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Airport Gallery Sells First Nations' Art

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RICHMOND, British Columbia-Artists desire exposure. One Canadian gallery
not only offers a high level of visibility for their work but potential
customers are almost obligated to come to the store.

Located in the country's second-busiest airport, according to passenger
arrivals and departures, Gifts of the Raven at Vancouver International
(YVR) is positioned to offer travelers a lasting impression of First
Nations' craftsmanship. With 10,000 people passing through the
international departure gates daily, the store is in a prime setting for a
market seeking the beauty of Northwest Coast art.

Centered around the terminal's focal point, "The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The
Jade Canoe" a bronze statue created by the world-renowned sculptor Bill
Reid, it's appropriate that Gifts of the Raven is in the international
wing. This section of the airport, constructed in 1996, is on the
historical lands of the Musqueam First Nation.

"It is the best location of enabling us to foster and spread the First
Nations' culture internationally," said Vicki Hodgson, the retail general
manager of HMSHost, the operator of Gifts of the Raven.

At its present site for two years, Gifts of the Raven has operated at YVR
since 1998 and was previously shaped as a longhouse. Since its inception
though one constant has remained and that's the First Nations Specialist,
Iris Mearns, herself from the Musqueam.

"When customers entered the store, they felt like they were entering a home
and that made me feel great because that store had an ambience," Mearns
said with pride about the gallery's earlier years.

If the re-location prompted structural changes, the setting's intimacy did
not. Patterned in a west coast contemporary style, the open area of this
800-square-foot oval-shaped gallery provides visitors the freedom to browse
in a relaxed atmosphere even amidst the hurry and hustle of the surrounding
airport. Gifts of the Raven, with its four gift towers made from columns of
cedar, is resplendent in the black and red colors of the Coast Salish
peoples and adorning the structure's wood paneling is a traditional look
with Native architecture that's both inviting and soothing; definitely a
visual relief from the usual sleek corporate designs of franchised outlets.

In its first year in the new location, Gifts of the Raven scooped up
several honors in 2002 from North American interior designers including a
design award by the Illuminating Engineering Society and a merit award by
the National Association of Store Fixture Manufacturers. Mearns has an easy
explanation about the gallery's success.

"Even just the look of the store with the lights and coloring, it attracts
people from every corridor and hallway," she said.

Once the lure of the casual atmosphere draws in customers, there is a
substantial variety to satiate all tastes and price ranges. Dozens of
hand-carved masks attract the eye from a distance on the directly-lit back
wall while guarding over the premises is a Hamatsa raven mask from northern
Vancouver Island. Understanding that spending up to $2,000 (Cdn.) and even
$7,500 on the Hamatsa is out of reach for most, other pieces like sterling
silver jewelry and art prints portray the depth of British Columbian
Aboriginal art and reflect a more modest purchase financially. Also
included are works from Canada's far North such as serpentine animal
carvings and diamond pendants from the Inuit.

A particularly charming creation is a chess set by Haida artist Christian
White. Using argillite to carve the images of revered animals onto the
game's 32 pieces, the stone is only found in the mountains of the
province's northwestern Queen Charlotte Islands. With the board prepared
out of laminated mahogany, the original game is part of the permanent
collection at the Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec.

Gifts of the Raven easily dispels the perception of an airport shop
offering "just souvenirs and knick-knacks." The gallery vouches for the
realism of all its handmade art and jewelry as being designed or created by
Native craftsmen.

"The artists have to receive a royalty for each piece, so it's not
something that we reproduce by a sweatshop somewhere," Mearns stated before
sharing an anecdote about a finicky customer.

"This one lady came up to me and asked 'How authentic is this?' 'About as
authentic as I am.' She spent a lot of money," Mearns said with a smile.

Recognizing how the store's frontline position can make a lasting
impression on foreign visitors, the gallery has a strong local knowledge of
First Nations' art. With Mearns as the instructor, sales staff members are
required to have an understanding of the symbolic importance these pieces
carry.

"What we're doing is enriching the rest of the world [with] West Coast
First Nations' culture and traditions," said Mearns.

As the store is one of the last places visited before departing Canada,
Hodgson said business continues once the traveler has returned home.

"We're contacted from locations around the world for specific pieces.
Because we're able to send pictures digitally, purchases are made
internationally," Hodgson said.