Art School: Semester 5, Week 15 — Aboriginal Carving

I loved this class. It wasn’t as stressful as my other classes and in that way it was something of a relief. But it was also deeper in some ways than my other classes because of its conversations around Aboriginal peoples and the reality of their experience. There are some very harsh truths out there. It would be better for everyone if those things were universally acknowledged and understood, at a minimum.

I’ll get to a couple of reading recommendations that came up this week in a bit, but first, here’s a view of everything I carved in this class:

  • The top left and middle left items were the earliest exercises in carving convex and concave curves with gouges, working in various orientations to the grain. These were all carved in red cedar.
  • Next we carved feathers, and as you can see mine is in the lower left. Again this was in red cedar.
  • Then we did spoon carving, with my first in the upper right, and the extra spork I carved in the lower right. These were carved from alder.
  • In the middle is the alder bowl I carved.
  • Finally, in the middle right, are the two small pieces of yellow cedar that we roughed in during the last formal day of class a week ago. These need a bit more discussion, so here’s a closer view of them:

As I discussed last week, we were learning two techniques for roughing in the wood to create a mask. On the left is the first style. In it, a ridge is left in the centre to allow wood for the tip of the nose. The slopes on either side define the slope of the cheeks and forehead, but that is less obvious.

On the right is the other style. The wood is rotated 90 degrees so we can see the profile, and working from the left to the right of that profile we have the top of the head, the forehead (ending at the brow ridge), the dip for the eye sockets, then the nose, and then the flatter area where the mouth would be, ending in the chin.

Last week I tried to describe how these might be used together, but that was difficult to do without images. Now you have the image, so imagine you started by carving the piece on the left, full sized. Then you rotated it 90 degrees and carved the profile you see on the right out of the already carved piece on the left. Then, finally, you would rotate it back and round the corners at the top and bottom. The end result would be a simplified facial setup, ready for detailed carving.

Technically you could work in the other order instead, if you like. Carve the profile first, then carve off the slope of the cheeks and so on. The order really doesn’t matter in my mind, though apparently there are very strong opinions about how this should be done in the carving world, with different people disagreeing strongly about what makes for the right or wrong approach.

I’m not sure that explanation makes sense, but I hope the photo helps people see what the instructor was getting at.

What I did this past week (in the extra or make up class) was sharpen my hook knife and use it to start working on a new bowl, just to see how it was cutting:

That’s the new knife, and as you can barely tell, I used it (and only it… nothing else) to carve out the interior of that piece of red cedar. There is some refinement to be done in the sharpening, as one side is still sharper than the other, and I’ve learned that a hook knife is not the perfect tool for everything, but it is definitely useful, and having it in my toolkit is a good thing.

I also mentioned that I needed to whip the knife, which is the process of applying wrapping cord around the shank of the blade to keep it firmly in the wooden handle, and help the handle absorb the stress of the knife being used. Here’s a close up of that:

There’s a simple system for applying that cord and getting it to stay, but it had been so long since I last did that (last term) that I botched where the cord retention notch goes. That explains the notch on the right end of the cord, where it isn’t needed, and where it causes that unsightly gap. There’s another one at the left end of the cord and you can see that worked out properly. No gaps. Ah well. Live and learn.

Anyway, I have some vague plans for additional carving work over the summer break. With luck there will be photos of those projects in the coming weeks, so stay tuned if that is interesting.

Finally, I promised a couple of reading recommendations. I haven’t yet read these yet, but I am ordering them this weekend, and I am assured they are good. I am also told the first will get you a wide circle of personal space if you read it on the bus.

  • White Fragility, by Robin Diangelo
  • The Nazi Connection by Stefan Kuhl

The former is a discussion about racism, obviously, and the latter is a discussion about how many of the ideas of eugenics originated in the US.

As I say, the conversations in this wood carving class can be a bit intense. I will miss it.


Sculptor/Artist. Former programmer. Former volunteer firefighter. Former fencer. Weirdest resume on the planet, I suspect.

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