September 6, 2009

Sunday, Labor Day weekend


Could this be Magic?

Could this be Magic?

I’m staring out of the big picture windows on the ocean side public library in SITKA ALASKA. The view is stunning. Pearly patterns on gray, peaceful water, shored in by rocks. One by one, seagulls flap their wings in the sky soaring towards forest-covered mountains poking their tops into gray clouds that fill the valleys in-between, with silver sky in the distance. There is the hush of library-talk, barely audible, and only a few people around me. There are two girls sitting by the rocks, smoking. Now big black birds flock in V-pattern and alight on the trees.

I tie my shoe in the middle of the street & there is no car to run me over!

I tie my shoe in the middle of the street & there is no car to run me over!

On the way to the library, I walked downhill into town on Sunday-evening deserted streets. No Ipod buds in my ears, listening instead to the silence and the gulls, thinking about Sitka – this town on an island, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, wondering where the lesbians are, wondering what life would be life it I lived it here.


I spend 5 days a week from 8am-5pm carving with master Tlingit woodcarver Tommy Joseph at the South East Alaska Indian Cultural Center, housed inside the Sitka National Historical Park. It’s an honor to sit in the same room with Tommy, surrounded by his brightly colored, hand-carved masks, helmets, paddles, and bentwood boxes. Small groups of tourists come and go all day, marveling at his creations, asking the same questions. What kind of wood does he use? Does he make his own tools? How long does it take to carve a mask? A totem pole? Tommy patiently answers each one, as if for the first time.


Tommy Joseph with is hand carved helmets

Tommy Joseph with is hand carved helmets

Sitting here, carving, among the skulls of a Brown Bear and Polar Bear, the burnt tusk of a Mastodon, jars filled with eagle feathers, hand-wrought tools, and a multitude of images carved in wood: ravens, eagles, spirits and men – I am humbled by the skill of the master, the power of his creations and the elegance and strength of the culture that surrounds me.


One of the ugly stereotypes that is, sadly, often true about Americans is our attitude of superiority. I’ve often wondered what would happen if tragedy struck and I or the people I know were forced to survive without electricity or running water, and all the comforts of life we have come to know and love – and take for granted. Most of us would be, simply put, shit out of luck. I have to admit that I don’t know how to build a house or fix an engine or live off the land. Throw me into the woods and I’d probably starve to death in the midst of plenty. Here, in Sitka, every day, I talk with people who know how to do just about everything they would need to know in order to survive. They forage the woods for mushrooms, smoke their own fish, make jam, weave baskets, make moccasins, sew clothing, fix boats and motors, lay flooring – many have survived in complete wilderness. My New York City skills in negotiating contracts, networking and talking on the phone seem so far out of place, it’s as though I’ve just entered first grade at age 58.


Fortunately, the people here are generous and willing to share. Yesterday I went on a mushroom walk with a woman who I met at the farmers market and learned to identify at least a few mushrooms I could eat without being poisoned, and a few days ago I got a lesson in sewing my own moccasins from a woman who lives with her husband in a trailer right on the ocean. I’m told that no one could go hungry here, as the ocean at low tide is filled with clams and seaweed for stews – and I’m hoping to learn how to gather these delicacies as well. And of course there is Tommy, who generously spends his days supervising my mask carving, answering my questions and holding my hand with each step I take.


If you haven’t already read my PREVIOUS BLOG ENTRY, please take a moment to scroll down to view the images of my MASK, which I began carving, under Tommy’s guidance, from a log of ALDER on August 24th.


Each day I confront my fears. Will I be able to execute today’s task? Will my hands and arms, still sore and aching from the previous day, be able to carve for another 8 hours? Will I be able to have faith in myself to move forward, with humility, but with enough surety to accomplish what I must? This challenge is as much an inner struggle as anything else – and it appears I had to travel across the country to Alaska to confront self-doubt – yet again.


Mask: August 29th, 2009

Mask: August 29th, 2009

Looking backwards a few days at the images of my mask as it progresses, I feel a sense of hope and accomplishment. Each stroke of my carving tool begins to unveil the image I hope to achieve.

Mask - August 31, 2009

Mask - August 31, 2009

My hands become increasingly tired with each day – even though I apply the special DEVILS CLUB balm, encase my right hand in a brace and wear a glove on my left. But I see the features begin to take shape and sense the spirit of the mask.

Mask - September 1, 2009

Mask - September 1, 2009

As I define the eyes and lips and nose, the male and female sides begin to define themselves – I begin to feel that I am expressing my dream (see previous post).

Each day the wood changes under my hands, with Tommy’s patient guidance.

Mask - September 3, 2009

Mask - September 3, 2009

The two sides of the nose, mouth and cheeks begin to differentiate as I had planned, one Caucasion/”Caucasiod” and female the other and the other African “Negroid” and male – and I begin sanding to smooth out my carving marks.

Mask - September 3, 2009 - Right Side

Mask - September 3, 2009 - Right Side

I define the MUSICAL NOTE in the THIRD EYE and the dimple in the right cheek, on the female side.

After about 16 hours of SANDING, the beautiful grain of the wood begins to show through my carving marks, the features are smoothed out and differentiated, and, covered head-to-foot in sawdust, I feel the smooth texture of the wood against my fingertips.

Mask - September 6, 2009

Mask - September 6, 2009

The library will close soon and I am rushing against time to complete this entry. I hope you are enjoying watching my progress as much as I am making it!

Judith Z. Miller
aka Artist Soul Speaks


About artistsoulspeaks

Judith Z. Miller, aka "Zelda," lives in an erotic, musical, spiritual universe; she writes as a way of coping with its beauty, sensuality, frustrations and ecstasies. In NYC, she has read at events sponsored by organizations such as Nehirim, Zeek Magazine, Essentuality, and at venues such as Blue Stockings, The Jewish Community Center, Wow Café Theatre - and late at night to her girlfriends in bed. She published in Inside Arts magazine, The Washington Post, and American Theatre magazine. Judith was trained as an actress in Washington DC, co-founded The Fine Line Actors Theatre, acted in numerous productions, created original performance material and was awarded an NEA Arts Management Fellowship in Theatre. Judith is a self-trained visual artist who is inspired by the beauty of nature and the guiding force of her intuition. She draws and creates primal sculpture and wearable art from trees, stones and found objects, which she fashions into ritual staffs, wearable amulets, and employs in healing rituals. She was profiled in The Daily News; the subject of feature articles in Mann About Town magazine, Home News Tribune, In Brooklyn, The Park Slope Paper, The Wave, and The Daily Sitka Sentinel, and featured on NY-1 Television. In 2008 her paper “Sometimes a Tree Isn’t Just a Tree,” was read at the First International LSP-and Translation Studies Oriented Textual Analysis conference at Chouaib Doukkali University, El Jadida, Morocco. Judith was the founder and director of ZAMO! representing a multi-cultural mix of world-class GRAMMY® nominated and JUNO ® award-winning performing artists for over 20 years. She taught self-promotion for performers, presented by organizations such as The Field, The Red Tent Women’s Project and the Brooklyn Arts Counsel. She was the Chief Rhythm officer of Microfundo, a crowdfunding platform supporting musicians worldwide. She was a 2011 British Airways Face-to-Face Opportunity contest winner traveling to Thailand where she met with indigenous woodcarvers and shaman. A healing ritual artist, she created Zelda's Body Breathing Healing System (TM), and offers private sessions and workshops. Judith (Zelda) resides in Port Henry New York.
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  1. Sue says:

    Amazing to watch the progression from “wood” to art – you are incredibly talented – both in your art and in your writing – but then again, they are both an art!

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