Artist, Summons Spirit People for Upcoming Art Show

We would not exactly confuse Brian Tripp’s sculptured birds with real pileated woodpeckers, iktakatákaha, but if his artwork took flight, we might not be too surprised. He is readying the birds and other work for a October 26 art opening at Gallery Piante in Eureka./Photo by Thomas Dunklin

By MALCOLM TERENCE, Two Rivers Tribune

It’s easy enough to imagine if a pileated woodpecker could turn into a person, he’d turn into somebody very much like Brian Tripp.

Old time story tellers around here talk about when the long-ago world was full of of spirit people. Eventually, the stories go, some turned into animals and others into rocks and trees. Some even turned into humans. So surely, the large woodpecker with its swooping meandering flight, its bright top notch and its distinctive cry could choose to be a poet and a singer like Brian.

Even if he was never once a woodpecker, Brian Tripp certainly has an affinity with them. His paintings and sculptures, which depict many spirits, keep returning to woodpeckers. Brian’s artwork is part of a new showing at Eureka’s Gallery Piante with an opening ceremony at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, October 26. (See the Schedule Box for the show details.)

Brian’s studio these days is his home in Karuk elder housing in Orleans. His work space is reminiscent of a beach after a high water recedes. There are river rocks of every color and shape. And wood, some of it painted in primary colors.

Some of the rocks and some of the sticks are assembled, or half assembled, into figures like little people. Brian moves around the room showing off his miniature entourage. He picks up a few, but carefully, because the stone heads are not all attached yet to the wooden  bodies. The entire room has the feeling of a work in progress.

The work area of Brian Tripp’s Orleans studio might, at first glance, look like a jumble of cobble and driftwood after high water has receded. Do not be fooled. It’s one small crowd of his spirit people, ikxaréeyav, getting ready for an art show. Watch your step./Photo by Malcolm Terence.

There were other people in the room including Marshall Weber, an art curator and agent from New York, and Shan Davis, a 20-year-old Orleans neighbor just home from a stint in the Marines.

Shan proudly showed off a hand made knife. The handle was made from the jawbone of a deer and the blade from the jaw of an elk.

Brian nodded appreciatively and rifled through some of his inventory. He found a bone fragment and handed it to Shan, a gift he’d saved for him. Shan’s already big smile became a huge smile and he started riffing through his smartphone to show Brian pictures of other recent knives.

Brian mentioned his own military history—a draftee in the Vietnam War—and then talked about his whole life.

He served two years as the finance clerk of a helicopter company and made it through unscathed, except for serious skin infections that he attributed to Agent Orange herbicide exposure from swimming in Cam Ranh Bay in the South China Sea.

He said, with some irony, that he was a good soldier, and then launched, as he often does, into the cadence of one of his poems: One day this Johnny went off to war, Didn’t know what he was fighting for.
Brian will start a poem at the drop of a hat and it will become a song, maybe in English but then changing to Karuk or maybe just chant and then, maybe, back to English. “The songs are all prayers,” he explained.

“I became Anti-war,” he said. “Anti-Army, Anti-United States. I think I’m still that way. They lied to the US soldiers about the Gulf of Tonkin,” (citing an attack on a U.S. ship that never actually took place but was used by Lyndon Johnson used to escalate the war.)

His family was from the river but he grew up in Eureka, where his father worked logging, and Brian was what he called a “Coastal Kay-Rook,” intentionally mispronouncing the tribal name.  Brian’s mother was Violet Donahue from Ike’s and his father was Amos Duane Tripp from Offield, both in the Somes Bar area. One of Brian’s brothers, also Amos Tripp, is a member of the Karuk Tribal Council.
By age five, Brian had started art work and by high school he was totally immersed.

He remembered that the Indians around him were mostly Yurok, and men like Merkie Oliver gave him his sense of pride. Through it all, he recalled his mother telling him, “You’re Indian, and not only that, but you’re Karuk Indian.”

When he returned from the military, he studied art at Humboldt State with Indian teachers like William T. Anderson and learned more and more about tribal culture, baskets and ceremonies. Brian explored many styles: painting on plexi-glass, use of Northwest Coastal designs, then adding geometrics and suggestions of sturgeon backs and frogs hands.

Sue Natzler, the owner of Gallery Piante, said that Brian Tripp is a personal favorite and classed him among the most important Native America artists in the region.

A particularly cherished memory, she said, was once at her home, sitting around the table when Brian started singing a Coyote love song.

