A recent observation by a sharp-eyed Archive reader regarding the sculpture Cree Indian ‘Magic Boy’ and its two Cybis editions has blossomed into a fascinating in-depth examination of this particular piece’s production history. It turns out that this design has had a rather unique ‘life story’ in several respects!
The first unusual thing about ‘Magic Boy’ is not that it had two colorway editions – one white bisque and one color/painted – but that the two were 15 years apart in their introduction years. I have found only one other modern-era Cybis retail design for which this happened, and that too was a so-called Commemorative edition. Let’s start at the beginning and see if we can unravel the threads.
Design Inspiration and Background
The impetus behind the creation of this sculpture was the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Canadian province of Manitoba in July 1870. This more or less coincided with the Cybis studio’s introduction of their North American Indians series and so, given that Manitoba had long been home to a large Cree population, a representation of that tribe was chosen as the subject.
The designer of the initial ‘Indians’ series was freelance artist Helen Granger Young. As a Manitoba (Winnipeg) native herself, it was especially appropriate that she would be the designer of this commemorative sculpture. Titled Cree Indian ‘Magic Boy’, it followed the studio’s naming convention for the series of putting the tribe first, followed by the title in single quotes. (A few of them became a bit unwieldy, such as Iroquois ‘At the Council Fire’ Dekanadwida and Atotarho which almost everyone calls simply “Council Fire” for short.)
But why “magic boy” as the title for this piece? Sadly, there is no one alive today who was involved in the naming process. The scenario is clear: A young boy is being instructed by a man in the art of either making or shooting a bow. One would think that a sculpture title such as “first lesson” or “the apprentice” might have been chosen. Where does magic come in?
One possibility exists among the Cree legends, in a folk hero named Tshakapesh (sometimes spelled Chahkabesh) who is usually described as either a young boy or a dwarf; in any case, he never grows to be as big as man. Despite his small size, he can shoot his bow farther and faster than anyone else, even the strongest braves. He also has other magical powers, so perhaps he is literally a “magic boy”? However, in all of the legends, his mentor is always his sister.
It would be natural to assume that the man in the sculpture is the boy’s father but that is not necessarily so. In Cree culture, uncles and aunts were regarded as equal to a child’s parents in terms of stature, authority, and responsibility. It wasn’t unusual for a young boy to receive most or all of his instruction in life skills from his uncle rather than his father; in fact, the Cree words for those individuals are remarkably similar. ‘Father’ is ohtawiy; ‘uncle’ is ohcawis which translates to “little father.” Thus, the male in the Cybis piece could just as easily be the boy’s uncle (but not if he is supposed to be Tskakapesh, who was an orphan foundling).
An intriguing clue comes from an old eBay listing of one of these pieces, in which the seller’s description claims that it
…interprets an ancient legend about a young boy who learns to use a bow and arrow. The legend tells of a young boy receiving archer[y] lessons from an old woman who turned herself into the boy’s uncle.
I could not unearth any reference to this legend via Google (or in any Cybis literature that I currently have) but if anyone more familiar with Cree mythology can shed more light on this, I’d be grateful! There is a direct-contact link at the bottom of this post.
Let’s take a closer look at the iterations of the ‘Magic Boy.’
Initial Cybis Prototype (1970)
Despite my calling this a prototype, this may not be the exact design that Helen Granger Young delivered to Cybis; it was standard procedure for a freelancer’s work to be tweaked, adjusted, or otherwise ‘cleaned up’ before the production version was finalized.
This is the only example in which the bow is actually being held by either of the figures. It is cradled in the man’s left hand while the boy’s arms are in the position one would assume is associated with drawing back the (invisible!) bow-string. Both of the boy’s hands are in a grasping or semi-fisted position. Notice that this is the only bow that appears on the piece.
The seller described the piece as being hand-dated 1970, having “marks next to one ear” and “notes” under the base (this was not uncommon) citing various flaws and “changes to be made.” It’s a shame that there are no longer any photos of these marks. The seller also noted that there is no quiver of arrows resting on the man’s back, as there is in all later versions. The retail piece was released in 1971, so this one is definitely from the pre-production stage.
