Interview with Artist Tommy Joseph
How long have you been carving?
I created my first piece when I was in third grade, in 1972. I was attending a new school in Ketchikan where they did things differently, like teach kids how to skin a deer. I was one of a group of students who were in a woodcarving class. They had a carver come in and teach us how to make a halibut hook out of yellow cedar.
When did you start carving on your own?
After school, I would carve at home using a serrated steak knife. My mom was always telling me to quit playing with knives and to put them away. That imperative never “took;” I’m still playing with knives today.
What interested you in Tlingit armor?
I had seen photographs of armor in books. I began doing research for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of 1804 that took place in Sitka. I was working at the Sitka National Historical Park’s Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center (I worked there for 21 years), near where the battle took place. I received a Smithsonian Visual Artist Grant that enabled me to travel to Washington, D.C. and Maryland, and I was also awarded a USA Artist Fellows Award that sent me to parts of Europe – England, France, and Russia – I think of it as “my world tour.” I studied Northwest Coast art and armor in 20 different museums and collections – through some prescheduled appointments and some walk-ins.
Is there a lot of old armor?
Mostly in museums around the world, only a little in the United States. There is some in the Burke Museum, the Alaska State Museum, the British Museum, and in St. Petersburg, Russia, Berlin… Madrid has some but I haven’t been there yet. I saw some pieces that I wasn’t expecting to see, and took thousands of photographs of objects.
All of the pieces were impressive. One in the Burke museum had retained half of the carving. I was able to imagine what it looked like as a whole, and was blown away.
Tlingit pipes are my second area of interest; two stood out for me: one in the Burke Museum and one in the British museum (wolf pipe).
How did you get started with making helmets?
I started by making one for myself, then I was commissioned to make another, and by then, couldn’t stop. I’ve made close to 30 helmets, many stand-alone pieces, and one yew wood helmet and a collar that goes with it.
When you start a piece, what leads you into it? Overall form, painting?
I start each piece the same way. I have an image in my mind of what it is going to look like and I sketch it out. Most of my pieces are made from alder wood because it is available locally, I like working with it, and I know what it will do.
I cut the wood into rounds with a chain saw – initially it looks like a giant cheese wheel – and from there all the work is carved by hand. I split the round in half, determine where to carve the head cavity using the center line, and then hollow it out. Next, I start chopping out the outer form.
I’ve been making masks since I was a teenager. Making helmets is like making a mask, in that there is a mask on a helmet, but it’s more difficult to make the helmet as there such a big block of wood to work with.
I use one primary tool: an adze – the elbow adze is my favorite. I’ve carved all my helmets and totem poles with this adze; it travels with me. I also travel with a basic tool set of straight knives and bent knives in a small roll-up case.
I often work on two projects at once so I can continue carving while one project “rests” in a plastic bag to slow down the rate at which it is drying out. Time in the bag allows the moisture in the middle of the piece to exude to the dryer outer surfaces and keep the outer surface from cracking. Twenty or thirty minutes in the bag stabilizes the piece and I can then carve on it for a few more hours.
It was never my intent for this exhibit to display complete suits of armor. When preparing for battle, clan-owned helmets and armor pieces were worn by specific warriors for that occasion. Not everyone got a full set. Not everyone wanted to wear all the pieces.
What is your favorite part to all this?
The people I get to meet and places I get to go and share what I do. Working at the Culture Center at Totem Park, I meet people who come in with ideas of what totem poles are and what Tlingit art is about, and I get to share my work with them and tell them what I do.
My new gallery, Raindance Gallery in Sitka, allows me to continue to share. I include work by local artists, painters, and weavers. I also teach carving at my studio and at the university.
What are the physical demands of carving?
The physical demands of carving never bother me. When I was fishing in the Bering Sea, I had issues with carpal tunnel syndrome. When I’m working on a totem pole, I can work 8 to 10 hours straight, adzing to the point where I have to pry my fingers off the tool. But I change my position and the position of my tool frequently, so I don’t have problems with my elbows or shoulders.
What is next for you?
I have plans for another show. I have visual images of pipes that I’d like to carve. I also plan to carve some more daggers, and continue to teach helmet carving classes. I’m excited to get started.