Wood carving is an artform that combines hard physical labour with immense creativity and finely tuned skills. It takes decades of experience to master.
In long ago times, carving was used to decorate both ceremonial and functional items, such as masks, rattles, sculptures, totem poles, combs, and boxes. That tradition continues today.
Yukon First Nations wood carving draws on many different cultural traditions. Some Inland Athapaskan people carve animals and other symbols, based on their stories and beliefs.
Some Yukon First Nations carving is closely related to the carving styles of Indigenous artists of the Northwest Coast of Canada and Alaska—the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples.
Many of those carvers choose to present formline designs on relief and three-dimensional works. Formline is a distinctive traditional artform generally seen in painting, carving, and in some weaving. Its distinctive eye-catching compositions are created using simple shapes, such as ovoids and U-shapes, repeated to make complex and harmonious designs.
Like many other Indigenous artforms, the practice and skills involved with carving wood were sleeping for many decades. When missionaries arrived on the shores of the Northwest Coast in the late 1700s, they saw the carved totem poles depicting clan animals and mistook them for false gods.
They urged the Indigenous peoples to stop carving and to stop practicing many other cultural artforms. In fact, many Indigenous cultural practices were discouraged by church officials and the federal government outlawed potlatches in Canada for nearly 70 years, between 1882 and 1951.
For decades, carving was only done by a handful of people who kept the knowledge alive.
Today, buoyed by a modern interest in Yukon First Nation and Northwest Coast art and a movement to reclaim cultural practices, many young artists are learning how to carve and bringing the artform into modern times. They are reviving old traditions and creating new ones.
Historically, carving was done by males. The skills were passed down from fathers to sons, and the carvers in a community would grow up learning the skills.
Today, those skills are passed from mentor to apprentice. After decades of learning and practice, artists earn the title of master carver. It was and is a term of respect and reverence to artists who have devoted their lives to the craft.
There is a notable exception to the all-male rule in the Yukon. Well-known and revered artist Kitty Smith, of Tlingit and Tagish descent, carved items for sale to help earn a living to support her family. Throughout her long life she carved smaller figurative pieces based on stories that she heard growing up. Often her husband, Kashgêk’ Chief Billy Smith of the Whitehorse Indian Band (now Kwanlin Dün First Nation) would write out the stories to go with the carvings.
Today, both men and women carve artworks for sale or as gifts for friends and family members.
Many carvers tell stories with their pieces. Some tap into traditional stories that explain the world, such as “How Raven Stole the Sun”. Others depict important events in their community or family histories. Carving is a way to keep the important stories alive and pass them on to future generations.
Often carving a large piece, such as a totem pole or a canoe, is a community project that takes many carvers working together. Working on a larger piece also offers less experienced carvers the opportunity to learn by watching others.
Some First Nations artists also see carving as a healing practice. For example, the totem pole installed at the foot of Main Street in Whitehorse is called the Healing Totem. It was carved from red cedar by a team of artists from the Northern Cultural Expressions Society, working under master carver Wayne Price from Alaska. Each wood chip carved from the pole was dedicated to a life impacted by the trauma of residential school. When the pole was complete, the shavings were burnt, and the ashes were collected in a box and placed inside the totem pole to symbolize all of the lost children returning to their mothers.
Experienced carvers know what to look for in wood. They know that the trunk of a tree is generally softer than the branches; and they know how long to let a piece of wood age before carving. Some carvers prefer green wood, but others let the wood sit for a period of time to settle and dry.
Carvers build a relationship with the wood to understand how it works—its grain, its strengths and its weaknesses. Each piece of wood is unique and has different challenges and opportunities.
Generally, carvers prefer to work with softer woods because they can be more finely carved without the wood splintering, such as cedar, spruce, Douglas fir and hemlock. Cedar is most commonly seen in carvings because it grows straight and resists decay.
Often, optimal wood for carving has to be imported into the Yukon, because the territory’s native trees species do not lend themselves to carving. Their trunks are generally too small for larger pieces and the wood is too hard or splits too easily.
In long ago times, artists used handmade tools to carve. With the arrival of European and Russian traders came steel tools which made it easier to carve larger and more intricate patterns.
Modern carvers will use modern tools, such as electric saws, to make their work quicker and easier. But the detailed carving is still done with hand tools and hard work.
An array of tools is needed to achieve unique lines and forms. Carvers use hatchets, many different sized chisels and gouges to shape the wood, and utility knives to make finer V-shaped grooves. They also use a specially designed tool, called an adze—a sharp tool curved like the back end of a hammer—to carve out shallow cuts.
Carvers generally work out their designs on paper, before sketching them on to the wood. They use a saw to cut the initial form, and then larger hand tools, such as hatchets and adzes, to rough out the shapes. They use smaller tools and knives for the detailed work. Some carvers prefer to sand their pieces, while others leave the rough wood or create a finish called stippling which gives texture to the uncarved wood.
Experienced carvers make their own bespoke tools so they can get exactly the shape and cut they want.
Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association
1-1109 Front Street (White Pass Building)
Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A-5G4