Tsimshian Art

Assembled by Laura Tait

Historical / Cultural Significance

Tsimshain art consists of 2 styles. The women worked principally in weaving and basketry, and their style was abstract and nonrepresentational. The men worked in stone, wood, and painted wood, and their style ranged from representational to abstract. Their abstract art was highly symbolic, elaborately conventionalized, and full of meaning. The arts were a large part of the Tsimshian people.

The concepts of heredity status, wealth, the occurrances of potlaches and secret society performances provided ample opportunity for skill in the making of decorated articles (carved and painted rattles, drums, headdresses, masks, ornamented chests, carved and painted columns, paintings, and totempoles). Personal possessions were also highly valued (carved house posts, masks, charms, spoons and crests chests, clothing, blankets, serving dishes, fishhooks and clubs and canoes).

The supernatural world played a great part in the life of each person from childhood to death. As a result, myths, legends and their actors, were the subjects of their art. The need to develop tangible means of preserving anscestors' experiences was a primary factor in the developemnt of the art of painting, engraving, and sculpture. Mythological characters were transformed into animals, people, birds or inanimate objects, sometimes within the action of a single tale.

Principles and Elements of Design


Wood, metal, animal skin, bone and stone.


The importance of line cannot be over-estimated. In two-dimensional art and painting, a flowing line usually begins as a fine narrow line, swells out, and returns to a narrow line. The line may trace the outline of the form and then become par tof the form itself. This technique provides a rythmic movement in decorated flat surfaces and emphasises planes and contours in wood sculpture.


Pigments are ground in stone mortors and mixed with salmon eggs. The resulting paint had a rich heavy texture, good coverage and a slight gloss. It was as durable as commercial paints. The principle colours were red, black, yellow, and green-blue.


Round, oblong, oval, circular, curvilinear, and free flowing forms predominate. In sculpture the use of a full-blown concave or convex form is used.


Hair, rope, and fur, were indicated on sculptured objects by a skillful minimum of texture. The texture of the tool work was often left as a decorative element. Attatched inlayed materials, such as hair or abalone shell, provide differences in texture.


Forms were always organised with respect to the shape of the object being decorated or carved. Form seemed to be contained within the overall shaped and are interlocked as much a possible in totem poles, horn spoons, rattles, and similar carved objects.


The design usually covered all or nearly all of the decorative field.

Integration with Music, Dance, Drama

The Tsimshian were able muscicians, dancers,and dramatists. Dancing and music were inseperable parts of the unfolding dramatic scene, accomplished as much throughout the medium of symbolic dancing as through acting. The dramatic impact of the performance was heightened by the use of costumes and masks, of painted screens and of mechanical devices such as dancing heads and spouting whales.

Activities such as Drum making and painting would integrate well with music, dance, and drama. The drum is the primary instrument used in Native dance.

For more ideas on Northwest and West Coast Native art you can link to...


West Coast Native Art

Komokwa, Masks, Killer Whales

Kwakiutl Masks


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