Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Cree/Mohawk Artist an Articulate 'Starr' in the World of Kwakiutl Art

These days, I am completely fascinated by most things "low-tech 101," especially complicated and time-consuming artistic processes.  Seeking out things low-tech has become a bit of a hobby for me, in these days of society's overwhelming total embrace of everything electronic. I guess you could also say that one of my hobbies is coaxing out the true character of people to make for interesting conversation.   It's a passion of mine to make the subjects who I interview feel at home in front of a camera, so much so that they relax. It is then that the viewer feels as though they are privy to the conversation as well.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I had the pleasure of meeting and observing Kwakiutl-style carver Gary Starr at work.  I hesitate to use the term "Kwakiutl-style" because Starr's work is innately Kwakiutl given his upbringing.   Born in Rochester, New York, Starr's biological father is Cree.  His mother, who is Six Nations Mohawk, later married Reg Scow, who is Kwakiutl from Alert Bay, British Columbia.  Starr was raised in Vancouver.  While he never participated in the Kwakiutl dances himself, he was always around Northwest Coast carving and learned his technique from well-known carver Barry Scow.  Starr has always considered Reg his father and considers Barry his mentor.  When asked if he ever felt like an outsider because of his non-Northwest Coast heritage, Starr said that that never occurred to him.  He was grateful to have been able to learn how to carve.  Through and through, he considers himself a Scow, and his purpose is to be the best carver he can be to honor his father Reg and his family.

The process of creating a Northwest Coast carving, like all arts, is labor-intensive.  Starr, who is known for his masks and highly articulated puppets, including minatures, makes no bones about letting us in on the source of his wood--the local lumber mill.  Starr seems to dislike smoke and mirrors when it comes to who he is as a man and as an artist.  Once he feels comfortable enough to let you past his initial quiet and contemplative exterior, you realize that below the surface lies a highly-intelligent, unapologetic, though incredibly sensitive man, who likes to make jokes both about the serious and the mundane.  At the mill, he seeks out pieces of cedar that fit the size of the concept he has in his mind. Sometimes he has to pay for the wood. Sometimes, he gets the scraps for free.  Often, he doesn't know what he will carve and lets the wood, its texture and shape guide him in the design. He jokes about being younger and not understanding the concept of letting the wood "speak" to him about what shape it wants to take.  As an adult, however, Starr is clear about how the relationship with the spirit of the wood is key in making the piece exceptional. After all, the tree once was a living thing and deserves to be honored.  In the selection process, identifying wood that lacks knots is a requirement since knots can hinder the crafting process and are detrimental to the physical strength of the piece. 

On the day that I met Gary Starr at Cedar Works Gallery, a Lummi Nation artist co-operative in Bellingham, Washington, the artist decided to carve a "simple" portrait mask.  Starr was nice enough to let me video and photograph the three-hour demonstration to show every step of his carving process. As he worked, Starr retiterated what his mentor taughth him--always redraw the pencil lines once the cut has been made. This will ensure the piece's symmetry  A lover of good music, Starr is used to jamming with heavy metal music playing in the background.  With us he chose to whistle, which functioned as a surrogate soundtrack to the very arduous carving process.  Throughout the three-hour demo, Starr showed his keen sense of humor and waxed sentimental about his love for his children.  In that amount of time, Starr was able to complete about 1/3 to 1/4 of the work.  Watch my interview with Gary Starr HERE.

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