Arlene Ness Explores Art Through Culture

Arlene Ness Explores Art Through Culture

Our destination for today was the Gitanmaax Reserve in Hazelton, B.C. where we were meeting with Gitxsan First Nations multi-medium artist Arlene Ness. Driving into this scenic area we were struck by the imposing mountains and lush forests with their breathtaking, resplendent autumn colours! It was easy to avert my eyes occasionally to glance up at them, if only for a second. Suddenly, flashing lights in our rear view mirror suggested we were now getting a police escort by the friendly RCMP of this quaint village; we didn’t even know they were aware of our arrival! As I snapped out of it I realized that I had missed a school sign during one of those brief sight-seeing moments, and the police officer’s intention was not one of fanfare. Luckily he gave me a warning and sent us on our way. Without further delay, but well within the posted speed limit, we were once again on our way to Arlene’s place to get to know this diversified and prolific fine artist.

Arlene in front of her Grizzly stained glass

Arlene in front of her Grizzly stained glass

Arlene says that she has been creating art in various mediums ever since she was a child. From following her mother’s and sisters’ examples, to loving high school art classes, to seeking expertise and education from renowned teachers, to undeniably her own drive and initiative, Arlene has never shied away from pursuing art forms that intrigued her. Life inspires Arlene, and depending on what peaks her interest be it her mood, the seasons, her family or nature, she may indulge her creativity in carving masks, stained glass, jewellery, paintings and drawings. She has even undertaken the enormous task of carving totem poles under the tutelage of master carver Earl Muldon. How does one person manage to spread her creative energy around to all of these disciplines and excel at them, on top of raising four children and teaching First Nations fine art at the community college? From what I observed of Arlene she has this zen-like calm about her and knows how to set boundaries and balance her life so all aspects work in harmony. With her art, she doesn’t try to force her creativity in any one direction, but rather she takes guidance from her environment, embraces how she feels and lets it come to her. She is the proverbial water flowing around the rocks.

Hummingbird Dreams

Hummingbird Dreams

Click on images to enlarge:

The beauty of Arlene’s fine art transcends all cultural boundaries. Her style reflects the traditional Northwest Coast Native Art form lines which she maintains strict adherence to when working on art forms of the crests and symbols of other clans. When working on her own family’s crest and symbols she allows herself more freedom to include her own contemporary designs and interpretations. She is of the Giskaast clan; the traditions, stories and ancestral knowledge being very important to her, and it is her desire to pass down that knowledge to future generations. Her art work is an expression of herself, her culture and of the love she has for her natural surroundings and all its inhabitants. Seeing one of Arlene’s beautifully carved masks, for instance, invokes curiosity about the meaning behind it, and one does not have to be of Gitxsan ancestry to appreciate the story it tells or marvel at the craftsmanship. Though the oral history of each clan (adaawx) that is shared with succeeding generations is of primary cultural importance to the clan itself, the art that Arlene creates is the physical heirloom of her ancestry but is there for all of us to appreciate and enjoy.

Learn more about Arlene and her art as Corinne chats with her. Feel free to comment below and share on social media.

The story of Copperhaired Woman in "The Return" above can be found on Arlene's website

“The Return”


The story of Copperhaired Woman in “The Return” can be found on Arlene’s website

Click on images to enlarge:

Joe ~The Carver~ Ratushniak

Joe ~The Carver~ Ratushniak

Our journey to the rolling hills north of Merritt, B.C. brought us to a sprawling five thousand acre ranch where a guy named Joe Ratushniak carves wood for a living. When he is not carving, Joe and his partner Julia help out on the ranch with the cattle, the haying operations, general ranch chores and some riding. It is a breathtaking drive into the ranch with endless hay fields and heavy forestation all around. Ironically this environment is a bit of a conundrum for Joe. The peaceful surroundings and fresh mountain air makes an idyllic setting for him to work and yet he sometimes feels too secluded; sequestered away from the hustle and bustle and interaction with others which can be an important part of promoting your art and developing yourself.

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Click on the images below for a closer look at the full carving above:

Joe started out working for a log home builder utilizing his skills to make other people’s home living dreams a reality. The builder’s specialty would also include a carving of some sort as a signatory complement to the new home. One day the usual carver wasn’t available and so Joe was asked to do the carving. It was at this point in his life that carving wood for a living began. He has been carving for twenty years and is still giving life to people’s dreams but now it is in the form of commissioned pieces that range from sports bar tables, animals, masks and totem poles to name just a few. Joe figures that ninety percent of his work is commissioned by customers and the rest is from his own creative initiatives.

