Outside of the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre there's a large white tent set up to protect four master carvers and the large pieces they're creating.
By March the carved poles and house posts representing Coastal and Interior Salish cultures will be completed and displayed inside the centre overlooking Lorimer Road. But on this frigid mid-January afternoon, master carver Xwalacktun's (a.k.a. Rick Harry) yellow cedar log is still split in half, waiting to be hollowed out, de-barked and crafted into a house post depicting a thunderbird, rope and salmon.
"I don't have anything in my head until I arrive and let it work out and unfold here," Harry says. "Sometimes I believe it comes through me too, through the ancestors. Sometimes it blows my mind like, 'Wow, did I just design that?' I just let my hands do the work."
Harry, along with Jonathan Joe, Aaron Nelson-Moody and Ray Natraoro, have carved an array of objects over long and accomplished careers as artists. They were selected recently by the SLCC to create pieces for the centre's great hall as part of its cultural journeys projects. The artists are crafting the projects on site to give visitors and passersby a chance to chat and observe them at work. They will also be joined by apprentices from the Aboriginal Youth Ambassadors program. "It's up to them what's in their heart and in their mind on (creating) the pieces in relation to the types of traditional area, spread out through a wide margin of our traditional territories in the Squamish and Lil'wat nation," says Josh Anderson, guest services coordinator at the cultural centre.
Harry, who lives in North Vancouver, was born and raised in Squamish where he became interested in art at a young age. Drawing "cowboys and Indians, cartoon-type things" with his friends from age five, he eventually moved on to sketching hot rods and monster trucks in high school. When he was around 12, he took a two-day course on carving.
"Once it was over I carved for a bit, but I struggled because my tools weren't sharp, but I didn't know that," he says with a smile. "So I tried to carve, but it was frustrating. I quit and started up again two years later. By the time I was 18 I learned how to sharpen a tool and my work started to take off."
After graduating from Howe Sound Secondary, Harry tried to avoid a career as an artist, (fearing the “starving artist” cliché) hitchhiking around and looking for work, but with some encouragement from his family he relented and enrolled in classes at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, then called the Vancouver School of Art. (Both his sons are following in his footsteps, with the younger one in his first year at Emily Carr and the older in fourth year.)
While he started carving northern style characters — with tension in the cheeks and eyebrows of faces and lots of ovoid shapes — when he spotted a painting on a school with designs he didn't recognized, he was immediately drawn to it. It turned out to be Coast Salish style. "I really started pushing (Coast Salish art) here in Squamish," he says. "I just kept doing what I felt I wanted to do and let people talk what they wanted to talk. Eventually, over time, people started picking it up and learning about it. Some of the guys started following what I was doing."
Since then, Harry has travelled the world sharing his art and creating pieces that have appeared everywhere from the 2012 Olympic Games to the Peak 2 Peak welcome figure and the door of the Canada house at the 2008 Olympics. He has also passed his skills and knowledge down to other artists, including Ray Natraoro, who is carving alongside him at the cultural centre.
A talented carver in his own right, Natraoro is creating a house post for the project that depicts a "T" on the front representing a blanket, along with images of seals. It's inspired by a classic Coast Salish piece on display in the centre by the artist Alex Julian. "We're closely connected to salt water traditions," Natraoro says. "We have a lot of stories based on seals. A lot of canoe builders and medicine men were connected to the water.
My interpretation is this man is wearing his wealth, his power, his gift, his treasure."
Work by Natraoro, from the Squamish nation, can be seen at the cultural centre's entrance where his welcome figure stands, along with his canoe in the great hall and a bridge art piece at the Whistler Sliding Centre. Though he has over a decade and a half of experience behind him, he adds it was helpful to have had "a good teacher" in Harry. Now, he's passing along his skills to an apprentice helping him with the house post.
"I learned how to carve paddles and posts. My other teacher taught me how to carve bowls and stuff like that," he says. "I'm a seventh generation carver. I guess it's in my blood."