Richard Hunt puts modern twist on formline

Kwa-Giulth Octopus by Richard Hunt

Photo by Patrick Lacasse, courtesy of CUAG

Kwa-Giulth Octopus by Richard Hunt

By STUDY28|Violette Stepaniuk

Kwa-Giulth Octopus

Richard Hunt (b. 1951)
Silkscreen on paper, ed. 15/55
52.4 cm x 37.8 cm
Carleton University Art Gallery: The George and Joanne MacDonald Collection of Northwest Coast Graphic Art

What can we learn about this work?


Silkscreen printing is a mesh-based, stenciling technique for printing on a variety of materials. A fine, woven mesh attached to a wooden frame is used to support a stencil. When ink or paint is pressed through the screen with a squeegee (same width as the inside of the frame), the stencil image is transferred onto the paper, or other surface, placed under the screen. This short video, “Printmaking Processes: Screenprinting”, from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts demonstrates the process:


Formline is a design practice or visual language used by the aboriginal artists of the Northwest Coast of North America, from northern Oregon to southern Alaska. It features specific colour schemes and formal elements such as ovoids and U-forms.

Originally the term “formline” had a more narrow application. In the 1950s and 60s, non-Native artist and scholar Bill Holm analyzed hundreds of aboriginal, mostly Haida, objects. He published his findings in the 1965 book titled Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form. One of the elements he identified in his work was a curved line of various thickness used to define forms. He named it “formline.”


Richard Hunt’s Kwa-Giulth Octopus print “depicts a subject from Kwakwaka’wakw mythology: the octopus as a servant of Kumugwe’, chief of the undersea world,” writes Danuta Sierhuis, Formline Modern co-curator and PhD candidate at Carleton University, in the curatorial notes for the exhibition. “Northwest Coast artists often depict the octopus as part of complex compositions involving other creatures, but here it becomes the focus of the work.”

Sierhuis also points out another unique element – the overlapping of the octopus’ tentacles. She explains that the overlapping of forms is unusual in Northwest Coast design.


“Hunt uses ovoids and split U-shapes, and other elements of the formline language to express the octopus’ eyes, mouth, joints, and tentacles, yet frees his composition from the tight organization of a primary outline,” writes Sierhuis.

An ovoid:

Richard Hunt Kwa-Giulth Octopus (Ovoid Detail)


Richard Hunt Kwa-Giulth Octopus (U-shape Detail)

Richard Hunt Kwa-Giulth Octopus (U-shape Detail 2)

Richard Hunt Kwa-Giulth Octopus (U-shape Detail)

Richard Hunt Kwa-Giulth Octopus (U-shape Detail)


The Formline Modern exhibition explores silkscreen printmaking on the Pacific Northwest Coast from its emergence in the 1960s until its peak in the 1980s. What caused the emergence of this art form in the 60s?

“The Canadian government’s assimilationist policies and its 1884 amendment to the Indian Act, which banned the potlatch (gift-giving feasts for special occasions in the Pacific Northwest Coast), resulted in the suppression of cultural production during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” writes Amy Bruce, curatorial assistant for the MacDonald Collection at CUAG, in the introduction to the exhibition. In 1951 the ban was lifted and the aboriginal peoples once again were able to engage openly in ritual and cultural practices.

Silkscreen printmaking is a relatively inexpensive printing technique and became very popular as an artistic technique in the 60s and 70s. American artist Andy Warhol contributed to its popularity with his 1962 screen printed depiction of actress Marilyn Monroe.

Formline Modern: The MacDonald Collection of Northwest Coast Graphic Art
Curated by students in Dr. Ruth Phillips’ graduate seminar Printmaking in Modern Northwest Coast Aboriginal Art
Until December 14
Carleton University Art Gallery

The Formline Modern exhibition, featuring prints from the George and Joanne MacDonald Collection of Northwest Coast Graphic Art at Carleton University Art Gallery, explores silkscreen printmaking on the Pacific Northwest Coast from its emergence in the 1960s until its peak in the 1980s.

Aboriginal artists of the region “embraced printmaking as a new mode of cultural and artistic expression, enabling communication with diverse peoples across cultures,” writes Amy Bruce. Using the new medium, they “adopted, expanded upon, and countered the ‘formline’ stylistic conventions defined in Bill Holm’s book, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form,” Bruce explains. As a result, they created a unique, aboriginal form of modernism.

The exhibition features the work by artists Chuuchkamalthnii (formerly Ron Hamilton), Joe David, Robert Davidson, Freda Diesing, Beau Dick, Charles Greul, Mark Henderson, Henry Hunt, Richard Hunt, Ozistalis (Chief Henry Speck), Bill Reid, Art Thompson, and Roy Henry Vickers.

Born in Alert Bay, British Columbia in 1951, Richard Hunt has lived most of his life in Victoria. At the age of thirteen he decided that he wanted to be a carver and began carving with his father, the late Henry Hunt. Having worked as a carver with the Royal British Columbia Museum for 13 years, Richard began freelance career in 1986. He aims to educate the public about his culture and to help keep it alive. He is a recipient of numerous honours and awards, including the Order of Canada.

Learn more about Richard Hunt and see more examples of his work:

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