Her gallery is flooded with offers by artists, Natzler said, and she turns most away. Her calendar is booked into 2016. “I have to love the work and think it’s important. I want contemporary work or work with a story. I have admiration for people who’ll put their soul into their work.”

Prepping for the show, Brian returned his attention to the throngs of little people on the floor. He would lift them one by one, a proud parent. Most the figures beamed back, a few glowered. There were chunks of wood carved and painted into small white deerskins. There were figures with multiple heads, facing different directions.

Then he turned to the woodpeckers. He lifted a frame of alder painted black and started attaching wings carved of redwood. The wing fell to the floor and Brian grinned. “It’s like the Icarus story,” he said, recalling the Greek myth of the man who made his son wings with feathers and bees wax. In that story the boy flew too close to the sun, the wax melted and the boy plunged to the earth.

Then Brian role-played the parts: “Get you ass back down here, son!”

“I can’t, Dad. It’s too much fun to fly.”

Then he switches gear from Greek to Karuk tales: How iktakatákaha, Woodpecker, rescued pihnêefich, Coyote, from a cavity in a tree when all the other animals had tried and failed.

Woodpecker, whose Karuk name sounds like the cry and rattle we hear in the woods, just carved the hole bigger and Coyote was free. Coyote had some paint of the color red, a rarity, and gave it to the bird.

“Red is the hardest color to make,” Brian explained and he lofted another of his woodpeckers into assisted flight. “That’s the secret of their beauty. The Red is red. The Black is black. The White is white.”

The red plumage has long made woodpeckers a favorite for regalia in ceremonies like the Brush Dance and the Jump Dance. He showed off photos of himself and other Indians in full regalia.

He wandered again around the work space, like a real-life woodpecker floating from tree to tree, before starting the rata-tat-tat search for lunch. He stopped again before his sticks-and-stones little people and said they were ikxaréeyav, the spirit people. Reanimated in his studio.

“INDIAN ISLAND ©BDT

OUT ON THE ISLAND.
IN THE MIDDLE. OF THE BAY.
THE SUN SET TWICE.
ON THE PEOPLE. THAT DAY.
THE WORLD. THEY WERE MAKING.
SOMEONE ELSE WAS TAKING.
SAYING. EUREKA.
I FOUND IT. CLAIMING.
IT.S MINE. TO OWN.
OUT ON THE ISLAND.
In THE MIDDLE OF THE BAY.
SURROUNDED. BY GREED.
THAT HAD COME.
AND PLANTED. ITS SEED.
THE SUN SET TWICE.
ON THE PEOPLE THAT DAY.
THEN. CAME. MUFFLED SILENCE.
SNEAKING UP. OUT OF THE DARK.
SOMETHING. SO EVIL. THE
DOGS. COULDN.T EVEN BARK.
WE KNOW. IT.S NOT OVER.
WE KNOW. IT.S NOT DONE.
WE KNOW. FOR US.
OUR FIGHT HAS JUST BEGUN.
BUT. MEANWHILE.
WE MUST TAKE TIME.
TO REGROUP.
WE MUST TAKE TIME.
TO REST.
BECAUSE. WE KNOW DAYLIGHT
IS COMING. AND WE WILL
HAVE TO GIVE IT. OUR BEST.
OUT. ON THE ISLAND.
IN THE MIDDLE. OF THE BAY.
THE SUNSET. TWICE.
ON THE PEOPLE. THAT DAY.
THEN. CAME. COLD. MORNING.
REVEALING LIGHT.
ALL BRAND NEW. SHINING BRIGHT.
MAKING PROMISES. OF A BRAND NEW
DAY. WITH A BRAND NEW WAY.
FOR THE ISLAND. OUT. IN THE MIDDLE.
OF THE BAY.
BRIAN D. TRIPP.

THE KARUK PATRIOT

AT SIXTY-FOUR
JUST IN CASE. ANYONE IS
INTERESTED.JUST IN CASE
SOMEONE.OUT THERE.
MIGHT BE KEEPING SCORE.
ON APRIL SIXTH. TWO THOUSAND.
NINE. BDT TURNED SIXTY-FOUR.
MY BODY IS SORE. IT ACHES.
A WHOLE LOT MORE.
SOMETIMES IT HURTS.
RIGHT DOWN TO THE CORE.
I TEND TO MOVE A LITTLE
SLOWER. BUT MY EXPECTATIONS
AREN’T ANY LOWER. I TRY
TO WORK HARD EVERY DAY.
BRIAN D. TRIPP.

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Date
October 28th, 2013

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