PORT TOWNSEND — Growing up in Juneau, Alaska, Mitch Brooks was familiar with native art.
His eye was attuned to the protruding brow, the ovoid orb, the rounded cheekbone of figures on totem poles.
He knew the animals associated with his clan, the Raven and Coho of the Tlingit tribe.
But whenever he saw native artwork, he always thought, “I would never be able to carve anything like that.”
“I wasn’t artistic,” he said. “No family members were carvers.”
But after moving to Bremerton to take an environmental science job, Brooks, 30, missed home and family.
Needing to keep busy at night, he started teaching himself to carve, producing bowls, trays and other household objects in his basement.
Last weekend, he took his hobby to a new level. Brooks was one of 10 students at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking’s first workshop on the art of West Coast mask-making.
Taught by Steve Brown, a Sequim resident, it focused on the stylized mask of the NuuChah (Nootka) tradition shared by the Makah and West Vancouver Island language group, a tradition that is less well-known than Haida or Tlingkit.
“There is elaboration and detailing, a huge variety dealing with the basic sculptural approach, making it difficult in terms of really mastering the tradition,” Brown said.
Brown is familiar with the variety of masks of the Northwest coast, having worked for decades with tribes and native carvers from Neah Bay to Alaska. In 1980, he helped the Tlingit nation restore and replace totem poles.
His career as a carver started in 1970, when he was a student at the University of Washington and got a job at the Burke Museum.
“I was hired to make reproductions of museum pieces that were circulated to schools statewide,” Brown said.
Brown was assistant curator for native American art at the Seattle Art Museum before moving to Sequim.
Last year, Brown called Tim Lawson, executive director of the woodworking school, and offered to teach.
At his first class last fall, Brown guided people through the process of making their own adzes and traditional carving tools out of found materials.
Added native arts
Lawson said that as a result of Brown’s classes, the school decided to add Native American arts as one of its three focus areas, along with traditional woodworking with hand tools and historic preservation and restoration.
“I see us as a platform for native arts and crafts,” Lawson said, “and having Steve as the first on the platform is a huge advantage.”
For last weekend’s class, Brown first gave the students — three women and seven men — a survey of NuuChah mask-making styles, starting with the realistic-looking masks collected by British explorer Capt. James Cook in the late 1700s.
Brown illustrated his talk with photographs, showing how masks used for ceremonial dancing became more stylized after European contact.
“The characteristics changed over time,” Brown said. “The way the carver interpreted the human face evolved.”
Carving a well around the mouth from which the lips protrude or making the brow more rounded and pronounced were among those choices the carver made, Brown said.
He also showed pictures of masks produced by carvers who led the renaissance in native carving in the last half of the 20th century.
Brown said that Bill Reid, a Haida sculptor, once gave him the best piece of advice on starting a piece: Imagine the finished mask, Reid said, then picture a nylon stocking stretched over it, obscuring the details but giving you the broad shapes.
“You are looking for what’s down in there,” Brown said, referring to the wood. “You are deciding the personality of the mask.”
Brown had each of the class members choose a V-shaped piece of alder from a tree cut on the property of one of the students, Mike Cable, a Port Ludlow resident who has a veterinary practice on Big Valley Road in Poulsbo.
Soon, the room was filled with the “gnock gnock” of adze on the soft green wood as the carvers set to work.
‘The scary part’
“This is the scary part,” said Chris Artman, an accountant from Tacoma, as she sat down to work.
Brown had earlier explained how to start by determining where the high points — the brow, the bridge of the nose, the cheeks — are going to be, then using the adze to chip away around them.
Finding the spontaneous expression in the wood is the goal, Brown said.
He also demonstrated tools to measure depth and distance from the center line but said that symmetry was overrated.
“One thing I notice about the old work is that it is almost never perfectly symmetrical,” Brown said.
“Finding the expression, what the mask is saying, is the primary thing.”
In the fall, Brown will again offer the carving tool-making class again, and classes on carving ladles and bowls and making bent-wood boxes are scheduled, Lawson said.
“My goal is to have Steve’s classes be the foundation core of a native crafts program and find other craftspeople who can come and teach,” Lawson said.
Class in the fall
As he started working on his mask, Brooks said there are some Tlingit carvers, like Israel Shawbridge, who live in Washington state, but he was lucky to find a course outside of Alaska.
And while the NuuChah-style mask, which was triangular in form, was used as the class example, Brown gave Brooks plenty of latitude in choosing his own design.
“It’s a slightly more humanized face,” Brooks said of the smaller, more rounded Tlingit mask that was taking shape under his hands Sunday, the second day of the class.
And, as Brooks said, the idea of the NuuChah traditions and those of his ancestors intermingling is nothing new.
“They would travel down to trade,” Brooks said of his Tlingit ancestors, adding “to trade and fight.”
A video by Steve Brown showing the stages of carving a NuuChah mask from a block of wood is on the Port Townsend School of Woodworking and Preservation Trades website, www.ptwoodschool.com.
Summer day camp and weekend workshops for youth include one on making a modern mode of transportation, the long board. For information on taking or teaching a class at the school in Building 315 on the Fort Worden campus, phone Lawson at 360-344-4455.
Jennifer Jackson is a freelance writer and photographer living in Port Townsend. She writes a column in the Peninsula Daily News each Wednesday. To contact her, phone 360-379-5688 or email email@example.com.