As we enter the summer months and life returns to the city, we wanted to take the opportunity to lift the veil on some of the processes and techniques that are involved in bringing beautiful, carved works that we see in the gallery to life! Cedar, in all its forms – the wood, the roots, the bark – is an incredible, multifaceted resource that has sustained life and culture on the coast for generations. While many contemporary Northwest Coast artists have fully embraced modern materials, from aluminum to Forton to glass, the great Cedar tree continues to be a fundamental aspect of coastal life.
Let’s take a closer look…
“There was a real good man who was always helping others. Whenever they needed, he gave; when they wanted, he gave them food and clothing. When the Spirit saw this, he said, ‘That man has done his work; when he dies and where he is buried, a cedar tree will grow and be useful to the people – the roots for baskets, the bark for clothing, the wood for shelter.’”
A Coast Salish Cedar origin story told by Bertha Peters to Wally Henry,
published in Cedar, Hilary Stewart, 1984
Cedar: The Tree of Life
$8,500 CAD / $6,330 USD
The Cedar tree, synonymous with the Pacific Northwest, has been a foundation of cultural, social, economic and spiritual life for as long as humans have occupied the land. Often referred to as the Tree of Life, with its tall, straight trunk uninterrupted by branches for much of its height, cedar has provided materials for shelter, transportation, storage, clothing, tools, totems and regalia to the people of the Coast for millennia.
Cedar usage, past and present.
The significance of cedar in contemporary Northwest Coast arts and culture cannot be understated. Understanding the material, from its unique characteristics to processing tools and techniques – how a tree is transformed from the raw material into a beautifully carved work of art – is an integral part of the circle that brings artists, galleries and collectors together.
Tree to Treasure:
Processing Cedar for Art and Culture
Every project involving cedar – from totems to panels to boxes and masks – begins in the same place – the cedar tree. Depending on the project, we will sometimes need to help source cedar for artists as fine-grained cedar is becoming increasingly harder to find. We will often work with a mill and ask them to let us know when a high-quality log comes in. There’s a very limited, seasonal window for sourcing art-quality cedar, as older growth trees tend to grow higher up in the mountains where they can extend their roots deep into the nutrient-rich soil. However, this terrain is much more precarious and is only accessible during the summer months, after the snowmelt.
Robert Davidson carving a 22′ totem pole, to be completed summer 2020.
Historically, old-growth cedar trees would have been sourced for the monumental totems that lined the coast, as well as for the large dug-out canoes and wide planks for big houses. These large cedars, typically found away from the water’s edge, extend their branches towards the sky, producing tall, straight trunks with tight vertical grain and minimal knotting. Knots occur in the tree trunk from wherever a branch extends.
Raven and Frog Totem
Don Yeomans (Haida)
7’6″ H x 26″ W x 18″ D
$60,000 CAD / $45,300 USD
Tall, straight old-growth logs have unfortunately become increasingly difficult to source for totem poles and other large-scale projects. Today, if an artist is carving a totem pole that is 10ft tall, they will probably want to use the bottom portion of a 30-40’ log as it is more likely that the base of the tree is going to be knot-free. This means that on a 40’ log, an artist might only get enough knot-free surface to create a 10-12’ totem pole. They might decide that the unused wood could be broken into smaller blocks for masks and smaller projects.
Moisture content is an essential consideration when preparing a cedar log for carving a totem pole. To begin, an artist has to remove the centre core of the tree as a lot of the moisture is stored there. If the core is left in the wood, the log will split and it’s likely not going to re-close. If the core is taken out, generally the log will split as it’s drying and then seal up again once the log is completely dried and has stabilized.
There is also the risk, however, that the wood might dry out too quickly! To prevent this from happening, artists will often throw water onto the log each night to allow water to absorb into the pole to keep the drying process slow. Many artists have their own techniques. The end effect is for the log to slowly lose its moisture so that it dries relatively evenly.
Even after the totem is complete, cedar is susceptible to the moisture content of the climate. For example, if you’re looking at a totem pole that has been kept outside, there might be more cracks in the summer than there are in the winter. This is because as the wood gains moisture in the wet months, it swells up and as it dries up it starts to crack. Totems that have been kept inside will be less influenced by the outside environment.
The weathered look of a totem pole, though, can be quite appealing as it carries the charm of the old totems that stood along the coast. The family who owned the above pole by Terrence Campbell, for example, kept this piece outdoors during the summer months over the course of several years to obtain the faded, weathered look of the older poles. Once it the wood had aged enough, they brought it inside where the moisture content stabilized.
Not all totems follow this traditional format, though. Robert Davidson has created several unique totems throughout his career, two of which are currently in the gallery. Eagle Nai (2015) is a contemporary abstraction of a traditional pole. The piercing at the bottom is reminiscent of totems that stand in front of the big houses where a hole is carved at the bottom as a doorway into the building.
