It starts with a sudden change in movement. Duran turns from a slow, intense look at his piece to an instantaneous focus on the motion in his hand as he hacks away at the yellow cedar. The adze picks up on his directions, taking over every ounce of his body in the repetitive rhythm he sets his intentions on. Like an overpowering beat of a drum, everything that had been crowding his mind releases as he allows this trance to take over. All of his thoughts are redirected to the process before him. Here he sits, connecting to the essence of the wood and creating anew as he reads the grain with his eyes and hands.
Duran Henry is a 34 year old from the Kwanlin Dun First Nations. He is from the Tlingit and Southern Tutchone First Nations, and a member of the Crow Clan. A full-time carver in Whitehorse, he has been in this field for 11 years. He is now a head teacher who visits many schools and communities to share his talents, especially in the Yukon.
Duran mainly focuses on an ancient traditional design, with his inspirations coming from pre-colonization layouts. “I feel the spirit of the ancestors watching over me and sort of guiding me in the old ways, ’cause I usually get my inspiration from, like, really old pieces that are you know, hundreds of years old.” He finds that a lot of this style is dying out, being replaced with more contemporary styles. Like an old photo album, he thinks that it’s very important to look at old memories to relearn traditions. “Each artist has their own definition of traditional”, he says—his definition just so happens to have roots in very historical contexts, compared to traditions carried by other artists. When Duran is carving non-traditional pieces, he bases them on modern music and movies, or as a representation of his personal experiences. “Sometimes I use some teachings from my father and I try to put some realism elements in there. Like, maybe, I’ll try and, you know, put a background in there like a mountain scenery, or maybe a tree.”
Calvin Morberg is a Teslin Tlingit. Born into the Eagle Clan, his clan crests are that of the Eagle and the Killer Whale. He has been carving for 15 years, beginning around the age of 18 or 19. Calvin has always found inspiration in his art community, through traditional masks and totem poles. His ideas often come from cultural legends, potlatches and ceremonies, and other significant events. One event-inspired piece was a water protector he made during the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Since so much of the traditional artform had been wiped out with the banning of potlatches and other cultural practices during colonization, a lot of his focus is based on finding resilience in his traditions. “Culture is a way of life,” he explains. Calvin’s practice in carving speaks his whole life experience, an opportunity that allowed him to travel to places such as China, Russia and Arizona for project collaborations. He looks forward to leaving a legacy that will last, maybe even 500 years from now. His art is a way of healing, helping him in connecting to his roots. Through this he takes on a role, reaching out through his culture and showing young people how to turn towards arts and tradition as a way to better themselves. This has been a great influence on his 11 year old son, who sometimes transfers and traces drawings to contribute. He is also delving into drawing and designing on his own terms.
Angel Hall is a carver and a musician who comes from a British-based Canadian family. She began her passion for carving shortly after moving to Yukon, by responding to an ad put out by Sundog Carving Studios, who were offering a very open yet indigenous-based program. At one point in her life Angel had gone to university, where she took a course in First Nations Studies. Transitioning from that education into the carving program challenged her attitude towards cultural appropriation at first. Because she didn’t want to impose on cultural artforms, her original reaction was to refuse when given the opportunity to expand with indigenous carving. This was taken the wrong way by some of the carvers. “I had never planned to like, do indigenous art; I didn’t plan on doing formline. I planned on learning it in the program and then doing my own thing. I didn’t plan on falling in love with formline, which I did.” With enough reassurance from fellow indigenous carvers, Angel decided to continue working with them. “After that, I felt very invited to do this coastal art form. The Tlingit guys there made it very clear to me that I was invited to do the art form.” Her work usually begins with a spontaneous idea, eventually evolving into the outcome of her piece. “Personally all I do is decide like what symbol or thing I’m going to carve, and then from there I just carve and usually it surprises me what comes out in the end.” She considers her creations to be a way of channeling energy through her, rather than her coming up with the ideas.
All three carvers brought up how important their state of mind is when they are working on their art. Duran talked about how he has created some pieces that give off a contrasting energy or emotion from the way they look, and how you can feel it by just touching them. When I was visiting the studio one day, he and Calvin emphasized how the wood absorbs energy as they work on their piece. “Yellow cedar and red cedar are sort of energy conductors, I guess I could say. They absorb energy,” Duran explained. Because of this, they all make sure to be in a good mindset when they are working by clearing their minds. Duran keeps his energy positive and light through methods such as writing down and burning bad thoughts, listening to metal music, and taking canoe trips. Angel has a routine of cleaning off her space before she starts working, for this same reason.
When it comes to creating a new piece, each artist begins in a different way. For Calvin, this sometimes begins by harvesting the tree himself. He begins by cutting down the tree he has chosen to use while giving an offering of tobacco. The tree gives its life force, and he brings it to life with song and dance. To adhere to the ‘made in the Yukon’ label, over shipping wood in, he prefers to collect local birch. “It’s a better representation of my art”, he claims. He feels a connection to the spirit of the wood through his practices, with the understanding that “everything has a spirit”.
