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"Each one of us has a fire inside..."



BRIAN TRIPP SAT ALONE CONTEMPLATING A PILE OF driftwood and rocks in his downtown Eureka studio.

It was far into the night when the metallic hum of the city faded away and something stirred in the heap on the floor. The presence had legs and wings.

"Look at me," it said, peering with eyes strong enough to spy a mouse hiding in the grass or a human being on an ego trip. "Look at me, I'm standing here."

"Yes, High Flyer," Tripp said. "You look like you know something. Like you're out there surveying, not afraid of nothing."

Using screws and duct tape, Tripp put the High Flyer together, its wings spread, its eyes searching. When he was done, the 53-year-old Karuk artist beheld more than a sculpture; he saw an authentic spirit, one of the "people who lived here before we did and turned into the rocks and trees."

Brian Tripp presented Larrupin' Cafe owner Dixie Gorrell a painting
in honor of the Trinidad eatery's 15th anniversary in early December.
Tripp's show at Larrupin' continues through Jan. 6.

(Photo by Brandi Easter)

Brian Tripp has exhibited and lectured in San Francisco, New York, and most recently, Austria, Spain, France and Latvia. But he never leaves his Karuk world far behind.

He conjures sculpture from his rich store of imagery and from Karuk creation stories. His paintings are modern and hard-edged, yet based faithfully on Karuk basket designs.

A ceremonial singer and dancer, he hopes to one day be tapped as Pic-ya-wish, the high priest of the Karuk World Renewal ceremony.

"I live in the Karuk world," he said, pronouncing it KAH-ruke. Then, with a wave at the city around him, he added: "All this is just a temporary thing we're in."

Along with his sense of tribal identity, he feels great anger about living in what he calls "an occupied country." But his paintings, sculpture and poems express little bitterness. One can read critiques of American society in his work, but they are layered with humor, irony and Tripp's penetrating observations of humanity's universal nature.

"His work just exudes this sort of brilliance, an intuitive nature for how things work," said longtime friend and fan Paul Bareis of Eureka Art and Frame.

"In some ways he is so innocent, yet he's had such a wide range of experiences. He reflects so much of the human condition."

With a smile, a handshake and an apologetic warning about the mess, Tripp welcomed me to his studio on C Street. We followed a narrow path through heaps of stuff: rocks, driftwood, antlers, rope, wire, work in progress. In one corner was his living area, with a bed, television, lamps and chairs.

Tripp introduced me to a friend, Gordon from Hoopa, who was poking around the studio as someone might stroll through his old neighborhood. Gordon spoke English and another language I couldn't understand.

"That's Hupa," he explained. After sharing the Klamath-Trinity Basin for centuries, he said, "A Hupa like me and a Karuk or a Yurok can understand a lot of each other's words, even though the languages are from totally different families."

Preserving their languages, they explained, was a matter of cultural survival. After European-American settlement, the government forbade the teaching of native languages. "There are only 35 Hupa speakers today," said Gordon, who teaches the language to children. "And maybe 100 to 200 people who know some of the words."

As if on cue, Chris, a Yurok, appeared. He had just returned from the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico. "I was there for the winter ceremonies. Everybody speaks the language," he reported. "Pre-schoolers are running around speaking it. It's their first language."

"Your language is part of yourself," said Gordon.

"We live under a paradigm that European thought processes and language can't comprehend," added Chris. "It's a whole different view."

"Each of our languages developed distinctly from the others," said Tripp. "But they're all descriptive languages. When you say `horse' we say `yurascisi . h,' or `ocean dog.' The dog that came from the ocean."

Brain Tripp sculpture photo by Deborah Goldberg

B rian Tripp was born a few months before the end of World War II. The middle child of five boys, he grew up in Klamath, "a really nice little town where everybody knew each other."

The Tripp brothers joined Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts and got along well with the whites and Yuroks who made up most of the town. "All the kids had their own little groups, but we were always `Klamath!'" he said, making a fist.

On summer weekends, Tripp's family would make the long drive inland to his maternal grandmother's place on the Klamath River, upriver from Orleans. It was called Asamnamkaruk, or Ike's Creek.