Southeast Wind, Killer Whale Pole
Robert Davidson (Haida)
Red Cedar, Acrylic
8’10” H x 32″ W
Ask for price
We’ve looked at the history and techniques of carving panels in previous newsletters, but it’s equally as important to note that the final product – an intricately carved panel – has passed through many hands and processes before being transformed into a unique work of art to be hung and admired. Much consideration is given to the quality, colour and characteristic of the cedar so that artists receive the highest quality surface onto which they translate their designs.
Kiln Drying Lumber
Air Drying Lumber
The transformation process begins when the log is milled into lumber. Reducing the moisture content of the lumber is a lengthy process that is done by either air drying the lumber, or by placing the material in a kiln which quickens the process. As it’s drying, the wood shrinks and the grain tightens. It’s essential to lower the moisture content of the wood below 10% to prevent the art from splitting, cracking or warping.
Milling wood for panels
The second phase to preparing a panel is lamination – assembling a series of planks using industrial-quality glues to create a larger carving surface. During this lamination process, it is important that the woodworker pay keen attention to the colouration of the wood as well as the direction of the woodgrain. High-quality panels will be as evenly-coloured as possible which provides the artist with a clear canvas to sculpt with their tools.
Don Yeomans (Haida) has been working on a new Bear and Eagle tile design that will be cast as a limited edition Forton panel series.
Yeomans has done other series of cast Forton tiles for the gallery in the past, all of them based on original cedar carvings.
These works can also be installed in succession to create larger-format panels, like the piece below.
They have also been used rather creatively in the past to create unique home installations, like this Bear Panel door.
The quality and direction of the woodgrain are essential considerations in laminating a panel that will be carved by an artist. If you look at wood planks that would be used for building a deck, for example, you will note that the grain is flat, rather than vertical. The striations of the tree rings are elongated and the distance between the rings is wider. The density of the wood differs between the grain line, where the material is harder, and the wood in-between the lines, where it is soft. This flat, soft woodgrain is not conducive to artistic carving as the material would flake away and not allow an artist to carve clean, sharp lines.
When panels are laminated for an artist, the grain aligns in a vertical direction with short, tight spacing between the lines of the grain. Old growth trees are especially sought after for this characteristic, as the older a tree gets, the tighter the grain becomes because the spacing between the tree rings becomes more condensed. Carving on tight-grained wood allows the artists to achieve incredibly fine details in their carvings.
Wider grain wood, however, does have its uses and we’ve been seeing a number of artists exploring sandblasting as a technique to create works like these two panels below.
Sometimes an artist will receive a panel with a darker plank or a wider grain mixed into the lamination, so it creates a little bit of a challenge for them to design around these features. Salish artist Jim Charlie has accomplished a very effective result in this work below, as one of the boards had a much wider grain than the others, making it more difficult to carve. He’s completely painted over this one plank on the left to compliment the carved design across the rest of the panel.
We are often asked about the difference between red cedar and yellow cedar. Besides the obvious colour difference, the two materials do have distinctive features. Generally speaking, yellow cedar trees do not grow as large as red cedar. Characteristically, yellow cedar has a higher tendency to split and is more prone to cracking as the wood dries. The tightness of the grain of yellow cedar is also finer than that of red cedar, meaning an artist carving in yellow cedar is able to achieve small, crisp details. We come across yellow cedar works less often than red, so it is always a treat when we receive a beautiful work in yellow cedar.
Carving from Solid Cedar
As an alternate to carving a laminated panel, an artist may choose to work from a solid block of cedar. It’s a much bigger gamble for an artist to carve from a large piece of wood like this as there is a higher likelihood that the wood will split during the drying process as the artist is carving. Once the work is finished, the wood is stable but it does make it more challenging for the artist to carve a large piece from a single block of wood. For example, Doug Zilkie created this beautiful, dimensional Beaver Panel from a large, single block of yellow cedar.
This unique work, Half of U Two, by Ben Davidson (Haida) was also carved from one large block of old-growth red cedar.
The photos below are of a work that Klatle-Bhi completed for the gallery a few months ago. These photos illustrate the process an artist might take to create these multi-dimensional works from one block of cedar.
While this work was recently purchased by a collector, Klatle-Bhi carved another intricate piece using the same technique.
Red Cedar, Acrylic
21¾” H x 11¾” W x 6″ D
$10,000 CAD / $7,450 USD
These are just a few examples of the ways that cedar has been, and continues to be used in Northwest Coast arts and cultures. We could dedicate an entire newsletter to the intricacies of processing cedar bark for baskets and dressings on masks; we could also look at the other trees that are used to create beautiful works of art, such as alder. These are fascinating topics that deserve their own newsletters, and perhaps we will visit them in the future!