Monday, August 30, 2010

Cherry Burl Ladle

This original Indian ladle was found at an antique mall near Kansas City a few years ago by an old friend of mine. I have been attempting to identify it's tribal affiliations based upon it's unique abstract design.

At this time, I have found no other ladle by searching on-line museum collections that share with this ladle a similar Janus head effigy. Perhaps this design is singularly unique? I would welcome any comments or leads.

As is so often the case with Native American artifacts, this ladle has become lost from it's history. This leaves me with no other option than to attempt to identify it's origins by like comparison. I start the process by asking myself what I do know as fact and what I suppose.

First consideration is it's size; Length:32.5cm ~ Width:14.5cm. This is not an uncommon size and is close to the average based upon the hundreds of museum examples. It is my understanding that many Woodland tribes ate directly from ladles as apposed to eating from bowls. While this ladle was possibly a serving ladle, it might also have been a personal eating ladle. I would be very interested in learning the exact customs associated with the native use of eating from a ladle, knowing this I believe would open my eyes to understand more about these objects.
The species of wood is wild cherry burl. This is very rare as very few objects were made from cherry burl due to it's propensity to have many bark inclusions.

I will resume discussion of this at a later time...I'm running late!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Benjamin West Pipe

Not burl but it is one of my favorite carvings. The pipe I carved here is made from a semi-translucent stone that when smoked in the dark gives off a wonderful eerie glow. The size is approximately 4" long. I was many hours carfully scraping this soft stone to achieve the delicate features.

The original pipe is in the collections of the British Museum, the following text is the collection entry followed by the web link to the original artifact.

Soapstone Pipe Bowl

From the southern Great Lakes, North America
Mid-18th century AD

This pipe-bowl, and the stem which is now missing, were depicted in two paintings by Benjamin West (1738-1820), the American court artist to George III (reigned 1760-1820).

West introduced the idea of history painting to England. Images of North America are prominent among his works from the 1760s and 1770s. Some of the artefacts that he used as studio props have survived. This pipe provides the facial decoration and metal ear ornament for the squatting Indian in The Death of General Wolfe (1770, National Gallery of Canada) which commemorates the capture of Qu├ębec in 1759. The pipe also features in William Penn's Treaty with the Indians (1771, Philadelphia), which was intended to promote the Penn family's relations with Indians, and their expansion into what is now western Pennsylvania.

J.C.H. King, First peoples, first contacts: (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Burly Ear Tale

"Some of the chiefs being desirous of seeing my North-west guns, I was obliged to open a case for their inspection; this I did unwillingly, as the weather was fine, and I was extremely anxious to get to the wintering ground before a heavy fall of snow: having shewn them the guns, they loaded four, and laid them down by the cases, intending to try them; during the time they were thus employed I was busy in arranging the goods that had been displaced in getting at them; but as soon as I was at leisure, I took up one of the guns in a careless manner, not knowing it was charged, and snapped the lock, which most unfortunately shot off the ear of one of the chiefs, and I also received some injury by the powder flying in my face, and almost depriving me of sight. The discharge was so instantaneous, and appeared so premeditated that the chief reproached me in very severe terms for the injury I had done him, and threatened revenge; however, I soon convinced him it was an accident, and giving him some presents, he consoled himself for the loss of his ear, which was very large and handsome, and without a single break, which made it very valuable in his estimation. It was fortunate I did not kill him, as in all probability we should have been sacrificed to the resentment of the band." (sic)

This incident occurred in the Lake Superior region at Crows Nest Lake among the Nipegon Indians. Long was a trader and was well travelled. He visited several different tribes including the Iroquois around the late 1760's and several of the native groups living near Lake Superior later in the century.

Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader. Pages 107-108.
J. Long
Printed 1791, London
Research contribution courtesy Mr. Scott Meachum

The illustration is of a piece of burl driftwood I found on Ruby Beach off the Northwest Coast. The earring is an original 18th c. Native American ball & cone earring....perhaps the same one lost by the chief?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

One Huge Burl

In 2005 my family and I vacationed in the Northwest Coast. At the Northern end of Vancouver Island we came to Port McNeill and there, just a short walk from town we found this Sitka Spruce burl on display. It was partially hollow and yes, like Hobbits we crawled inside.

