Sunday, September 8, 2013

How Raven Stole the Sun

This is an inset from a fantastic painting depicting Raven Stealing the Light,
by Todd Jason Baker.

Though there are many versions of this Haida origin tale, the differences between them are minor and the overall similarities are generally consistent. Here is the version I was first introduced to.

In the beginning the world was shrouded in total darkness.

The Raven, who had existed from the beginning of time, was tired of groping about and bumping into things in the dark.

Eventually Raven came upon the home of an old chief who lived alone with his daughter. Using his slyness and stealth, Raven learned that the old chief possessed a great and special treasure. The chief had hidden away the Light of all the universe in a tiny box concealed within many other boxes.

Raven wanted the Light for himself, and at once he began planning how to steal it.

Only after much time and devious calculation did Raven arrive at a plan. He waited until the old chief's daughter came to the river to gather water. Raven changed himself into a single hemlock needle and cast himself into the river just as the girl was dipping her basket in the water.

As she drank from the basket, the chief's daughter swallowed Raven in this form. The hemlock needle slipped and slithered down into her warm belly where Raven transformed himself again, this time into a baby human. After sleeping and growing for a very long time Raven emerged into the world once more, now as a human infant.

Despite Raven's strange appearance, the old man came to love him as a grandfather might. The chief was a giving man, but very sternly warned Raven of the dire consequences for touching his most precious treasure, the Light of all the universe, cleverly hidden in a multitude of boxes. As he grew older Raven began to beg his grandfather to be allowed to glimpse and perhaps hold the Light. For a long time the old chief would angrily refuse Raven's persistent demands, but as time went on the chief's resistance was slowly being ground down.

In time the old man yielded to Raven, and he lifted from a tiny box a warm and brightly glowing orb. This sphere he tossed to his grandson.

As the light flew towards him Raven dropped his childish disguise, instantly transforming into a smoky black shadow, wings spread wide in flight, curved beak agape in anticipation. As the glowing orb arced toward him Raven swooped and snatched the Light in his jaws, and with powerful thrusts of his wings he burst through the smokehole in the roof of the old chief's house and escaped into the night with his stolen treasure.

That is how light came into the world.

Here's mine.
I've been working on a highly stylized version of this tale for over three months. The Raven is 5 feet in diameter and is painted in basic acrylic on sheetrock. The painting occupies the south wall of my garage, quite nicely if I dare say. It has been a good meditation for me. This Raven is largely based on a rendition done by Bill Reid, a prolific Haida sculptor and painter. I have borrowed from his design but have made changes that suited my taste and have made this Raven mine. The pines were spray-painted using a single stencil I cut. I have been a stencil artist, sculptor and painter for many years so creating this was a fun challenge, even if getting started was more than a little daunting. Everyone who has seen this painting in person has used one word to describe the Raven's lines: "Clean." I couldn't ask for a better compliment. It was painstaking, eye-straining work. This was painted entirely by hand with the tools shown below. Also, there is a video I made using photo stills taken during the Raven's development, I'd suggest following this link to Vimeo to see the 4.5 minute clip, but only if you're interested.

This may help to understand what you are looking at.


  1. That's awesome. For a long time I've had an unhealthy fixation with Haida/Pac NW art, and one of the interesting things is that it looks like they might have invented sculpture first, and then 2D designs based on that (most cultures do it the other way around but not everyone has as much wood to carve as people in the Pac NW). This style is also interesting because it kind of anticipates cubism with the way it breaks things into planes.

  2. Nice piece!! Haven't had a lot of exposure to this style, but I like what I see; tidy lines, vibrant colors, and great dimension. The legend stacks another layer and adds to it all. Thanks again for taking the time out to pass it our way....

  3. This is amazing work, as always thanks for sharing your adventures and life with us!

  4. Hullo Michael,
    You're right. Northwest Art has it's origin in tool making, sculpture, masks and ornamentation. The advancement of two dimensional and print art is a direct result of the popularity of the art and the understanding that people will happily pay for a lithograph or high quality print, whereas purchasing a one of a kind sculpture or mask is far beyond what most folks can afford to pay. I, for one, am very happy with this trend. I guess what I like is that the vast majority of NW art seen in the world today is very contemporary. One thing I tell anybody who is ga-ga over this form of art is that they must visit the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology. This is the definitive collection of Northwest artifacts and art. Those that love this stuff will have trouble leaving. -DS

  5. It's out of the way, but another really cool museum is on the Makah reservation at the very northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Neah Bay. And don't not get smoked salmon while you're in that town.