The subtle aromas of cedar, basswood and paint scent the air in the Arts Underground gallery as you view the representations of frog, raven, eagle, wolf and other figures in the Northern Cultural Expressions Sundog Carving Program exhibition.
Each work reveals the patience and gestures of the hands that worked on them. Some artists choose a rougher texture for their finish; Sarah Villeseche uses long, thick strokes to shape the snout of her Wolf sculpture, and works with the wood grain to add liveliness to the ears.
Other carvers, such as Brian James Francis, bring their surfaces to a finely-sanded sheen. His Frog Mask has particularly smooth surfaces for the cheekbones and brow.
Most of the 11 carvers are from northern First Nations, and many were first inspired to make art because of family connections.
Morgan Ayles Smith, for example, is a member of Kwanlin Dun First Nation who was born in Whitehorse and has spent his life between this small city and Carmacks. He joined the Journey Far carving program in the fall of 2009 partly because his grandfather, Stanley Smith, used to carve small figures in wood and sell them in the community.
Jared Kane, an emerging artist from Ta’an Kwach’an, was born in Whitehorse in 1988 and has lived here his whole life. He has also spent long periods of time in Haines Junction and Klukshu.
Kane is a member of the Crow Clan and so works frequently with raven designs, but also enjoys working with the many different art forms that Northwest Coast art has to offer.
A visit to the exhibition reveals similar biographies for others. What the show doesn’t reveal, though, is that the timing of this exhibition was a challenge for a couple of the artists for the best reason possible: they have been busy selling work.
“A few guys have had large commissions lately,” explains Elecia McLellan, gallery coordinator with the carving program.
“Morgan Ayles Smith just completed a large-scale piece for the new display in the international wing at the airport, so an individual who had purchased one of his pieces allowed us to display that work in this show – just not for sale.”
Through the Journey Far program, the carvers work from 9:30 to 4:30 every day in a workshop situation. The program, funded by Yukon Justice, was started in October 2006 and is designed to provide 2.5 years of support to carvers.
Tlingit master carver Wayne Price comes over from Alaska on a regular basis, but “we have to share him with his family,” McLellan says with a smile.
Many of the carvers have committed to art as their career path.
Ben Gribben, of the Tahltan First Nation, was born in Ontario and moved with his family to Whitehorse when he was 12 because his mom was homesick for the north.
“How I got into the program was I was just looking for a job … and since my buddy Duran was carving over here I checked it out.”
He recalls how he started by “practising on ovoids and ovoids and ovoids. One thing led to another and here I am, with my skills built up.”
For the current exhibition, Gribben created Soaring Eagle, a bas-relief that shows an eagle rising into flight over an unusual foreground of flat, layered waves carved from basswood.
“I wanted to make a 3D panel, and I drew it right on the wood. And I chose the red cedar for the background because I knew it would make it glow,” he says.
The 21-year-old joined the carving group in 2007 and works in other media as well, doing drawing and computer animation.
Gribben describes the workshop group as feeling like a family. “A lot of us bounce ideas off each other all the time. There’s so many people here who can help you. We have those days where we’re all in a good spirit, then we have those days where nobody really wants to talk to anybody – just like working anywhere.”
In part, his philosophy of carving is to keep the process simple, and keep the flow of work going.
“I always say, keep pumping them out – project after project – so you don’t feel bad about messing up on a project because there’s another one to come.
“We’ve all been carving for years and I looked at what we’ve done and it makes me excited to see what we’ll do next.
“And another philosophy I have is this, if you work hard now, you can take it easy later.”
The Northern Cultural Expressions Sundog Carving Program exhibition is at Arts Underground until February 8.