I hope the tree that grew this burl was dead or dying before it was cut. I myself wouldn't have had the heart to cut something so magnificent and ancient were it still growing and healthy. It's estimated that only 1 in 1000 trees create any sort of a burl...I would say this burl was one in a billion.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Effigy Canes

Shown here are two original Native American made canes. Each is made from solid pieces of hickory sapling, the carvings are applied to the burled root ball. It took me a great while to figure out the species of wood, I asked many wood experts and walked away with either shrugs or 20 different suggestions. Saplings, like most infants, have only subtle clues as to their identity. My answer finally came while researching Indian canes, it was stated that hickory saplings were a preferred species for making canes and that when dug out by the root, hickory often had a burled swell just below ground level. I checked my own wood nearby and indeed, hickory saplings no larger than the diameter of your thumb do have a small root burl. (My apologies for not being able to site the text as to where I found this information. If anyone should know the reference I would appreciate hearing from you so that I might include here the source.)

The cane on the right still has a majority of it's bark intact. The eyes are inlaid seed beads and both ears lobes have been drilled to accept an earring. The effigy is carved with a Mohawk hair style, (this served as the inspiration for the same feature for my carving titled, Hoyaneh.) There are several examples to be found of canes with like effigy heads and are often attributed to the Iroquois People. It displays great age and patina, and could possibly be as early as the 18th century, but patina alone should never be the criteria used to determine age. This cane was found at the Paris flea market in 2006.

The cane on the left I speculate was made during the 19th century but that too is only a guess. The eagle head has a strong similarity to the eagle effigy bowl in the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnicity; item #28-16-10/98291, Collected in 1865 and attributed to the Lakota; Blackfoot, Siksika. Like the Iroquois, the Lakota have a documented tradition of making canes.

The use of a hot file was used to color scorch the wood giving definition to the features. I'm confident a file was used as the nostrils in the beak are oblong-square and are the same size as is the tang of a file.

At one time this cane was painted all over with semi-translucent red paint, there is still paint to be found in the eyes and elsewhere along the shaft. Thankfully, whoever stripped the paint did a careful job as I still find signs of the original patina. However, as gaudy as it might have been, I would have preferred it had been left alone.

By whom, when and especially why was this cane painted red? If the maker painted it, why then go to the trouble of scorch decorating the wood just to paint it over? While researching canes I ran across an interesting bit of Indian cane "lore" that said when a warrior grew old, he traded his club for a cane. A quaint thought and most likely just a romantic waxing of words.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Effigy Feast Bowl

This bowl is based upon what is thought to be one of the earliest surviving examples of Woodland effigy sculpture, perhaps dating to the 17th century.
I am quite taken with this design, the minimalism of the effigy features transmit to my eye an expressiveness that has been seldom exceeded in so few strokes. The face draws me in and bespeaks of a culture in touch with their innermost subconscious creativity. It is not a creation of academic preliminary sketches nor theoretical art concepts, it is raw emotion expressed by a natural artist.

What I find fascinating about "primitive" works of art is the quality of abstract Modern Art they possess. Perhaps I should say that the other way around...often, Modern Art by design strives to capture what people who live within nature express intuitively. Is our affinity for primitive art our desire for that Paradise wilderness once inspired?

I made this bowl in collaboration with my friend and master bowl maker, Mike Combs. (Mike's web link can be found at the right of this blog) Mike carved the black ash burl bowl, leaving a portion of the rim blocked out for me to carve the effigy and patina. The inegmatic smile on the effigy is the result of the natural grain, nothing I could have anticipated.

This bowl along with my previous 2 works, Hoyaneh, and Compassion I consider to be a devotional trinity.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


Sculpture Materials; Black Ash Burl, Moose Antler, Birchbark, Iron, Sealing Wax, Pine Pitch, Lead.
Base Materials; Copper, Iron, Leather.
Height (including base); 24 inches.

I began sketching my ideas for this sculpture in February 2010. My inspiration came from an early 19th century Ottawa sculpture illustrated in the book, Splendid Heritage, by John and Marva Warnock, 2009. The original carving is believed to have been made by the Ottawa carver, Chief Blackbird, for a Jesuit mission sometime before 1840.

My sculpture is not a strict reproduction of the original. I made several changes, seeking to add my own inspirations, yet staying within the authentic historic parameters of material, design and construction methods common to early Native American carvers of the Great Lakes region.