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When we first started talking with Joe we felt as if we were sitting in the office of an engineer or an architectural designer, not in the studio of an artist. He used words like blue print, proposal and give it some flair. It was at that point we realized we weren’t talking to someone who thinks of himself as an artist. Joe says so himself. He describes himself as a “journeyman” and although he does remarkable carvings they are still just jobs to him. As the conversation carried on Joe’s own transformation, not unlike the wood he carves, was taking place before us. His body language, his tone of voice and the words he used started to reveal an artist. His voice became louder and he sounded passionate and excited about stepping away from the journeyman and towards the artist. He used terms like spontaneity, something undefinable, draws you in and open to interpretation. Joe has about six solid ideas for his own art pieces which he is ready to pursue. He informed us that although he still has mixed feelings about art he knows that this is where he wants to be. Having said that, Joe’s art will still maintain a functionality to it, as he says, “to justify its existence in the first place”. What we observed was that Joe’s humble nature belies the fact that the amazing detail and imagination that he puts into his carvings is most assuredly art and certainly fine craft.

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The photographs throughout this blog show the remarkable work that Joe has done, and the video pans during his interview showing the degree of detail of these pieces will blow you away even more. On Joe’s latest commissioned piece he created a sports bar table supported by a Stanley Cup shaped pedestal base with the carved table top represented by a jersey in such detail that it appears as if it was a real jersey thrown on top of the table! Don’t miss it and be sure to check out our interview with Joe. We love comments and please share on social media!

Bird Carver Don Smith

Bird Carver Don Smith

Don Smith came walking up to our van in the Mossbank campground and introduced himself as a friend of the folks camping next to us. How did we know them? They had recognized our van Arty from the Moose Jaw Walmart parking lot where we camped the night before, and finding out about our quest for artists from a chat with Corinne, thought of Don who is a bird carver. It’s funny how one thing always seems to lead to another, and I’m sure that synchronicity will be the most overused word that we put on our pages over the next few months, and certainly the most appropriate!

"Golden Eagle"

Don’s family had settled in Mossbank in 1941 and so Don was a wealth of historical facts pertaining to the area including the tale of Old Wives Lake and the Cree-Blackfoot battle, the air force training base that was there from 1941 to 1944, and the mountainous snowfall in February of 1947 that blocked the railroad to such an extent that they had to bring in a giant “snow blower” to cut a swath down the tracks. Don graciously showed us around the area including his home where he had fascinating documents, photos and paraphernalia from these historic eras gone by. And he even shared a joke or two!

"Don with some of his feathery friends"

He also showed us the remarkable carvings of birds that he displays throughout his house. Don’s foray into this art form started with his father who was a bird hunter, and who would document his birds by carving them. His work was extraordinary and he won many awards. When he had carved a goose and attracted a buyer for it that set the stage, and now Don has become an accomplished carver of birds in his own right and has won an award for an extraordinary Ruffed Grouse which is on display in the Shurniak Art Gallery in Assiniboia, Saskatchewan. Technology and materials have changed since Don’s father’s time and so now instead of painting on the feather details, Don can actually burn in the feathers using a hot iron and then paints the proper colouration.

"Meadowlark"

"Bohemian Waxwing"

Please enjoy these photographs of Don’s bird carvings as much as we enjoyed meeting and spending some time with Don and sharing with us his artistic passion. Please click on the three thumbnails below to view the birds in their entirety:

Bent Cedar Boxes Handcrafted by James Michels

Bent Cedar Boxes Handcrafted by James Michels

Above: Recently completed stunning Wolf and Hummingbird urn box.

James Michels is a Cree/Metis artist that pulls himself between his longstanding passion and experience as an accomplished musician, and his newer passion for creating and perfecting his Bent Cedar Box works of art. It was through his six years of journeying on the road playing music with his band within the pacific northwest that he came across the expert carvers and bentwood box makers that he would observe for hours on end and learn the skills and art form.

I had never heard of a bentwood box before until I stumbled upon James’ website. After looking at the magnificent boxes and panels, the uniqueness and beauty were evident, but there were many unanswered questions such as “where did they originate?”, “what are they used for?”, “are they still used today?”.

James Michels

What exactly is a bentwood box? The best explanation is an excerpt from James’ site:

“Bentwood boxes are one of the most outstanding items manufactured by Native people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, including parts of southern Alaska, western British Columbia and southern Washington. Made by kerfing and steam bending a single plank to form four sides, the containers with a height greater than their width are called boxes, while those with a length greater than their height are referred to as chests. Historically, boxes came in various sizes from small (measured in inches) to massive (large enough to provide seating). Some undecorated, others carved or painted or both. The highly decorated ones were symbols of wealth. Fishermen used boxes shaped to fit into their canoes to carry tackle and supplies. Some were used for cooking (filled with water and hot stones) while others were used for storage of food, clothing, tools, or supplies.”

A bentwood "canoe" box, traditionally shaped and large enough to fit in the bow of the canoes to hold fishing tackle and to be used as a seat

As an addition to the uses for bentwood boxes, James said that he has been getting requests for urn boxes, one of which he was just finishing up when we visited with him. One of the urns that James was asked to create was from a family that lost their little boy. The song below that James wrote and performed is a dedication to that young boy.

Click on the player below to hear “I Will Be The Moon” by James Michels.

Join us below with James in his workshop as he demonstrates the fine wood craftmanship of making bentwood boxes: