September 6, 2009
Sunday, Labor Day weekend
LOOKING OUT THE PICTURE WINDOW
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.
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.
CARVING EVERY DAY
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.
SPIRITS INHABIT THE STUDIO
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.
THE UGLY AMERICAN
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.
GENEROSITY OF SPIRIT
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.
PREVIOUS BLOG ENTRY
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.
PROGRESS NOT PERFECTION
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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