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About The daily Astorian. (Astoria, Or.) 1961-current | View Entire Issue (Aug. 1, 2019)
THURSDAY, AUGUST 1, 2019 // 7
Sitka’s World-class carver
By DAVID CAMPICHE
FOR COAST WEEKEND
t is the hands and strong forearms that alert us to
the artist’s ways. Yes, they are muscular, but not
like a fisherman’s, or even an athlete’s.
These are woodcarver’s hands, and years of ded-
ication and toil have shaped and transformed cedar
bolts and 50-foot cedar trees into some of the most
distinguished and hand-
some art objects to be found
on the planet. By all artistic
standards, Tommy Joseph is
an artist of distinction.
Art is form. Art is design.
And composition and line
form. Art speaks to the heart
and soul and releases emo-
tions like spirits from a
magic box — in this case,
Pandora’s bentwood box,
exquisitely shaped and
carved by First Peoples,
and by Joseph himself. The
designs are ancient.
In museums around the
world, as far away as Paris,
St. Petersburg, Russia and
many other major cen-
ters in America, Tlingit and
Northwest coastal art holds
the respect of art critics
and the public alike. Cedar
boxes, masks, helmets,
weavings, intricate fishing
lures, cedar hats and robes,
canoes and totem poles —
all are crafted in exquisite
design that emotes a hidden
response one might define
as “the power of art.” All
this delivered, part and par-
cel, from First Nation Peo-
ples who have carved and
designed for thousands of
Joseph is often the
guest of honor, lecturer
Joseph at work.
and demonstrator in both
famous civic centers and
small native villages that punctuate the Northwest
coast. Art remains a measure of a human quest to
express oneself, to step beyond the common and
extract a story or message. To impact. Joseph has that
down cold. Even his small items like pipes (shaped
by the Tlingit people from the barrels of Russian
rifles as early as the 18th century), miniature canoes
and ceremonial eating bowls reflect back on tradi-
tional carving while spiking deep modern expression.
And his totems, rising majestically into a miasma of
ever-changing skies of the Pacific Northwest, cry out
for an emotional response.
Joseph lost his father when he was 6 years old. He
barely knew his grandfather, a respected elder among
the Tlingit people. In a third-grade workshop, Joseph
picked up a carving knife and whittled out a tradi-
tional native halibut hook. He was captivated, and
has never relinquished the joy of that first carving.
His mother began to complain. “Tommy, she
would say, I need my kitchen knives back,” Joseph
said. But no one could hold back
a welling in the belly that Joseph
felt when sharp steel peeled away
layers of soft cedar and freed the
captured forms inside.
Joseph is in a constant quest to
study the artwork of his ancestors.
He haunts museums, seeking them
out across America and Europe.
He is always a welcomed guest.
Those institutes include the Carn-
egie Museum of Natural History,
the American Museum of Natu-
ral History, and others in Paris and
Does all this go to his head?
One friend who knows him well
spoke candidly, “the man is hum-
ble but strong.” And so has been
my experience. The artist is proud,
both his pride and determination
etch his strong face, his steady
We discover his totems in
Southeast Alaska and beyond,
and obviously in Sheet’ka
(Sitka), where 14 stand, dominat-
ing the city like five-story build-
ings. The Tlingit outpost predates
the famous pyramids of Egypt,
shaped, stone by stone, with many
of the similar hand tools Joseph
utilizes today. Think about that.
10,000 years. Nomadic people
traveling before the great North
American glaciers and establish-
ing this refuge in this lovely archi-
pelago, and then, sticking to home
Pit his carvings against Rodin
or Bernini, against modern sculp-
tors like Louise Nevelson or Pablo Picasso, who,
incidentally, adored and borrowed ideas from indige-
Joseph’s art may not bring in $30 million a pop,
but his pieces lack nothing when singing their song;
when reaching out to touch us, body and soul.
Though, at times, modern in their adaptation,
Joseph’s art mirrors a besieged culture that retains the
proud heritage of a remarkable First Nations People.
And Joseph has never forgotten his own. CW
Photos by David Campiche
A totem carving by Tommy Joseph in Sitka, Alaska.