"My dad worked as a timberfaller. He would come home from work about 3. We'd leave at 4 (and) get there about 11 or midnight. ... Man, those old roads."

Despite this summertime connection, Tripp had little awareness of being Karuk until another kid said to him one day, "`It's because you're an Indian." (He can't remember what the topic of conversation was.)

"I knew I was Indian, but this was different. I asked my parents about it, and they said, `Yeah, that's right. It's because you're Indian, Karuk Indian.'"

Years later, his Karuk identity would strike a deeper chord.

Another element of his nature became apparent early in Tripp's life. "As long ago as I can remember, I always liked to draw. I remember drawing airplanes, cars, sticks, trees. My cousins would steal me paper and I would make drawings all day long. I had so many drawings I could burn them.

"One day someone said to me, `Oh, you must be an artist.' `An artist? What's that?' I asked. `Artists paint and stuff,' they told me. `Oh. Yeah, that's what I am.'"

At Del Norte High School, Tripp took as many art classes as he could. His favorite teacher was Rick Bennett, "a watercolor realist." But Tripp leaned away from realism. "I was never very good at shading how you show depth and volume."

"I gyrated to the Northwest Coast Indian art. I liked the totems, the way they handled their figures. It was very beautiful and it still carried cultural content."

After high school, Tripp worked as a choker setter, then in a plywood mill. In 1965, he was drafted and sent to North Carolina as an Army payroll clerk. On the eve of his departure for Vietnam, he learned that his father had been killed in a logging accident. "It was devastating," he said.

He went back to Klamath on leave and planned to go AWOL in order to stay with his bereaved family. "My older brother told me `You better reconsider that.'" He did, and served out his two-year term.


"B y the time I got back from Vietnam, my awareness of politics had changed. In the Army, I saw what was going on, how people were being treated. When I came back, the civil rights thing was happening, the hippie movement; there was a whole new awareness. My ideas got altered, shattered.

"I had grown up in a tight little community, seeing the world through those ideas. I had thought of myself as an Indian and an American," he said. "Now I'm Indian, not American ... living in an occupied country.

"I think about it 24 hours a day... I want my land back, my place in the sun. Especially after seeing what other people have done with what they got from us.

"How would you feel, say, if you had a bicycle all your life and one day someone came along, knocked you off your bike and stole it. Then they ride by you every day and laugh at you or ignore you.

"That bike was a bike your great grandmother gave you. Your whole being is part of it. What are you supposed to do? Turn the other cheek? Bullshit. Go to the cops to get your bike back?"

For Tripp and many other American Indians, the 1970s was a time to "learn more about my own roots," he said. "Your people don't teach you everything, so you start talking to other people and they start filling you in. If you can open your mind up you're able to get a fuller picture."

He and his family members were part of a Karuk renewal in which the dormant Katimin, or World Renewal, ceremony was revived. "I'm a traditional singer, a ceremonial person.

My family puts on traditional dances. We make a lot of ceremonial regalia and we keep a lot of the old regalia (preserved)."

Karuk traditional arts began attracting him as well. "We had our own style of making art. It fit our own understanding of reality, nature and people." He studied with basketmakers. "I've never really discussed art terms with them. But just the way you talk to them you can understand it more, how to use the designs, what the designs mean."

"When I first began to draw (the basket designs) I used rulers, making every point the same distance from the next one. That's the way I perceived the baskets to be, and a lot of them were. But then I got away from that. It was too precise."

He still renders traditional basket motifs faithfully. ("You have to use those designs with respect.") "(But) now my work is more off balance. Some of it is really wild and distorted. It goes to my feeling, what's inside of me."

Tripp uses primarily what he calls "natural basket colors": black, white, red, yellow. He sometimes applies sticks, leaves, and bits of metal or glass to his paintings. With few recognizable shapes or figures, his work is called abstract. But he doesn't accept that characterization.

"Our work is not abstract," he said. "Our work is frogs' hands, snakes' noses, sturgeon backs, friendship designs."

He titles most of his paintings and inscribes poetry on some. I asked about several of the titles.

