IT’S A RAIN FOREST, STUPID!
In PARK SLOPE BROOKLYN NEW YORK, when I check the weather online for my 11217 ZIP CODE and it reads “50 percent CHANCE OF RAIN,” that means to me that it might rain, and it might not. I’ve got a 50-50 chance of having a sunny day – just toss a coin in the air and you can guess the result.
Before I departed for my 3-week trip to study traditional TLINGIT woodcarving in SITKA ALASKA, ZIP CODE 99825, I’d occasionally check the weather and was reassured by figures of 60/40 or 50-50 percent change of rain. Ha ha! I’m here in Sitka now, and discovered that what these LOCAL figures imply is that 60 percent of any given day we will be experiencing a total DOWNPOUR, and 20 percent of the time there will be a light gray drizzle and 20 percent of the time, we might, if very lucky, find the sun peaking out for a minute before being hidden by a stormy gray cloud. Somehow, before I arrived, I missed the information that SITKA ALASKA is a RAIN FORREST! Who knew? Silly me, I thought rain forests were in HOT places, like the Amazon – wrong!
MASTERS OF THEIR CRAFT
I came to Sitka to study with TLINGLIT ALASKAN NATIVE, (pronounced “TLIN-git” or “KLIN-kit.”) master carver TOMMY JOSEPH. I’m, very thankfully, here under a grant from FRACTURED ATLAS – finally, after having my plans to study with another carver fall through for two summers.
FISH WITH TEETH LIKE A DOG
This is my first week in Sitka. Every day I hike about a mile in the pouring rain from the little house I share with a local photographer to the SITKA NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK – the oldest and smallest (113 acre) National Park in the United States.
The park is exquisitely beautiful – with 200-year-old trees, surrounded by water, filled with thousands of salmon swimming up stream to spawn. The fish are all lined up in little rows – undulating black forms about 6-8 inches from one another, filling the river from end to end, like TAXICABS at rush hour in TIMES SQUARE. The females sway their tales rhythmically back and forth to dig holes in the mud and lay their eggs, to be fertilized by the males. Born in the fresh water, the young will remain and grow, eventually traveling in the deeper, calmer pools to make their way out to the ocean. Now, these adult fish are in a state of increasing decay. Their bodies literally disintegrating in the fresh water – to die soon after spawning. Some species will turn color from the change from salt to freshwater, and one, the DOG FISH, will QUICKLY GROW BIG TEETH LIKE A DOG!
SOUTHEAST ALASKA INDIAN CULTURAL CENTER
My instructor, Tommy Joseph’s, studio is located at the SOUTHEAST ALASKA INDIAN CULTURAL CENTER. It’s a beautiful room, with wooden floors and walls, high ceilings and lots of light, filled with his masterful wood carvings, and frequented by visitors from the cruise ships that dock in Sitka daily, when the weather isn’t too stormy.
Tommy’s studio shares the space with three others – featuring the work of Native artists – they bead, weave, and create metal jewelry and engage the public. These artisans design and execute their pieces right on the premises and teach about their craft and culture. These are world-renowned artists devoted to the continuation of their art forms and culture, and, fortunately for me and the other visitors, very willing to share.
Long ago, I learn, the water here in Sitka was so full of fish and the forests so filled with abundant game and fruits; the Natives had plenty of time to develop a complex culture that included the creation of intricately designed objects. I learn that the Tlingit’s HAD NO WORD FOR “ART,” because it was simply part of life.
Can you imagine for a moment what that might feel like? What would our lives be like today if art were so much a part of every day life that we had no word for it – it just was? It’s almost unimaginable, isn’t it?
The exhibit here displays many beautiful, colorful and finely crafted examples of their FORMLINE ART and I’ll be sharing photos from the exhibit in future posts.
Today I’m sitting in the local library, where I’ve lugged my computer from the tiny house I’m staying in, about a mile away, so that I can obtain internet access – which is a rare commodity here in Sitka, as is any form of public transport, or, I’ve discovered, healthy produce or natural food of any kind. The little grocery store two blocks from my temporary home is filled with chemically created “food,” and the vegetables available are terribly expensive. So much for my preconception that I’d find massive vegetables at farmers stands). Unfortunately it is long past the time of berries in the woods and I didn’t bring my fishing pole.