I chose Black Ash for the body as it is indigenous to the Great Lakes region, as well as the historic home of the Ottawa people. I colored the wood by constructing a smoke chamber and feeding a small fire of cedar and pine bows for two days. My intent was to obtain a patina and color that is so often associated with wooden objects darkened by many years within a native lodge.

The hands and feet are pierced with antique hand-forged iron nails and are secured with very old red sealing wax. Like the original, I used birchbark to represent the loin cloth.

In keeping with this Northern theme of materials, the arms, legs, head and thorns are secured with pine pitch. Using pitch makes it possible to disassemble the piece so that it could be packed tight for travel as if it might have been carried from mission to mission by an early Jesuit traveling by canoe.

The head is articulated and can be posed. This I was able to do by hammering a musket ball into a rod, thereby connecting the head to the neck with the ability to turn and tilt, capturing subtle variations of light on its features.

The crown of thorns is made from sharpened slivers of moose antler, secured by pitch and set into holes made with a hot iron rod as was common to native construction methods of the period. I chose to exaggerate the size of the crown tines so as to give it a duel symbolism of a halo.

The base is made from 12 pounds of solid copper with a threaded iron rod that fits into a hole in the figure's back; it can also be hung on a wall without the base. I dappled the surface of the copper in keeping with my interest in the Arts & Crafts movement of the early 20th if Roycroft had prepared this sculpture for exhibit.

Saturday, July 31, 2010


Title; Hoyaneh
Material; Black Ash Burl, Deer Antler, Trade Silver Earrings.
Size; 21" tall
Date of creation; 2010

I consider this sculpture my finest original creation to date. It is not a copy of any known original but a unique culmination of inspirations adapted from early Woodland Indian art effigies. It was my intention to try to capture the essence of 17th and 18th century Native American sculptures in order that I might be able to render and bring forward something unique that possessed the same essence of an earlier period.

My friend Michael Galban, historian at Ganondagan State Historic Site in Western New York commented;
"Haudenosaunee "chiefs" are called "Hoyaneh" and on their headdress they wear the antlers of authority which is the tangible symbol of office. I was struck by that when I saw your sculpture. However the metaphor is not simply a badge of office but when deer antlers are worn it symbolizes that the people depend on that leader like they depend on the deer for sustenance."

It was from Michael's letter that I titled my sculpture "Hoyaneh". By applying the deer antlers, I was not intending to represent a mortal being, but a spiritual of sustenance.

© Steven M. Lalioff 2010

Friday, July 30, 2010

Sliding Lid Box

Based upon an old original, this little box measures 5.75" long. It is all one piece that has interior carved channels to give the lid a rail in which to slid. The lid has a lip on the leading edge that allows it to snap shut making it nearly air tight when closed. One of the best qualities of burl is it's superior stability. It is not prone to warp or check with age and because the grain grows irregularly in nearly every direction, it has a strong almost plastic quality. In my opinion, burl is actually easier to carve than strait grained woods which can tend to split when carving if strict attention is not paid to the direction of the grain. I have seen several little hinged burl boxes that have wooden hinges that are still functional after centuries of use.
How much like a work of modern sculpture this little box is.

Crooked Knives

The crook knife is a unique tool created by the Native Americans of the Northeastern American Woodlands. They were the essential native wood working tool, used to create everything from canoes to wigwams. The earliest examples are fitted with trade knives or razor blades. I do knot know if this tool existed before the introduction of steel to North America. Perhaps someone with a greater understanding of pre-historic Indian tools can add a comment about this question.

Shown at the top is an original 19th century crook knife, the center is one of my creation and the bottom object is an original curved crook knife blade that blacksmith Peter Ross reproduced for me. Extant examples of curved crook knives are rare in quantity compared to the strait bladed variety. I believe the primary function of curved blades was to carve the interior of bowls. Peter's blade is a "dead-on" copy, however, I had him reverse the curve so that the knife functioned for a left handed carver like myself.
Like ladles, original crook knives display a wide variety of effigy and organic design. I've even seen an original made in the 1930's that has an inlaid photograph of Marlene Dietrich! Considering the long hours one spends carving, I can understand.