Unfortunately, the seller also stated in the description that the bow had broken off the man’s hand (and snapped in half) during the photo session and so this is probably the only photo of a Magic Boy with a bow “in hand” rather than elsewhere!
Retail Edition in White Bisque (1971-1973)
Cybis introduced the piece as Cree Indian ‘Magic Boy’ in 1971 as a declared edition of 100 and placed it into their ‘Commemorative’ category (a future post will dissect the convoluted subject of Cybis collections.) Their 1979 catalog appendix shows it as a completed edition of 100 in 1973.
It also shows the design number as 706W, which is interesting because normally we only see a W appended to these numbers when there is both a color and a white version of a particular piece. For example, the Clematis with mauve flowers is design #533 but the one with white flowers, which was issued the following year, is #533W. On the other hand, the 1950s pieces which were often made in both a white and a color version, were assigned just one single design number (at least in Cybis literature.) In the case of the 1971 Magic Boy, the W did not indicate the existence of a color version but seems to have meant only that “unlike all of our other Indian pieces, this one is plain white and has no color on it at all.”
By all indications, this piece sold out almost instantly upon introduction. Assuming that it was introduced to the public in Spring 1971, my copy of a price list dated July 1971 already shows it in the section titled “Limited Editions Fully Subscribed”! This means that Cybis received 100 orders from various retailers pretty much the moment the retailers learned of it. That is pretty amazing, considering its healthy retail price point ($2500) and that it was a plain white bisque piece.
The first difference that we can spot comes from two pieces of Cybis advertising material.
It appeared in this 1971 color ad for the studio’s Folio One set of lithographs which had been introduced the previous year (1970.) I’m not sure why they wanted to include a sculpture in the ad (especially since it had nothing to do with the lithograph issue) but the choice of Magic Boy was probably made because it was – at that time – the only plain white bisque Native American piece they were producing and would not be a distraction from the lithograph images. We immediately see that the bow originally held in the man’s left hand (in the prototype) now lies on the ground atop a pouch or bag, with the front end of the bow touching the boy’s left foot.
This press photo shows a piece that is slightly different. There are now two bows upon the ground. The pouch partially covers one of them, while the other bow is mostly atop the pouch. The sculpting of the ‘ground’ is somewhat different also, but that may be a result of the ‘blurring’ of that mold due to repeated use instead of having been a fresh one.
This photo was used in conjunction with a traveling exhibit, The American Porcelain Tradition, sponsored by the New Jersey State Museum in 1973 and also appears in the studio’s Spring 1974 issue of their Porcelain Enchantments brochure. A typewritten blurb on the back of the exhibit-tour photo claims that the piece “depicts learning the ancient tribal art of fitting the arrow to the bow” – which, one must admit, does make sense considering the positions of the figures’ arms. So now we have an invisible arrow as well as an invisible bow-string!
Let’s look at a few actual 1971-1973 Magic Boy pieces.
Here we have two bows that are now both sitting atop the pouch and each is touching one of the boy’s feet. Because the bows are separate molds, we can expect their exact position to vary a little bit from sculpture to sculpture – but going from underneath a pouch (which was cast from its own mold as well) to on top of it is a definite change from the piece in the press photo.
The signature format on the 1970s Magic Boy pieces is one that I have never seen on ANY other Cybis limited edition: the sculpture number (48) is preceded by a W, and I have NO idea why. Even if the studio intended to bring out a color version shortly thereafter – and we have no indication that any such thing was in the offing – there is no need to specify “W” in the signature. The only thing I can think of (and this is pure speculation) is that perhaps the studio was worried that someone might decide to paint their piece, fire it, and try to sell it as a “OOAK color Magic Boy.” But if that were so, then why not mark all of their white bisque limited editions (such as Conductor’s Hands, the Elephant, Exodus, Flight into Egypt, etc.) the same way? They did not.
There are several revealing things about this piece, which is sculpture #W 11. The reveals have to do with the assembly process.
