For many, art is defined as a pretty landscape painting interpreted by a single artist using store-bought materials. The final product is sold to an admirer, tossed up on a wall and enjoyed for a generation before ending up discarded at the Salvation Army.
Sgwaayaans (TJ) Young is not in that business. As a Haida carver who works predominately on community-based projects, his artwork is dynamic and consuming. His process pulls together a collective vision, a tested history and a proud future. He uses materials borrowed from the landscape and shapes them with tools hand-made from trees. Though sometimes, he proudly uses chainsaws (more on that later). His work encourages collaboration between teams of artists and depends on the support and love of a community at every step in the process. The final pieces live and breathe and eventually, like the best of us, they return to the earth and rot.
I first met Young in his hometown of Hydaburg. In the summer of 2015, he returned home for the annual Culture Camp, where he was quickly locked up in the carving shed and put to work helping to complete two totem poles to be risen later that week. Light crept out through the boards of the shed until the wee hours of the morning.
The night before the raising, I joined community members and visiting dance groups in the shed. To the beating of drums, singing, dancing and laughter, friends took turns helping the carvers layer on paint and varnish late into the night. Everyone crossed their fingers that the paint would dry before men, women and children hoisted the eagle and raven pole to attention the following afternoon. The energy not only left my head, heart and body pounding to a powerful beat, the experience redefined the role of art and culture for me.
Needless to say, I was excited to hear that Young was joining a talented crew of artists on a local canoe project in the Sitka Historic Park. For more on that project, please check out the CCW’s story here: http://bit.ly/1YOVjFX.
After months of sheepishly admiring their handiwork, I built up the courage to finally ask Young on a pizza date to discuss in more depth his art, process and aspirations.
BG: How did you find yourself in this career?
TY: We grew up carving a little bit but it wasn’t in school past grade seven so it just kind of tapered off for most people. What happened with us was that our mother got my brother (Joe Young) a tool roll with some carving tools and I think I got jealous and she ended up getting me one, too. It was pretty expensive back then but we were both excited about our tool roll. We were always fascinated by my grandpa Claude Morrison, too. He used to make halibut hooks, functional ones that people would actually use.
Then, a group of us made a model-sized long house about 3 feet by about 2.5 feet. We used a little diagram sketch in one of the old books and got $600 for the longhouse. That was a lot of money to us as kids back then as sophomores in high school. Our superintendent bought it and that was one of those ‘Aha’ moments: We could get paid to do this and make a living doing art.
BG: How has the scope of your work changed since that first model longhouse?
TY: So, my grandma, Gladys Morrison, died in ’97 and the following year my brother Joe and I decided to carve a little totem pole for her. It’s right in front of her house still and I remember thinking how big of a project it was despite it being only 7-feet tall. We had our tool rolls and two little adzes and we were fishing in the meantime and it just seemed like we were never going to finish it. It was a gift, it had my grandma’s crest on it, a beaver with an eagle on the tail and a watchman on top to represent my grandfather looking out at the ocean.
So, we had a little totem raising and it was nice weather and it went up in just a second because it was so small, ha! It seems like a small project now but it was a big project to us and to a lot of people because what it meant was big. My grandpa was real proud of it. His generation was more apt to let that way of life go, to move on, so it brought a twinkle to his eye to watch us carve.
We were getting little jobs here and there, commissioned poles on Prince of Wales and the poles were getting bigger and bigger and we were getting more comfortable as we went. It wasn’t until 2006 that my brother and I actually got our first big job, a 40-foot pole here in Sitka. I remember coming in on the ferry and we were getting docked up and we looked at each other, my brother and I, and we were like: What are we doing? We’ve never even done (something) like this before! We were anxious.
In the meantime, we have done some poles for galleries in Anchorage, a couple commissions down in Texas and Washington, more on Prince of Wales and I am pretty excited about this canoe I am helping work on. I hope we jump on another one in the next few years so we can get real familiar with it.
BG: What do you like most about this work?
TJ: I couldn’t see myself doing anything else beside this. I’ve worked other labor jobs but this is a real privilege. I learn something new every day and it’s my way of keeping in touch with who we were as a people. You learn more about who you are by doing this kind of work. You get to step into your ancestors’ shoes and you are constantly studying these old pieces and reflecting on what they were going through at that time, through the art.
They were able to reflect their everyday lifestyle and values through their work and I want to get to a point where my art can more accurately reflect what I was going through instead of trying to cater for a market. I want to get to the point where I can reflect through my work how I see the world and how I interpret not only who we were but who we are (and) who I am now.
BG: How do you define a successful community project?
TY: I guess just involving as many people as you can. It doesn’t take 10 people to pick up a pole, it’s 100 people. The kid at the end who isn’t really pulling hard but he has his hand on the rope and in his mind he thinks he helped out, it’s all about that feeling, that sense of belonging.
And, it’s sometimes hard to get that feeling when you grow up in some of these communities where there are struggles. To feel like you belong, that’s why we need to get back into our language and our culture. All of a sudden you are one of a kind, you speak a language that a hundred people speak at the most in the world. It’s a commitment. You start getting into language and like one of my teachers Robert Davidson told me, you have to look back to look forward sometimes.
BG: What is the most frustrating reaction to your work?
TY: When we get called out during carving for using modern tools, like small chainsaws on the canoe project. Things changed pretty quickly for us with European contact and survival is always based on whether you can adapt or not. So we get our balls broken about using modern tools nowadays but we don’t get personal with it. They aren’t being personal, more ignorant than anything. One tourist the other day said that we were cheating our ancestors. Well, no, your ancestors probably cheated our ancestors, ha. But, we have a good humor and I think that’s one thing that’s gotten us through a lot of what has happened in the past. You can’t walk around mad, that’s not what life is about. Life is too short.
BG: What is the most rewarding reaction?
TY: When the whole village cheers when we put that pole up. There’s nothing like it. You can score a game winning basket in a tournament and it’s maybe a bit like that. Also, somebody dancing in one of your masks or pieces in a dance group is a pretty cool feeling.
And that is what they were meant for, what they were needed for, to be used and not hung up on a wall and not created for just money. That is why a lot of people put more love into this type of artwork because they know certain people will be using it and thousands of people might see it. So I think that seeing your work being used is the best feeling. And yes, it will be a good feeling when we get this canoe in the water and people jump in, so long as it doesn’t sink!
BG: Do you have any advice for aspiring carvers and artists?
TY: There’s this quote I like, “I’m aware that my time is near because I start to see my idols as peers.” I forgot who said it, but what it means is that if you are passionate enough about something then you are going to gravitate toward somebody who can help you get to be where you need to be. You might need to be a little bold, you might need to ask questions, but if you are passionate enough about what you do, find someone who can mentor and help you get to the next level and from there you will find something else. So be courageous, you can’t get what you don’t ask for.
Have balance. There is this story from Haida Gwaii where the Haida were disrespecting the hooligan and they went away and we had to get the hooligan from the mainland. They were overfished or something and they never came back and it was a tough lesson to learn at the time. The lesson was to have a strong sense of balance. And that’s important with everything. There’s a balance in life, with marriage, with kids and with art. The best artists have a good balance, and balanced proportions and they were sought after more. That’s why eagles marry ravens and vice versa and potlatches were about balance, about attaining wealth for five years or 10 years just to give it all away. It’s just a beautiful way of going through life and for creating good art.
And lastly, keep learning. I love what I do because it’s a learning process. No matter the project, I’m still learning. I’m 35 and I have a lot to learn. So stay open to learning, be courageous, be bold and ask questions. Have balance in life and in art.