Update: The link below will take you to a web site that introduces a new book by authors Russel and Ned Jalbert, titled "Mocotaugan, the Story and the Art of the Crooked Knife" The book is devoted to the history of crook knives. My question was answered; The steel bladed crooked knife does have a prehistoric antecedent. Follow the link to learn more!

Original Burl Pipe

I found this wonderful little original pipe on eBay around the turn of the last century. I just knew if I looked hard and long enough I would find a burl wood pipe. The seller told me it had come from a trunk of personal effects belonging to a man that had passed away at nearly 100 years old in Ashtabula, Ohio near Lake Erie. The seller did not know if the man was Native American nor any other details.
The pipe is just a fraction longer than 13" total. The stem hole and the rim of the bowl are both cast in lead or leaded pewter. I think it's most likely the latter, as pure lead is very soft and there are very few dinks along the edges. The wood species of the bowl I believe is maple burl and is very dark from smoking and age. The stem (ash?), appears to be original and has a dark, glossy sheen from much use and handling.
The design of the bowl is made along the lines of larger Calumets or "Peace Pipes", those ceremonial pipes made to share. I believe because of it's small size, this pipe was intended for use as a personal smoking pipe and not designed for ritual use.
I hesitate estimating the age of this pipe. By design, it could have been made before 1800. I can only speculate as to a tribal association...the prow and the bowl of the pipe bears some resembalance to the catlinite Calumet smoked at the Treaty of Greenville in 1795. There are also catlinite pipes made by the Northern Plains people that are nearly identical in architecture.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Horse Effigy Comb

I made this several years ago for my daughter. The horse effigy was inspired by a 30,000 year old Mammoth ivory carving found at Vogelherd in Germany and is known as one of the oldest sculptures in the world, it is less than 2" long.
I have been in love with prehistoric art since I was a child and my love for it continues to grow in appreciation. I see in this art an absolute purity of form and grace of line. It is said that all art is appropriated from earlier work...I wonder about the artist that made the ivory horse 30 thousand years ago...who were they emulating?

My carving is made from black ash burl and the tines of the comb are made from moose antler. The horses' mane, tail and the relief carved floral design are darkened by touching hot metal to the wood. Applying color accents by scorching is a technique found throughout early Native American art.

Size; 5.25" x 3.75"

Effigy Pipe

This pipe I carved during the winter of 2002. It's based upon an early pipe depicted in the book, Pleasing the Spirits, by Douglas C. Ewing, 1982. It is thought the original was made by the Eastern Chippewa around the year 1800. The original, like mine is 12.5" long.
I made this pipe from a piece of curly maple. The 3 bands of metal are cast leaded pewter and were more than a little tricky to perfectly fill the circumference. I think casting is as much luck as it is skill. I used a stiff cardboard to dam the lead for the pour. The best advice I can offer to those wishing to try their hand at this is to remember to poke holes in the dam in order to vent the hot gasses or else you'll end up with voids.
As I write, my friend Jan Zender is creating an appropriate pipe stem for this pipe. I will certainly post images of the pipe and stem when finished.


In 1992, I attended a high-end antique show and there saw for the first time the original mousetrap photographed on the left. I loved this Rube Goldberg-esque thing, but I wasn't willing to part with $1,200.00 to make it my own. I remembered and pined for that little trap for 16 years until a couple years ago I saw it again it in an antiques magazine. I called the owner to ask if I could pay him for additional photos and/or measurements...I wanted to make one for myself I explained. The trap was not for sale on it's own but was part of a very large collection he was hoping to place with a collector or museum. The gentleman was so kind he sent me the trap...didn't know me from Adam but figured any guy obsessed with mousetraps like he was could be trusted.
The trap came in the post and I set to making a copy post haste. Three days later, I had what I thought was a near perfect and functional copy. It was the smithing and patinating of the iron components, the main spring especially that was the most time consuming.
I made my copy from black ash burl but I believe the original trap was made from birch burl. The name burned with a furniture makers hallmark on the back is "H.N. Kleametsta". The 'e' and the 'a' were conjoined letters indicative of a Scandinavian name and if indeed this is birch wood then most likely the original was made in Sweden or Norway but Minnesota is also a possibility.
5.75" long

