Northwest Coast Carving
Carving on the Northwest Coast is a central aspect of artistic life. Although many art forms are practiced in the region, especially weaving, painting, and the more modern screen-printing, glass and metalwork sculpture, it is carving that has been the most important and recognised art form during the contact period from 1774 to present.
Carvers mainly work in wood, although stone carving is also an ancient tradition, expanded in the nineteenth century to soft mudstones, such as argillite and metal carving on jewellery. Archaeological discoveries demonstrate that carving was well-developed before European contact in 1774, with a wide range of carving practices and techniques employed across a broad range of subjects. The woods most commonly used on the Northwest Coast are red and yellow cedar, as well as alder, which are all harvested from old-growth forests.
Some of these carvings are on a very large scale, such as the famous totem poles, carved from entire tree trunks, or the great canoes, which could frequently be more than 50 feet long. Carvers were also responsible for erecting the great long houses, built on a system of beams carved from cedar trunks and often highly decorated relief carvings.
Carvers are often defined by their tools. Before European contact, carvers worked with shell, bone or stone tools, with occasional knives made from naturally occurring copper. As soon as European ships began to appear off the region, carvers immediately adopted steel tools, their strength, sharpness, flexibility and durability widening and developing the carving works of the region. It is at this time that many examples of Northwest Coast material culture changed in response to the technological shift; totem poles, at one time rare and relatively plain, rapidly became more widespread and vibrantly decorated.
Some anthropologists in the past have questioned whether, by introducing non-Native tools, Northwest Coast artworks have become somehow inauthentic--as if by using a steel knife the artist's own intentions have become corrupted. Northwest Coast artists themselves, however, scoff at this suggestion; they say that their ancestors used those tool because they were not stupid, in the same way that they use chainsaws and electric drills today. The art, the carving, comes from the artist, from the weight of culture, spirits and ancestors who drive the artist, not from what they hold in their hand.
Tools are, however, still very important. The hand-finished nature of Northwest Coast wood carving is an essential part of the texture of the artwork, and each tribe maintains carving traditions and actions that are passed from master to apprentice. These appear in the art as distinct designs and cuts that, when combined, create regional variations of the artform known as formline. Formline refers properly to carving and painting designs from the Northern part of the region, but all Northwest Coast art forms have similar construction based on continuous flowing lines that create interconnected figures and images which tell dynamic stories.
Historically, carvers used adzes and axes to cut and shape the felled tree trunk, finishing the work with fine steel knives. Modern carvers, although assisted by modern power tools, still use these tools for detailed work, learning during their apprenticeships how to read the wood and work with its grain. Wood quality is a crucial judgement within the carving process and carvers will take considerable time and effort to select just the right piece of wood for the carving they wish to make.
Among some tribes, carvers were dedicated professionals, employed full-time by wealthy elders to produce masks, rattles, bowls, boxes, canoes, totem-poles and other ceremonial materials for major events. When not producing commissions within communities, these carvers would earn a living carving for sale to outsiders, especially non-Native tourists, who arrived in ever greater numbers as the nineteenth century progressed. Most men--and some women--in the community could carve to some extent, but this type of high-status carving was usually reserved for those who had undergone formal apprenticeships, usually with an uncle. This ensured that carving stayed within families as a reserved occupation, although most carvers would also have supplemented their income with fishing,hunting and other seasonal paid work as it became available.
Since the 1950s, there have been many carvers who make a living carving and selling artworks on the international market. These artworks, although often experimental in nature, are as deeply rooted in traditional practices as those which were made by their ancestors, using the same designs, techniques and images. The commercial aspect to the carving doesn't change this aspect of the role. Indeed for some, it enhances it, introducing a competitive edge to carving and keeping the artwork, and the careers which depend on it, alive.