My rating: 9/10.
When we first visited Calgary’s Glenbow Museum in 1988 to take in the controversial but beautifully presented special exhibition on First Nations art and culture, The Spirit Sings, we were impressed by the huge mobile, four stories in length, that hangs in the open foyer of the museum. “You should see it when it’s working!” we were told; plagued by continual malfunctions in the sound and lighting system, the mobile was hanging dim and silent. When artist James Houston installed the work in the newly opened Glenbow back in 1976, it was lit by moving lights coordinated to the strains of Debussy’s Snowflakes Are Falling. Though we visited the Glenbow numerous times during our Alberta sojourn, and again in 2005, we were never lucky enough to see the famed Aurora Borealis sculpture in its full glory, but it was a memorable sight nonetheless. (A bit more about the sculpture here. )
Several of the anecdotes in Zigzag concern the design of Aurora Borealis, and Houston and his son John’s personal transportation of the fragile, 5 to 7 foot long acrylic crystal “needles” by U-Haul truck from Rhode Island to Alberta. I will be looking at the sculpture with fresh appreciation on our next visit. (We are hoping to visit sometime this summer, to take in the current M.C. Escher exhibit before its closure in August.)
Joan Givner wrote in B.C. Bookworld, 1998:
James Houston’s second volume of autobiography, Zigzag: A Life On The Move begins as he leaves the Arctic to start a new life as a designer for Steuben Glass in New York. He has just spent 14 years working closely with the Inuit of the Arctic. [Houston is credited with discovering Inuit were producing great art and single-handedly creating a market for it. He also encouraged Inuit to adapt their work for North American buyers.] As he leaves Baffin Island, he receives two gifts from the Inuit: a carving of a walrus and a paper bag containing $33. “You’re going away, everyone says, to try and make more money,” they explain. “If at first you don’t have money in that foreign place, we thought to give some to you.”
The original purpose of Eskimo carvings was to bring luck and protection on hunting expeditions. Houston needs both luck and protection as he leaves a culture unconcerned with monetary gain (the market value of the walrus is $11,000) for one in which it is the be-all and end-all. In Manhattan in the 1960s, Houston at first has trouble adapting to the tyranny of clocks and schedules. Soon he becomes acclimatized and delights in the theatres, art shows, lavish parties and holidays on yachts where kings and presidents and Nelson Rockefeller casually drop by. Houston becomes a successful glass-designer, makes a fortune, teaches art in Harlem, becomes a successful writer, designs National Geographic’s centenary cover and even marries happily.
It is, however, the Arctic which inspires and nurtures Houston. “I am thrilled by the frosted, Arctic-like appearance of deep engravings on glass,” he says. When the Glenbow Museum in Calgary asks him to design a sculpture, he creates his Aurora Borealis which is four storeys high. It is inspired by his memory of the spectacular ever-changing display of the Northern Lights. Either the protective qualities of the walrus carving or his years with the Inuit prevent him from succumbing completely to the glitzy life. He never confuses technological advances with civilization, nor economic gain with success.
The final pages of the book describe his life in a cabin on another island, one of the Queen Charlottes now known as the Haida Gwaii, where he now lives part of every year.
That anecdote about the paper bag filled with crumpled one dollar bills shows up in this collection of memoirs, as well as in the ending pages of Houston’s truncated account of his Arctic years, Confessions of an Igloo Dweller. It obviously moved him deeply at the time; it also made a “good story” and that, in essence, is something that James Houston liked to have under his hat.
Houston’s memoirs skirt extremely closely to the “If you want to know how good he is, just ask him” school of autobiography, but they are saved by his occasional self-effacing comments. He turns the laugh on himself as needed, and his frankness and willingness to comment openly on extremely intimate matters give small but crucial insights into his character. Whether that character comes across as intended is another story altogether; I frequently feel that there is a lot being left out of Houston’s story of himself.
What he does share is quite fascinating. Through Houston’s brief vignettes in both Zigzag and the earlier Confessions of an Igloo Dweller, we get glimpses of the Inuit world from the mid 20th century to the creation of Nunavut in 1999. We also get glimpses of what made this extremely driven and creative man “tick”; his great love for and pride in his two sons, and his lifelong dependence on touching base with the natural world to refuel him for his bouts of big city-based creativity.
He was an iconic figure in more ways than one in the numerous spheres he seems to have effortlessly inhabited. I suspect he might also have been a rather arrogant man to have bumped up against if one did not share his high opinion of himself, but I bet a dinner party with Houston at the table would have been a memorable thing.
Zigzag was a very good read; it lost a point merely because the vignette-style format jumped around an awful lot (to be expected, one supposes, from the very title of the work) and left me frequently wanting more than I was given.
Another volume of memoir, Hideaway, about the author’s cabin on Haida Gwaii, followed Zigzag and Confessions to form a trilogy of sorts. I will be reading this one when I come across it.
A memorable Canadian and a very gifted man; a complex persona in so many ways.
James Houston passed away in 2005. His artistic and literary legacy lives on.