Abstract Effigy Duck Bowl

Here is a little cherry wood burl bowl I carved in 2007 based upon an early Native American bowl. I was taken by the abstract quality of the design. Cherry burl can be a very frustrating burl to work with as it is so often riddled with hidden bark inclusions. What appears to be a fine burl at the start is almost always hiding an interior void. But, this is also an opportunity to resolve the problem in the same way Native American Indian carvers did, by filling the void with lead. I consider that these lead patches add to the interest and complexity of the carving.
The middle photo shows how I used masking tape as a dam to prevent the molten lead from running past the void I intended to fill. The top photo shows the lead once it is cooled and ready to be trimmed flush with the surface. I have seen original pieces with lead patches that have been peened into the void, perhaps due to the shrinkage of the wood and the need to tighten the patch.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bust with Crown

I started this carving almost 10 years ago and only finished it in 2009. My studio has many projects in various states of completion. Sometimes I get stalled for lack of just the right tool or materials...sometimes I just get too busy with life.

This carving is not made of burl wood, but made from a 180 year old walnut log obtained from a log barn restoration. There are over 200 growth rings, so this tree began growing about the year 1600. The finish is chip carved and over that a hand made paint. I burnished the painted surface in order to rub through the high points to expose the dark walnut underneath. The design for this bust is based upon a carved effigy head that adorns an exceptional 17th century Native American ball club. As is found on the original club, the eyes of my sculpture are cast in pure lead.

The headdress and 18th c. style trade silver were made by artist Jan Zender. The headdress is known as a chiefs crown and is made from buffalo horn, dyed porcupine quills, horse and deer hair, rawhide, brain tanned deer skin and natural pigments. The original 18th century crown is in the collections of the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris.

Jan Zender is one of the worlds leading artists in the field of early Native American artifact reproductions and restoration. I have included a link to his web site at the right of this blog.

photo by Jan Riser

Burl Wood Duck Bowl

I carved this bowl from Black Ash burl as a gift for my wife in 2003. While it is not a reproduction of an original it is inspired by prehistory clay effigy duck bowls found here in the Midwest. I used antique square-shank brass tacks for the eyes. I began carving out the cavity by first laying hot coals and a blowpipe to char the wood to make scraping easier...but easy it was not. The size is just under 12" long.

Often, it will take months for me to complete a carving as this is not how I earn my living but the way I find to relax.

Burl Cup

The original carving that inspired me is currently in the collections of Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. and was once part of the Heye Foundation collection. The original was carved from an applewood knot by Chief Siacus of the lower Housatonic River, (Western Connecticut). It was collected in 1740 and stands about 3.25" tall.

I made this cup for my wife in tribute to our mutual love for coffee. I carved it from a Big Leaf Maple burl, it stands about 3.25" tall, (as measured to the rim). The cup and handle are carved from one solid piece, not applied separately. I no longer carve Woodland style objects from Big Leaf Maple as this species of burl is indigenous only to the Pacific West Coast of North America. At the time I made this, I thought "maple burl was maple burl" but once I trained my eye to identify the various species of burl I realized that there were identifiable differences in the visual qualities between maple species. Someday, I would like to render another of these from an applewood knot...a green one preferably.

Part of the purpose of this blog is to help me be more diligent in documenting my work and archiving details surrounding my inspirations. I've long thought, "oh, I'll remember this", only to wonder a few years later, "humm...where did this come from?" A few years ago I was leafing through a book (title forgotten) and saw a photo of 3 very similar style cups that were Indian made during the 1930's. They were a collection of work sponsored by the WPA or one of the other Recovery Era acts created to help support the arts and artists during the hard times. If anyone knows the title of this book or knows more details about this work program that sponsored Native crafts during the 1930's, please post details in the comment box. It would be much appreciated.

Pawnee Pipe (detail)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Pawnee Pipe

I haven't found much yet written about the original pipe that inspired this carving other than it is titled; Pawnee, Nebraska, 1840, 15" in length.
When I open a book or visit a museum and see a sculptural piece like this I almost hyperventilate with excitement, I guess this comes from being surrounded by cornfields for most of my life. I do not covet the original, the enjoyment comes from re-creating a like copy for myself. I don't do this for income, just the pleasure of spend time intently focused upon one idea for hours at a time with no client to please other than myself.

Like the original, my copy is made from curly maple with cast inlays of leaded pewter.

Rum Pipe

Title; Rum Pipe
Material; Sugar Maple Burl
Size; 4.75" long
Date of Creation; 2005-2006
Destroyed; 2007