Monday, March 16, 2015

Carving a Native American Mask

Here's another non-saxophone blog.  I have had several large pieces of cedar wash up on my beach.  Some of these appear to be from "cedar poaching," where a trespasser cuts down a cedar tree and then cuts the tree into "bolts" for use in making cedar shingles.  Contrary to the Wikipedia statement that these bolts are 12 inch blocks, they are usually 18 inches long and as big as a man can handle (if the cedar tree is large).  The poacher then pushes the bolt into the river or on to the beach and recovers the floating bolts under cover of darkness.  Time was when the poachers then used a fro to hand split cedar shakes.  I think the cedar thieves have switched to stealing other things. 

Anyway, old bolts show up on my beach once in awhile.  Here's what they look like.  These two have been trimmed up because it looks like they spent many months, maybe even years, floating around in the salt water and had the look of driftwood.  I cleaned them up with a chainsaw.  The top piece is the one used for this project.

They are sitting on top of a five gallon bucket, so that gives you some idea of the size.  It's old growth cedar and I can count at least 100 annual growth rings on the bottom piece.

I can also get cedar from my own property.  I usually cut down a cedar tree every other year to get kindling wood for the fireplace and woodstove.  I can save the butt of the tree and dry it for several years.  Here's just a chunk of a "pistol-butt" tree trunk.  It was pushed over as a sapling, maybe by heavy snow, and a new leader formed the actual 100 foot tall tree, leaving a interesting chunk of wood at the base.  This shows the original leader, now decayed, poking through the 90 degree bend.

The butt has interesting grain, which makes for difficult carving but nice grain in a carved piece.  Maybe a bowl?

To start, I shaped the bolt into the basic shape of the mask using an adze.  I can use a big adze for a little while, but soon need to switch to a little hand adze.  Careful with that adze, Eugene.

 Don't wear shoes like these when using an adze!  Steel toed boots, keep your toes up, and remember that the adze is the only hand tool that scares the devil.

After the hand adze, I switch to carving knives.  Here are the three that I used.  The hook knife or spoon knife doesn't have a sheath, but it is very important to keep it sharp and without any nicks.  A strip of leather can do that.

I followed the grain a little on one cedar bolt and got a little bit of a mask shape before starting.  This was mostly hatchet work.
 Then I can move on to some smaller tools.
 But first, I need a little more of an idea of what I'm going to be removing.  Here is a pattern that I made to the scale of the wood block.

A different perspective.

 Top and side view.
 The pattern is drawn on the wood and away we go.

Here it is about 10% done.  I know it seems like a lot has been accomplished, but the roughing out is the fastest part.

This is an odd stage in the process where I have to tell myself not to sweat the little details.  Sure, the nose isn't even, but so much material will be removed that it doesn't make sense to straighten things out too much right now.  Plus, it is hand carved.  Not too much point in making it look machine made.

Here is the next picture that I can find in the sequence.  The mask is now fairly well along.  There was probably 7 to 10 days of carving between these two pictures.  But that's only about 2 hours a day.  As soon as I got a little tired or distracted, I put down my razor sharp carving knives and went on to a non-carving project (like rebuilding a saxophone).  I only cut myself twice while carving this mask, both tiny cuts that didn't interfere with playing the saxophone.   

This is the first application of acrylic paint.  Acrylic paint is not exactly traditional, but very, very common on recent masks.  For the rest, I used alder sap for staining the crown band and ashes for some other areas.  These areas were then given a coating of bee's wax for protection.  You can also see on the picture above that the design was centered on the curvature of the wood grain to balance out the grain lines (click on the picture).  Otherwise, the grain lines can be quite lopsided and become distracting.  This way, they are distracting, but in a good way.

Because the more traditional colorings can't be applied with precision (hot bee's wax is hard to control), there is additional carving required on some of the colored surfaces.  Also, the wax has to be applied after the paint, or else the paint won't stick.

Then it's time for some details.  The accent around the bear's lips had to be cut in later because of the blackened wax coloring used on the face. 

The hair on top is black bear.  The whiskers are polar bear from a 1940's salmon fishing lure (its use then was very common).  It probably prohibits me from selling the mask, but that's okay because I didn't make it to sell.

There are two more details to be added to the mask.  First, the lower lip was designed to fit a labret, which I haven't made yet.  Second, the bear paw is fitted to hold a talisman, which I haven't made yet for this mask.

You've probably noticed that there is a human mouth underneath the bear's mouth, and human ears on the sides of the mask.  My mask is a Bak'was transformation mask dealing with an unpleasant incident that gave my little bay it's name, Dewatto, meaning "stay away place."  

Here is a picture of the Bak'was spirit wearing clothing and a mask so that you can see its usually camouflaged human form (picture by Edward Curtis circa 1904).  The spirit has various names along the Pacific Coast, but is generally agreed to be the "stick man," a universal figure among Pacific Northwest Natives.  It's a long story.  Our local Bak'was tend to wear more salal than ferns and hemlock boughs (like this one).

He is also fond of wearing bear skins as a disguise (Edward Curtis circa 1914), especially when foraging on the beach for cockles, his favorite food.  That's where the trouble began at Dewatto.

Here are some other carvings.

Tshonok'wa (the wild woman), sometimes claimed to be the wives of Bak'was (my transfomation mask).  More than twice the size of Bak'was, she is probably responsible for the "Big Foot" sightings by early settlers.  When told that they had seen Tshonok'wa, the settlers apparently mistranslated it as "sasquatch."  Both she and Bak'was communicate by hooting like owls, so you can tell if they are in the area (assuming that you can distinguish between them and owls).  Sometimes, like here, she wears owl feathers.  To me, her most interesting feature is that she can imitate the voice of any child's grandmother.  That's how she lures children into the woods.  Today, parents fear child molesters.  Big deal.  Tshonok'wa eats them.

Here is a Hok Hok dancer wearing a Galukw'ami mask (crooked beak).

It has a raven nestled on its head.  The raven guides Galukw'ami, usually to people, as the raven is always watching and aware of exactly where people are in the woods.

The frog also helps Galukw'ami locate people.  When it stop croaking, that means that people are near.  On this carving, when the frog jumps, a string clacks the beak together creating the location call of the raven (hok hok).  People hearing the call generally only see the shape of the raven, so everything seems okay.

There's a lot happening on this carving (remember to click for more detail).

Kumug'wi, king of the ocean bottom.  He can simultaneously hold a beer, a sandwich, a pickle, a cigar, chips . . . .

The loon, Kumug'wi's messenger from the surface of the ocean.

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