Although many Cybis mold components were connected to each other with ‘slip’ (liquid porcelain), some were glued. This piece reveals the presence of what appears to be some kind of adhesive, which has turned pink over time. The top photo shows how the ‘claws’ on the man’s armband were attached. I’m not sure about that one claw-tip; having glue here would make no sense, so perhaps this is slip that was accidentally contaminated. The color is exactly that of colonies of Serratia marcescens bacteria, which suggests contamination rather than oxidation.
The same discoloration is seen at the attachment point of the two bows to the pouch beneath. It’s rather surprising that more of these pieces haven’t had their bow(s) come loose, in fact, if these were the only points of attachment! It would be easy to dismiss the discolored areas on this piece as a bad repair done by a subsequent owner…except for this next example.
This is Magic Boy #37 (sorry…W 37) Note the telltale discolorations at the attachment points at the quiver, the man’s side pouch, and where the strings hang down from the man’s belt. The studio did make repairs to pieces with slip or glue, if needed, before they went out the door to retailers – just as they occasionally did any needed paint touchups with water-based paint rather than re-firing the piece.
Sculpture #W3 shows both types of discoloration as well as some losses; the man is missing the two vertical headdress feathers, the bottom half of both belt strings are broken off, and he has lost several of his armband claws entirely. The pink adhesive can be seen where the boy’s loincloth mold attaches, and the telltale yellow area appears on an outer edge near the signature. It’s unlikely that this exact same color on both #3 and #37 can be attributed to environmental factors such as nicotine smoke, so there must have been something else going on there. At least the two bows are in a consistent position on top of the pouch in all of these.
And as if the numbering couldn’t get any weirder…. there’s this one, which has survived almost unscathed. There appear to be no discolored attachment points, and the sharpness of the details show that this was cast from molds that were probably ‘fresh out of the mold shop.’ But sadly, the man has lost the top half of one of his two vertical feathers.
What’s fascinating about this one is the numbering: It’s marked as an AP (artist’s proof) and also has the mysterious W, but also has an even more mysterious r added to it! What could the r stand for? “W(hite) r(regular)”? “W(hite) r(eserved)?” As they say, inquiring minds want to know!
As of this writing, I have managed to account for only 11 of the 1970s edition: the “WrA.P.”, #W3, #W11, #W37, #W48, #W76, #W97, one whose number was indecipherable in the photo, one whose number was neither cited nor photographed, and two that were never physically numbered at all. One wonders where the others may be, and what condition they are in.
Another curiosity is that some (most? all??) of these were sold by Cybis with an accompanying Lucite vitrine bearing the Cybis name or logo! The upper snip is from a 1973 price list which of course has this under Completed Editions. However, the Fall 1977 list omits any mention of a vitrine; this makes me wonder whether the earlier-produced ones came with a vitrine but the later ones did not. The studio still had plenty of vitrines on hand, because their 1975 through 1977 price lists offered them for sale as separate items that collectors could purchase in a choice of sizes.
I’m really curious about whether ALL of the white Magic Boy pieces have the W prefix in their sculpture number; if any reader happens to have one not mentioned here, could you let me know either way? I’d also like to know whether any attachment areas on your piece have developed the pink and/or yellow discoloration. If you were the original purchaser, did yours come with a vitrine? There is a contact form link at the bottom of the post.
Retail Edition in Color (1983-86 – early 1990s)
The best guess for the introduction year of the color version of ‘Magic Boy’ is between Fall 1982 and Spring 1986, because I have an unfortunate “price list gap” between Summer 1982 and the Cybis 1986 catalog in which it does appear but – like all the other pieces illustrated there – without an introduction year mentioned. It is possible that the actual introduction year was 1984 but without any literature from that exact period I cannot be sure.
Cybis put this version into their “North American Indian Collection” rather than “Commemorative” as the 1970s edition was. On their 1988 price list the design number is given as 23706; all their previous design numbers had been converted to five digits in the 1980s by adding one or two new numbers at the start.
This press photo has a December 1986 sticker on the back, but that does not refer to the issue date of the sculpture itself.
