When Kaska master carver Dennis Shorty talks about his art, the conversation is more likely to focus on his respect for the materials he uses than on his finished products. “When I pick up that piece of wood, that piece of wood came off a tree and it’s still alive. And now it’s laying on the ground and it’s nourishing the earth,” he says. “Sometimes that moose antler is sitting there for about a year, and finally one day I’m carving on a piece and I say, ‘Oh my, I know what’s in that antler,’ and I run out and get it,” he adds. “To me, that’s traditional – to have respect for that antler, because it came off a living animal.” Whether the material is wood, antler, or rock, it can take a long time before Shorty is ready to start carving. “I kind of have to connect — the connection that I have with the universe and Mother Earth,” he explains. “That’s how I carve. They have to speak to me in a way that only as an artist I can understand.”
Shorty credits his forebears for his interest in carving. “My grandfather and my Dad were carvers in their own way, more for the traditional stuff, like carving snowshoes, making toboggans, sleds,” he says. “They carved toys for us, too, but it was more towards learning different animals and having respect for animals. They carved animal tracks out of wood, so we could know which animals went through the bush. And they made little bows for us and stuff.”
Shorty’s own first effort was a bull moose he carved out of wood when he was about eight years old. “I showed it to my Dad and he said, ‘Ah, the head looks kind of small’. I didn’t really understand the proportion.” For someone who uses “pretty well anything that I can carve on,” the hardest part is still “to get the proportions right — the head, the body, the legs. And to understand the animal,” he says. “Before, I just carved without any idea of the spiritual side and the respect for the animals. I just did it.”
Shorty is quick to stress the practical importance of carving in Kaska tradition. “You have to know how to carve a tool. If you don’t, then you just pretty well starve,” he says. “It’s more toward survival. Right now for me, it is survival. It’s my bread and butter.”
Passing on traditional skills and cultural knowledge to upcoming generations is paramount to him. “I was actually born in the bush, under a tree. I’m fluent in my language, and I name my pieces in the language.” While Shorty does employ power tools, he uses hand chisels and sandpaper for finer details and finishing. He also prefers natural pigments to commercial colours. “I buy paint, but it doesn’t look natural. So I water it down. I use coffee, or cranberry, or juice from birch, alder and stuff.”
This summer, thanks to funding from the Culture Quest program administered by the Yukon Arts Centre, Shorty has been offering free carving workshops for beginners on the Ross River property he shares with Jennifer Froehling. “Dennis is — what do you call it — a mothering hen? He’s a very, very good teacher,” Froehling says. Two more workshops are being planned for next month, most likely September 13 and 27. Each student can expect to produce one artwork such as a small piece of jewelry, “because that’s what you can do in four hours,” Froehling explains. “They get to take that home, and it will be named in Kaska. And there will be laughter, there will be stories. There will be a nice, relaxed atmosphere.” Enrollment is limited to six participants on a first-come, first-served basis. Because power tools will be in use, students must be at least 14 years of age. For more information, contact Froehling at 867-969-2296.