Carving Native Masks from Wood
Learning to Carve
Learning First Nations Carving and FIRST AID
I arrived early to night school class, there at the front of the room stood a tall man with blood running down his arm, his bloody knife on the table. "I just ran my thumb on the blade to test how sharp it was." He said.The teacher, Mark George entered and laughed.
“If you cut yourself put pressure on the cut, and hold it above your heart. We will help you. If you need to go to emergency, we will take you. Don’t be like those women in my last class. One said 'OOH', and ran out, dripping blood. Her friend grabbed up all their stuff and ran after her. They never came back. We wondered what happened to those women.”
My first mask
That was the longest bit of instruction Mark gave us. He had some books and some yellow cedar and he told us to pick a design and get started. I had one small curved chip knife and one medium gouge. I decided on a flat mask and a classmate, Thomas, cut out an oval for me. While I watched him using the power saw, I imagined what that saw could do to my fingers.
I drew a simple face on the wood and tried to carve. The cedar chips smelled wonderful but carving wasn’t so easy. I didn't understand about wood grain and didn't know how to sharpen my tools. However as I continued to work on this first mask, the expression emerged from the wood. At first I was so focused on trying to hold the wood and tools properly, so as to not cut myself, that I didn’t notice the eyes of the mask were watching me. Then I saw those sad eyes in a thoughtful, androgynous face, looking directly out at me. I was amazed to suddenly see so much feeling emerging from the face in the wood. Thomas had been helping me learn to hold the gouges and knives. He said “look at that expression. You are a natural.You are not even using a pattern or picture. You must be a natural carver.” I felt totally happy. I almost believed him. I carved a little frog on the forehead. Then I painted the features leaving lots of the wood unpainted and natural to show the curving grain. I painted the eye pupils black, the eye sockets blue, the nostrils red. The face looked back at me thoughtfully. Then I painted the frog on the forehead green. He could be the prince of the frogs from the Haida legend. I finished the wood with natural shoe polish.
You must give away your first mask
Our instructor, Mark George, broke up my love affair with my first mask. Mark told me West Coast First Nations people believe that a beginning carvers must always give away their first mask. I was so shocked. How could I do that? It would be like giving away a child. I reluctantly gave it to my partner Laura. That way it would still be in our house and I could look at it. When Laura left me a few years later, she took the frog prince mask with her. So that was the last of my first mask.
Illegally using my chainsaw
While I was obsessed with carving that first mask I bored most of my friends, with my carving talk. Then I found a large yellow cedar log on the beach. A big sign said 'No Wood Cutting." When I started up my chainsaw every dog and kid from miles around came running to investigate. I brought the log round to carving class and Mark George split it with his axe. He had me draw an oval on the mask with a black crayon and then told me to cut the half log round with the chainsaw. I still shudder to think what would have happened to my leg if the chain saw slipped.
Carvers around the world
When my friends learned how long it took to make the first round mask, weeks, they told me not to give up my day job. I kept carving. I joined carving clubs and took lessons in: Vancouver Canada, Ubud Bali, Goa and Udaipur India, Tanzania Africa,and Oaxaca Mexico. In every country I visited I sought out carvers. The teachers did not always speak English, but they were all friendly and helpful. It was a fascinating way to get to know people from vastly different cultures.Gradually I got better.
What tools are required?
Beginner carvers benefit from lessons.A few simple tools: a chip knife or other small sharp flat blade, and a few gouges are all you need to get started. Learning carving doesn't require a lot of talent since it is possible to get good lessons and a pattern and just carefully follow instructions to produce a nice finished wood carving.The excellent do it yourself book "Carving Totem poles and Masks" is available from Amazon. Look in the adds on this site for it. You can also look for it in secondhand stores and sites.I learned a lot from this book.Unfortunately it must be out of print and may be a bit expensive Many west coast native and non native carvers have used it.
Carvers must learn to sharpen and care for their knives and gouges so a sharpening stone and polishing strop are essentials. A stop is a ruler shaped piece of wood with a strip of leather glued on. You rub sharpening wax on the strop then slide the side of your blade up and down to sharpen it. Sharpening itself is a skill that must be learned.Poor sharpening attempts can almost ruin a tool as I learned when I was starting out.. Good sharpening improve it greatly.As I struggled in my first years carving it gradually dawned on me that dull tools don't work and it is vital to go with the grain of the wood, not against the grain. Carving requires care and perseverance.It is a joyful process. And developing your own designs and style is challenging and fun.
I hope you liked this hub and that you will enjoy reading my other woodcarving and native art hubs.
I decided to revise my second mask
I I was inspired by teachers and master carvers
I was inspired by teachers and master carvers like Andrew Dunkerton and Rupert Scow whose moon masks are shown above. I decided that the second mask which I carved, the moon mask shown earlier in this article, was too clunky, uneven, and that the painting needed improvement. So I decided to recarve this moon mask. It is a hard decision-sort of like having a major facelife. Will it be better? Will I like it? There is no going back!!! I often have worries like this when I change a carving.
I took a small palm sander and sanded back the face of the mask, evening it and re shaping it. Then I re carved the nose and cheeks evening them. And then I re carvedthe rim. I thinned the mask from the inside using a curved knife blade. This task was easier than I had thought it would be because I used some excellent curved blades and because I now know how to sharpen my tools much better than when I first carved the moon mask. I sanded the new mask, painted it with a blue wash, and painted a new design with acrylic paint and nail polish for the metallic copper part of the design. i finished it with a thin coating of beeswax and polished it. I was much finer and more dramatic though still not totally symmetrical. I liked it.
If you like reading this hub you may be interested in my other carving hubs listed below.If you have comments or questions please write your opinions below.
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