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.