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Powell River Historical Museum workshops bring carving tradition to life

Museum hosts series of beginner sessions on first nations culture and art
LEARNING TOOLS: Heiltsuk First Nation carver Ivan Rosypskye explains his approach to participant Gordon Dan during a recent Powell River Historical Museum and Archives workshop. Ionatan Waisgluss photo

Participants gathered on Saturday, May 13, and Sunday, May 14, for Heiltsuk First Nation carver Ivan Rosypskye’s beginner carving workshop at Powell River Historical Museum and Archives. Throughout the weekend, Rosypskye shared his experience, passion and tradition.

“This is what I would do,” said Ivan Rosypskye, demonstrating one of his techniques. Several participants watched closely and applied the techniques to pieces they were making themselves.

The workshop was an introduction to Coast Salish designs and those who attended chose their own designs to carve out of yellow cedar wood.

“It’s the carver’s favourite wood,” said Rosypskye, who hails from Bella Bella. “I also carve in red cedar, but I find it dulls the knife so quickly.”

Rosypskye started carving in 2001 after meeting a group of carvers when he was living in Alert Bay.

According to Rosypskye, discovering the tradition of carving was like discovering his identity.

“It was like a hollow in me that was getting filled up,” he said. “The first thing I ever carved was a letter opener out of yellow cedar. The hardest part is understanding the grain of the wood, but then you start to get it.”

Powell River Historical Museum and Archives heritage manager Bert Finnamore said the carving workshop is one of four related sessions the museum is hosting this year.

According to Finnamore, the workshops are a natural extension of the museum’s mandate.

“Museums are places that can help us develop and preserve cultural understanding,” said Finnamore. “They’re far more than a place to store stuff.”

Finnamore said there are many aspects of culture that are intangible, but still need to be preserved.

“With a workshop like this, we can bring the intangible together with the tangible,” said Finnamore. “People can learn a skill and also take something home.”

Finnamore said he has been working in museums for approximately 30 years and living in Powell River for five. He was introduced to Rosypskye when he started looking for someone who could teach first nation carving techniques.

“I discovered quickly that Ivan is not just a good artist, he’s also a good presenter and great at sharing his craft,” said Finnamore.

According to Finnamore, finding carving knives for the museum’s first workshop was a challenge.

“West Coast knives are very different from European carving knives,” said Finnamore. “You hold them the opposite way. Very few people are producing them.”

After learning to sharpen these knives over the course of a year and a half, Finnamore became interested in making them himself from blocks of steel. He has been making them for three and a half years with help from Rosypskye.

“I like trying the different types of knives, giving Bert some feedback,” said Rosypskye.

Gordon Dan was an attendee who came to the workshop with a lifelong desire to learn, but no carving experience.

“There’s a lot to know,” said Dan. “It seems like you get into a meditative state.”

Debbie Dan, another participant, said the workshop helped her appreciate what it takes to make an elaborate carving.

Rosypskye’s daughter Tia was also in attendance. She is currently working on a raven ladle.

For many years, Rosypskye has worked in the trades as a roofer.

“I’ve been looking to do less roofing and more carving; it’s finally starting to look that way,” he said. “I’m really lucky to be doing this.”

Future workshops in the museum series include drum-making, hat-weaving and mask-carving.

For more information on the workshops, email [email protected] or call 604.485.2222.