In my first 4 days at the Center, I’ve started my project, a MASK, made in the traditional Tlingit way, using hand-held tools, under my teacher’s patient guidance. The air of Tommy’s studio is filled with the sweet aroma of wood, especially from the CEDER plank another carver is making into a traditional paddle.
We started out with the round trunk of ALDER, a relatively soft wood that, when cut and exposed to the air, oxidizes and exhibits lovely orange stripes.
We split the alder log using a series of differently shaped wedges and a big heavy metal and wooden hammer. I say “we,” when actually Tommy does 99% of the work, as my attempt at banging away at the wedge proves fruitless – I can barely lift the hammer, and after a few bashes (which I’m pleased to say at least hit their target) move just about nothing – and my arm ACHES from the impact. I realize that this endeavor is going to be a PHYSICAL CHALLENGE from the get-go.
After Tommy splits the log, I have my first chance at using an “ADZE” an ancient Tlingit elbow shaped tool. . When Tommy wields the tool, he easily slices off strips of the trees’ bark in a neat row – chopping away with a fluid motion. I, on the other hand, pick up the adze and whack away in a helter-skelter fashion and feel lucky to have made contact with the log at all. I chop for about 5 minutes and my hand, wrist and upper arm ach, my hand turns BRIGHT RED AND BEGINS TO SWELL. I have to rest from sheer exhaustion and pain. Before Europeans brought steel to Alaska, the Natives used JADE or BEAVER TEETH for the adze blades, and I can only imagine the level of skill and strength needed to effectively use the tool.
I rest and rub and shake my hand and arm frequently, and finally take the bark off the log. Because I have a limited time here (less than three weeks) with hope to complete my MASK project before I leave, Tommy decides that we will cut off the portion of the log I will use for my mask with a POWER SAW, rather than using traditional methods. Unfortunately we can’t do it when the tourists are here … so my project is delayed a day so that Tommy to bring in his blade sharpener kit.
In the meantime, Tommy suggests I look through his collection of books from all over the world on Native American FORM LINE ART . He’s just returned from the EAST COAST and RUSSIA viewing museum collections and consulting – and he shows me books in Russian and German with stunning photos of MASKS, TOTEM POLES that depict the history of a family or clan, or a mythical story, carved FISH HOOKS, clothing, and drawings and stories of daily life. The park itself is filled with massive TOTEMS, including one magnificent example by Tommy. The contours and powerful images in the park and the books overwhelm me – I’m struck by one particular BRILLIANTLY BLUE MASK.
Tommy asks what I want to carve. My immediate response is to make a mask in honor of “ZULI,” my dearest animal companion, a Great Dane, who passed 2 years ago in May, just a few days prior to her 12th birthday. I miss Zuli every day, and want to keep her powerful, protective and loving energy near me – so I propose making her the subject for my project. Tommy says it’s a fine choice … But I’m not completely convinced it’s the right choice.
DREAMING MY ART
That night, wanting to devote my work to my deepest inspiration, I decided to let my dream consciousness help me decide what to carve.
I set an intention before I go to sleep: I will dream my mask.
I wake up in the middle of the dark Alaskan night from a strong dream:
A strong handsome black man is standing outside of a building gazing up into a large picture window where two other BEAUTIFUL, NAKED, BLACK MEN ARE MAKING LOVE. He watches intently; HE LONGS TO BE WITH THEM – to express his love and attraction for other men – but he can’t allow himself. His desire is powerful, but he has internalized society’s judgments; he simply can’t allow himself to live out his desires.
In the dream, I walk inside a large auditorium, also in the same building below, perhaps, where the men are making love. I see, floating before me in the air, SHEETS OF MUSIC – beautiful hand-penned scores, balancing, floating in the air. I grasp one, and as I do, it BURST INTO SONG – a soaring OPERETIC ARIA. I see other sheets of music around the auditorium, floating gracefully as if blown by the wind, and each one is another beautiful song – an aria COMING TO LIFE from the written page. The entire auditorium is filled with magnificent women’s voices in song coming alive from these pages.
I know this music is the UNEXPRESSED DESIRE of the man who could not express his love physically – TRANSFORMED INTO ART.
I WAKE WITH INSPIRATION.
I ponder to myself … I want to create a work of art that merges this mans struggle with my own – after all, THIS IS MY DREAM. I think about the artwork I’ve created in the past 10 years — my pieces are dedicated to transforming my inner struggles and those that affect me from the outer world, carved from the TRUNKS AND ROOTS OF TREES into what I call “SACRED STAFFS” and drawn into “SPIRITUAL SELF PORTRAITS.”