Standing by His Fire: "Each one of us has a fire inside. A lot of times instead of standing by it we stand by another's fire. That's good but there's times to tend your own fire, let it do its thing.

"And sometimes I'm afraid when I stand by your fire. You know, when you pick up vibes, get heat from someone... feel the stuff coming off of them."

She Pushed Back the Sky Last Night: "That's about a mountain. We Karuks have been through a lot of big earthquakes. When we have earthquakes we know these mountains are being pushed up. (After) the earthquake, we can say the mountain pushed up into the sky. `Mother Earth pushed back the sky that night.'"

Fire to Last All Winter: "That's about our Jump Dance, which comes at the end of our year, in September. We put a big woodpecker headdress on. Thirteen of us stamp our feet in unison, kind of like to firm the earth back up to stamp sickness and death back into the ground.

"It's also a time to think about people who have died in the last year. That's the fire that keeps me warm all winter."

For many years, Tripp was drawn to using rocks and driftwood, "But I was always told not to pick up rocks, just leave them, especially in a place that's not yours. And you know, this is mostly Wiyot territory here (around Humboldt Bay).

"Fifteen or 20 years ago I was walking on the beach and I saw an egg-shaped rock. It said `Pick me up.' `No, I can't,' I said. `Pick me up,' it said, so I picked it up. Then I started picking up all kinds of rocks and driftwood. Some of them already looked like sculpture, like they'd been created with hand work.

"I usually go to the mouth of a river. Usually I'm also fishing when I'm collecting. Then I bring them all home, lay them out and start looking at them. Out of this big pile of driftwood in the floor I'll get all these figures. They all have their own personalities.

"At first they were just figures to me. Now I look at them like warriors, protectors. They're saying `Look at me. I'm standing here and you usually just run right over me or throw me in the fire.'"

His craftsmanship is prosaic and unsophisticated, but that is intentional.

"The average person can look at my work and say, `That's neat the way he uses that duct tape.' I take common materials and put them together in a way that's looked at as kind of cool."

Tripp is vague when asked about the course of his career and the rising appeal of his art. "I've gotten a lot of good criticism and reviews. Nobody has said, `Brian, your stuff is shit.'"

This year he was invited to create a sculpture in Austria as part of a group exhibit with artists from Latvia, Spain and Russia. After the exhibit, he traveled to visit the artists he'd met.

"They called me `the aristocrat.' `Come stay in my villa,' they'd say. `Enjoy the country for a couple weeks.'
"In Europe the whole attitude about Indians is different. There's more acceptance of our way of life, (but their image of Indians) is still kind of romantic. They all know the James Fenimore Cooper novels. `What did you think about "Dances with Wolves,"' they all wanted to know.

"Some of them were disappointed when they learned I was from California (and not a Plains Indian.)"


T ripp's studio in Old Town seemed to be a gathering place, not only for Karuks but for other North Coast Indians and non-Indians as well. When I was there, a series of friends dropped by. In fact, our interview was more like Tripp's Friday afternoon salon, with subjects running from language to customs like sharing the wealth.

"My grandfather always taught me to revere and respect all people and animals," said Floyd, a Karuk about half Brian's age. "When I go into someone's house and they ask me to eat, I better eat."

"Eat, leave money or wash the dishes," added Brian.

"My grandfather would take me fishing. One salmon was always enough for us," said Floyd. "If we caught more, we'd give them away."

Tripp told me later that he depends on the kindness of friends for meals, showers, and occasionally to pay his rent. "Some days I'm wrapping my pennies and selling my beer cans, other days I'm flush."

A regular 8-to-5 job isn't an option for Tripp, however.

"When the art thing is there, you gotta do it. I'm working 24 hours a day. That's the kind of life I like."

Tripp said he often works through the night, especially when the moon is visible. "When the moon is out, there are times when my room seems alive, animated."

In those magic hours before the dawn, he never knows who will show up in the driftwood and rocks. But he wants to be ready.

Brian Tripp's paintings will be on exhibit at Larrupin' in Trinidad through Jan. 6.
His next show will be held in the spring at Eureka Art and Frame.
Messages can be left for him at the Ink People Center for the Arts, 442-8413.

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