by Rhonda Lee McIsaac —
The countdown is on in Gaaw. For the next 100 days, carvers working on the Totem in the Forest project will be working from sun up ‘til sundown– and probably under flood lights at night – to shape and shave their way into the heart of a ts’uu cedar. Kilthguulans Christian White and his apprentices and journeyman have been busy in his carving shed getting ready for June 21, when this new pole will be raised at Hl’yaalang near Taaw sdalee.
“The group has been getting the log ready,” says Kilthguulans. “The first while, we had to take the ts’uu k’al cedar bark off, and then get the log into the shed, and then draw and transfer the design onto the pole.” With winter’s grasp waning to spring and two weeks of full-on carving, the towering round of ts’uu is taking on new form with every chip that flies off.
Kilthguulans has set up his young carvers working on different sections of the pole. Looking down its length, they are thoroughly engaged with tools in hand and easily talking to each other. “They are set to work on all stages of the pole,” says Kilthguulans, standing tall in his overalls and wool toque. The shed has no heat and has been this way since his father built it in the 1980’s. “It’s getting warmer in here and that’s good,” Kilthguulans says, noting that the temperature also keeps the cedar pole at a relatively constant temperature.
The design transferred on to the pole guides their work. Various depths are honed out with straight knife slices, each mallet tap and every gouge, and with each passing day the students become more familiar with their tools. White talks to them while they work; from correcting how they hold a tool to the history of carving on Haida Gwaii.
The importance of sharpening their tools becomes evident with every smooth curl that is shaved off the cedar. “The tools have to become an extension of their bodies,” Kilthguulans says while inspecting the areas students have been working on this morning. Each push and pull is not the same for each area, he says, watching over his learners and their efforts.
“I’m trying to get them to work all stages; getting practice on their tools while taking down the design to the right depth,” Kilthguulans explains. He says he will often come out after they have gone home to continue shaping the piece. It is this constant chipping, scraping and smoothing that will bring out the design that we will be revealed in June.
“The tools they learn how to use here will be with them for the rest of their lives. It will carry them on,” says Kilthguulans. And so, for the next 100 days they will continue to learn with each push and pull on their tools of the trade.