Cruising up the Sea to Sky Highway the road signs tell you that you are on a ‘Cultural Journey,’ and above those words is the all-seeing First Nations ‘Eye of the Creator.’ It is believed that the Eye watches over the people and protects them.
Just before the turn-off for the main street of Squamish, Totem Hall sits high on a hill beside the local reservation. That’s where I met carver Art Harry for the first time.
Harry, a happy, unassuming man who doesn’t hesitate to welcome me into his home on the Squamish Reserve, is working on his next big project – a 12-by-six-foot carving for Brackendale Elementary School. There will likely be a few eagles in the carving, seeing how the area is world-famous for its wintering eagle population.
I had already seen some examples of his carving skills at The Inspired Squamish Gallery. Harry is only one of a handful of gifted First Nations artists with their work displayed at the gallery for sale. Their presence adds to the already remarkable collection of local artists showing there.
Harry’s huge outdoor workshop is in the process of being repaired after our harsh, snowy winter. It provides a cool shelter to check out his current works in progress. A glassless window facing west gives a classic opportunity to snap a photo of the real Chief mountain looming above Harry’s carved profile face of his interpretation of the Chief in his 12 by three-foot yellow cedar panel carving.
The enormous piece is destined for the library at Squamish Elementary . The wood slab was first taken to the school to let the kids try their hand at carving their own images into the wood, under Harry’s guidance. Now he has re-worked some of their attempts and added his own larger designs.
There’s no mistaking that Harry is a family man.
He wears a necklace from his wife that represents her Bear Clan. He says it keeps him strong. Against the north wall of the workshop is a seven-foot-tall red cedar totem that he is carving for his family.
The head of a wolf and a bear are expertly worked; the eyes full of strength with furrowed brows. He shows me where the other native icons will be carved next. His daughters will be represented by Bear Cubs and his two grandsons with be included as Wolf Cubs.
He explains that the wood is still drying. If it is too new, it is hard to carve. He had to cut what he calls “the heart” out of it so that it couldn’t breath anymore.
For many years, Harry was the only artist in his family. The late Chief Larry Joseph taught carving classes when he moved into the house behind his.
“As soon as I saw what he could do with a piece of wood, it grabbed a piece of my heart – I gotta learn how to do that.”
On the way to see his workshop in his house, Harry points out his new chop saw that he was able to get with a Trustee Grant from the Squamish Nation. The grant has helped him to upgrade some of his tools and supplies as he strives to be self-employed.
His bright indoor workshop has a big south-facing window and is filled with smaller works in progress and lots of family photos. He picks up a beautifully painted carved platter to show me. He explains that the Eagle is carrying the Killer Whale’s thoughts and prayers up to the Creator from the Water. This piece is for a client’s fireplace mantle.
Harry shows me his small carving knives. Their razor edges glint in the sunlight. He demonstrates how he gets his angled cuts so precise. He has fashioned his own custom thumb-guard for protection. He works his knife slowly, methodically, angling them to get the perfect cut.
Carving isn’t his only talent. Harry is an accomplished graphic artist as well. He shows me some logos he is working for different companies. There is also a drum he has drying that is made from elk skin. He has already drawn his design on it, but it needs to be drier before he can apply paint. Still, the deep ping when it’s hit tells him it is close.
Harry’s refurbished workshop will be completed by the winter. He will be busy working in there through the cold weather, keeping his hands warm with the work.