Since my youth, although identifying as female, I’ve experienced a strong sense being BI-GENDER –with my “male” side desiring to be manifested during sex. This is a long and complicated story that I won’t go into here and still don’t fully understand – but it is an issue that I both struggle with and thoroughly enjoy. Also, especially with my recent self-portrait drawings, I’ve been exploring a strong sense that my body inhabits many cultures and histories unknown to my waking consciousness. I want to include these elements in my mask.
As I sit in bed in THE DARKNESS OF NIGHT, I imagine a face, HALF WOMAN (myself) – half AFRICAN MAN (the man in the dream). I see the center of the forehead, the “THIRD EYE” as a circle filled with a MUSICAL NOTE. The nose is Caucasian/”Caucasoid” on one side and African/”Negroid” on the other. The face smiles on one side, and contorts down and then up the other – pearly teeth glistening – and in the middle, a phallus protrudes. Below the mouth, a “goatee” in the shape the gay/holocaust upside down triangle – an image of an extreme form of societal oppression of varying forms of sexual identity — the male side filled in with hair and the female side painted pink, as was the original patch that homosexuals were forced to wear. The eyes, like my favorite mask from Tommy’s book collection, are Asian/”Mongoloid.”
HOW TO ACTUALIZE MY DREAM FROM A BLOCK OF WOOD?
When I get to the studio the next day, I rough out the sketch of what I imagined in the middle of the night from my dream.
We start with measurements, using a pencil designed to write on wet wood and a CALIPER http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caliper. Tommy shows me how to mark off the block of wood into sections, defining the middle by measuring from the center of the core of the tree.
It’s beyond my ability to visualize in 3-D, but Tommy “holds my hand” throughout the process and helps me make a rough drawing. He places one of his wonderful masks next to my block of wood so that I can get a sense of where the human face would be, and I begin defining the eyes, nose, mouth, cheekbones, etc. When I show him my rendition, he sends me straight back “to the drawing board” several times, as have the eyes too high where the forehead should be … eventually, scraping off all of the pencil marks with a sharp tool and drawing them again and again, I have my rough sketch in place.
CHOPPING with an ADZE
With the help of the measurements we created with the caliper, Tommy instructs me on how to begin taking away portions of the block to begin to define the face. Again, he demonstrates with the adze, beautifully constructed tools he has HAND FASHIONED from trees and old saw blades. With short sweeping motions, he chops off the edge of the block, leaving a SMOOTH LAYER OF WOOD, his movements along the wood are like I eat a piece of corn-on-the-cob, row-by-row. When I try, I CHOP, CHOP, CHOP a terrible ugly mess of SPLINTERS – and my hand and arm ACH.
I realize this project will be as much about SKILL and MASTERY of the tools and PHYSICAL STRENGTH as it is about my POWER OF PERSISTANCE despite A SENSE OF CONSTANT DEFEAT. I feel HUMBLED and FEARFUL that I may not be able to complete the task. In any event, even if I fail, I feel a strong desire to, like Tommy, exhibit more PATIENCE WITH OTHERS who are not naturally good at the things I do easily.
I leave an hour early – my arm and hand HURT so much I fear I will be unable to work the next day.
RETURNING TO WORK
The next day my hand and arm are still sore, but better. I begin to get the hang of the adze. Now, although I still can’t control the strokes, the portions of wood I take off are a bit smoother – and Tommy comments that I’m getting better. I feel just great that he sees some improvement, and I feel encouraged to strive!
Tommy helps me figure out what portions of the block to remove. He shows me by example how to use the razor sharp carving tools. He’ll take a few sweeps for a minute or two with a curved blade to show me the area to carve and I’ll go back to my work area and attempt to execute the same effect.
Usually, struggling even to find a way to hold the tool, it takes me fifteen minutes to a half hour to achieve something similar.
Slowly, after a few days of carving, I see THE FAINT BEGINNINGS of the form of A HUMAN FACE emerge.
Our workweek is over.
My hands and arms welcome the chance to rest – and I have a renewed appreciation for the herculean achievements I see in the park all around me – the massive TOTEMS, evidencing the splendid skills of the ancestors.
Signing off for now from SITKA ALASKA.
PLEASE PRAY FOR MY STRENGTH AND FORTITUDE!