It is a black-and-white copy of the color photo that appeared in the 1986 Cybis catalog. Notice that there is now only one bow on the ground, and that it is shifted toward the back of the piece so that it is touching the boy’s right foot.
This version is just as prone to easy damage from careless handling as its predecessor was, but one particular bugaboo may be the two horizontal feathers atop the man’s head. Some are upright and others appear splayed. It’s possible that the difference in position in the examples above may be due to a repair, but it could also be a result of changes in the kiln – especially if the feathers were not correctly supported by temporary props during firing.
The declared edition size for the color version was 200 but it’s unknown how many were made. They are numbered “conventionally” for a Cybis limited edition, with no mysterious Ws or other letters to drive researchers batty! Numbers 2, 3, 21 (with bow missing), and 23 have been accounted for via online sales in recent years. However, that’s a far cry from two hundred, especially if, as price lists suggest, it was closed in the very early 1990s; it does not appear on a 1993 list that I have. Let’s just say that its price on a February 1989 list was not one that would encourage many buyers to pounce: It was the highest price of all the remaining Indians designs… even more than the Eagle Dancer which is much more complex in terms of painting and “by hand” workmanship. I am missing several price lists after that, but the color Magic Boy does not appear on the next one I have which is from November 1993. It would be interesting to find out when it actually dropped off the lists.
Most of the color versions are quite nicely painted, especially those in which the blue on the man’s costume is rich and vibrant and the orange feathers on his headdress are clear and bright.
Differences Between the White and Color Versions
Other than the obvious (paint!) there are also a few small differences between the 1970s (white) and 1980s (color) versions of the Magic Boy. We’ve already noted the reduction from two bows to only one. The other differences all occur on the adult figure.
The white version has (or should have) two rosettes/pompoms at the juncture of the belt back and the strings hanging down. These were eliminated in the later version; it’s unknown if the white one has the two horizontal ‘stitches’ in that area of the body mold or whether this was a mold tweak for the color one.
Most photos of either color don’t bother ‘looking down’ into the top of the headdress unless damage needs to be shown, so I am very grateful to the helpful Archive reader who took pictures of his two Magic Boy examples in order to show a difference. The 1970s piece has an area of rosette/pompom trim where the base of the two feathers joins the crown of the headdress.
However, the rosette was not included in the color version. This is a mint condition piece and so it was a design decision to leave this out rather than the rosettes being missing via breakage.
The 1970s adult has a larger number of side/back feathers coming down from the underside of the headdress brim; the color version has fewer but is not what anyone would describe as scanty, assuming of course that none of them have broken off.
Regardless of whether the color version was introduced in 1984, 1985 or 1986, it – along with the 1984 Eagle Dancer – marks the end of any notable handmade decorative elements in the Indians series. (The Eagle Dancer is a veritable festival of pompoms/rosettes and feathers, so much so that it’s a miracle that any have survived with zero damage since then.) The 1985 Deer Dancer has a circle of rosettes atop his headdress but the rest of the piece is made of molded elements. Young Brave has only two rosettes, and the final two pieces in the Indians series have none; every component of those is mold-cast.
Both versions of Magic Boy are interesting in their own ways. The 1970s bisque version was one of only two pieces in Cybis’ Native-American series to be produced in white bisque, the other being Kateri Tekakwitha in 1981 and she was never made in color. One must assume that anticipation of customer demand – given the lightning-fast retailer response to the 1970s issue! – was a factor, although it means this is the only Cybis piece I know of to have been issued in white bisque and then followed such a long time afterward by a color version. Usually the alternate colorways ran concurrently, or the color version was issued the season before the white. Perhaps a color version of Kateri was considered and abandoned (there was a painted cross belonging to her in one of the 2019 liquidation lots!) at some point. If a color one was made as a test, I’d love to see it!
Having accounted for such a wide range of sculpture numbers, from a low of #W3 to a high of #W97, on the bisque edition, it does appear as though all of them have the unique W-prefixed sculpture number – making this the only Cybis edition where this is known to have been done. However, I would love to know of any that still have their original (if sold that way) vitrine! Changes and differences, indeed. 😊
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