Angel’s connection to trees ties in similarly to this perspective. She believes that trees have no separate consciousness, and that their consciousness is held in the moisture of the wood. As long as there’s still water in the wood, she feels that the essence of the tree is still present. She also talks about how wood has different medicinal properties. These properties are revealed during her carving practice, explaining how one kind of thuja, yellow cedar in English, is an antifungal, antibacterial, oil-rich wood. She said there is a such thing as “too much medicine” when working with some woods. After too long a time working with thuja, she developed a histamine reaction to the oils in the wood, one of the few negative reactions she has experienced as a carver. “To be a carver you kind of have to ignore the medicinal aspects of the wood, because otherwise you’d be like, ‘Well, I’ve had too much of this medicine,’ and you don’t finish your carving.” The thuya, red cedar, is often very splintery. “If you get a splinter from red cedar and leave it in your hand will just puff up and get infected really easily. It’s got like some pathogens in it,” Angel shares.
After taking her experiences into consideration, I realized how difficult it must be to know how to work with the wood, even just to decrease the number of splinters it takes to finish a piece. For this I decided to go back to my conversations with Duran, who spoke often about how he “reads the grain” of the wood. “I could best describe it to petting a dog, because when you’re petting a dog you’re never going to go against the grain.” I chuckled at this analogy. “If you go against the grain on one cut it will tear or fray, and when you go with the grain the cut will go into a smooth sort of flow, and the chip will curl,” he shared. I noticed this curling effect when he was carving in front of me a few times, thinking back to it. “But working with wood and you know, feeling the grain of the wood come through as I’m carving, it gives me an idea about depth and perspective.” He gave me a detailed explanation about how he usually focuses on shadows for his work, in order to get an idea of how to make the shapes and effects he is looking for. “As I carve deeper and deeper, it’s usually the shadows that I sort of go by.” Another way that he described this was that he is carving the shadows out of the piece, using depth in perspective. “A lot of deep carving will bring out a lot of heavy shadow, and light carving will bring out, you know, not very much shadow.” At one point, I asked him if the shavings falling off of his piece had any symbolic meanings to him. After thinking in depth, he came back with a clear answer. “I guess the wood chips represent cutting away the pieces that you don’t need in order to bring out the piece that you want to bring to life. It’s kind of like taking away the negative in order to bring out the positive.”
Because of hearing such symbolic representations in what Duran had to share, my curiosity increased. This brought me back to when Calvin explained the meanings of some of the designs, colours, and animal symbols in his work. As he and Duran had been working on a box design together, he explained how black was sometimes said to represent the skeleton of the design, and red to symbolize the blood. He also pointed out the salmon head ovoids in the four corners of the piece, sharing how they would usually be incorporated with animals that are connected to them. Two examples of this are bears and eagles, because they eat salmon. He also told me about how animals have many different meanings, sharing that he sees the Eagle as a symbol of the Spirits of Ancestors. Considering he was born into the Eagle Clan, it was great to hear his perspective on this. Hearing a brief explanation of everything made it much easier to see the meaning in the art.
I have always been very interested in First Nations culture. However, being non-Indigenous has always made it feel like a struggle to integrate myself in the teachings in a non-imposing way. When I spoke with Angel, it opened my mind up to some new ways of looking at it. “Everybody wants to learn how to get along now and integrate and honor each other, but there’s a lot of understandable hurt feelings because things haven’t changed enough yet, like we’re still in an oppressive society,” she said. We chatted about the impacts of European colonization and residential schools on the indigenous communities. “[The European culture doesn’t] have like, similar healing that needs to happen in the indigenous community,” she said, as a way to clarify that we all have different lost parts of our culture from traumas in our separate societal upbringings. Angel mentioned how she believes, if anything, that the First Nations culture is helping her to heal, whereas it’s constantly portrayed the other way around. “These guys are helping me to heal,” she says about her indigenous coworkers. “I don’t know very many other people who have that kind of ability to continually welcome me home. Every time; no matter how poorly I’ve behaved.”
When it comes down to the depths of understanding our world, we all bring unique perspectives to the table. These three artists are fine representations of that notion, showing how we all express ourselves with different methods of thought and form. I have always viewed art as a way to heal ourselves through self-expression. Taking that way of thinking into consideration, it should be said that this expression doesn’t always come in obvious ways. As I mentioned earlier, the artists usually release bad energy in various ways as part of their routines before beginning carving. Maybe if we focused on our self care in similar practices, it could provide release when needed, allowing us to realign with ourselves.
Angel shared with me that when she’s working on a mask, there’s a certain point as she’s finishing where she feels its consciousness come into existence. The magic that happens behind the scenes of these creations manifests a spirit of healing in these beautiful rooted faces.