Dennis Shorty created his first sculpture when he was eight years old. It was a moose carved
out of poplar with a burbot fish skull for antlers and a bit of “fish glue” to hold them in place. He was proud of the sculpture and showed his father, Alec Shorty.
Alec told the young carver in the Kaska language that, “The head’s too small,” and with that commenced Shorty’s apprenticeship under one of the last traditional toolmakers in Ross River. Among other things, Shorty learned to choose balsam for short arrows and black spruce for long.
But, the carver’s connection to family, tradition, art and language broke when he was taken from their Pelly River settlement to residential school. His art lay dormant then and during the hard years that followed, after he left school at 14.
It wasn’t until several years later, when carving became part of Shorty’s own healing journey, that he earned recognition for his art in 1991.
“Artwork brought me out of depression and hallucinations,” Shorty says. “The only thing that was ‘real’ was the art. Carving a real antler from a living being gave me a spiritual connection to my ancestors.”
In 2007 Shorty took up carving, painting and jewellery-making in horn, copper and antler as a full time job.
In 2008 he won the people’s choice award in the First Nation Art Festival in Whitehorse and in 2010 he was one of 10 artists chosen to exhibit at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.
“I didn’t get to see much of the Olympics, but we did bring awareness of the diversity of our talents to the public.”
That year and 2011, with the assistance of his partner, Berliner Jenny Froehling, Shorty took part in two group exhibits and a solo show in Germany. As Yukon ambassadors, they earned the Yukon Tourism Champion Award, and his work has been commissioned for presentation to the Premier of British Columbia and the Governor General of Canada.
Much of Shorty’s work relates to ideas of transformation and legend. When depicting humans, he incorporates the person’s power animal or totem.
For larger projects, he’ll leave antlers sitting around the yard until inspiration comes. “Squirrels and porcupine are my creative collaborators,” he says, as he works their chew marks into the carving. He uses home-made dyes from coffee and tea, and cranberries for sacred red.
Gathering materials, “I go out on the mountains to re-energize,” he says. “To be there, reconnecting with my ancestors and the land.”
Today, in honour of his grandfather and father, Shorty shares traditional knowledge through healing, art, music and language workshops for youth to learn skills for coping with mental health issues. He’s one of the first in the territory to participate in this Health Canada pilot project supporting communities to use their own mentors and resources to improve mental health.
Shorty also leads Dena Zagi (People’s Voice), a Kaska-language band he hopes will inspire interest in the traditions and language of his First Nation.
To see Dennis Shorty’s art, check out the group show called Our Past is Our Inspiration at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse, running Sept. 21 to Dec. 16 with the opening reception on Sept. 21. Or, visit www.Dennis-Shorty.com.
“Every day, if I’m not working, my mind is,” says Shorty.