Traditional Alaskan woodcarver makes masks, rattles

By Robin Dudley of the Leader
Posted 5/10/16

Eric Hamar, 24, raised his first totem pole three years ago; he has made two, both 14 feet tall, both in his hometown of Kasaan, Alaska, "in front of the clinic," he said.

Hamar is currently …

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Traditional Alaskan woodcarver makes masks, rattles


Eric Hamar, 24, raised his first totem pole three years ago; he has made two, both 14 feet tall, both in his hometown of Kasaan, Alaska, "in front of the clinic," he said.

Hamar is currently enrolled in the large-craft program at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding in Port Hadlock. After boat school, he plans to return to Kasaan "and build a couple boats there. Me and my dad have been kind of trying to figure out how to make the dugout-style canoe out of planks."

The two have already carved "one and half" dugout canoes; it took about 400 hours to make an 11-foot canoe. "To get one of any size, it takes a real nice tree," which is why they'd like to be able to "take that shape and make it out of planks."

Hamar also carves masks, rattles, boxes, combs and more, in between attending boat school full-time and also remodeling his small house's kitchen in exchange for a break on rent.

His carving tools – knives and chisels – are made by a Swiss company called Pfeil. He also uses an X-Acto knife a lot. "It's razor sharp, you can get really tight curves, and a pack of blades is $2."

In March, he was working on carving a rattle, grasping the handle and shaping the head, about the size of a coconut. The rattle's design combines a human head with an octopus. It has a prominent beaked nose on the front, and tentacles that wrap around and become hands. Once the design is done, he will split the whole thing open with a hatchet, carve out the inside, and fill it with rattle material. He has used pennies, little pieces of teeth, and once, a bunch of urchin spines his grandmother sent him. People often use copper BBs, which are "nice and loud, and they're cheap," but they "don't really have the sound that I like," he said. "In the old days, they'd use gizzard stones."

Hamar welcomes commissions. He would like to sell more art, but has a hard time doing it. "I'm a notoriously bad networker," he said. And he wants people to use what he makes, not just set it on a shelf or hang it on the wall. "The rattles I've made before have been used mainly for dancing," he said. A mask he carved of a bearded man's face has eye holes and a piece that can be gripped with the teeth by the wearer.

"I like doing faces," he said. "It's fun to try to get slight emotion, not super exaggerated." If that mask had a title, he said, it would be "Any Male Forest Service Employee." His boat school compatriots also suggested "Any Male at Boatbuilding School," because of the beard and lack of hair, he said.

"I don't stress on symmetry," he said. "Stan [Marsden] told me once that the human face isn't symmetrical, so it would look kind of silly" if a mask was.

He also likes carving "abstract ideas, like the octopus man," he said.

"I like doing masks, rattles and spoons. I really like doing it all."

He's done carving on gun stocks, and made boxes and "a lot of dance regalia," including saakiids, which are frontispieces worn on the forehead as part of a ceremonial headdress, which also has an ermine cape in back and sea lion whiskers on its top.

Hamar has made a lot of fish clubs, too. "Everybody back home goes fishing, so it's a good gift."

And he's made the handles for his adzes, mostly out of tree branches that already have a right angle. The adze blades, made by Gregg Bloomberg and Charlie Prince of Kestrel Tool on Lopez Island, are held on with hose clamps. "It's another Stan trick," Hamar said of a carving mentor, Stan Marsden, who used hose clamps rather than fancy whippings, "because when he wanted to sharpen it, he could take it off."

Hamar learned under Marsden, a Tsimshian carver, when he was in high school in Kasaan, Alaska, and Marsden led a community project – carving a 38-foot, red cedar totem pole, also known as a unity pole. Hamar said his dad was more involved than he was in the year-long project, although Hamar still remembers lessons learned from Marsden.

"I don't think there's a carver on Prince of Wales Island that wasn't taught by [Marsden]," Hamar said.

After high school, Hamar enrolled in the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, which has "a really well developed Native arts program," he said. Some think Native arts should only be taught within the culture, he said.

"It was really cool when I was there," Hamar added, recalling professor Da-ka-xeen Mehner. "You could come into the studio anytime. He was really good at trying to get people to think different ways." Hamar took a three-hour studio class twice a week from Mehner; by the end of his time at UAF, "I was just enrolled in that class. I'd kind of given up on the B.A." He basically spent his last three months of college in that shop, reasoning that the $500 class fee was a bargain, since it gave him access to hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of tools.

While in college, he got a research grant from the Smithsonian Institution, which took him to Washington, D.C., to spend a week looking at the collection of Native art. He noticed that "if you look at modern Northwest art, the stuff that's touted as being the best is very symmetrical, and very clean. But the stuff in the Smithsonian wasn't," he said. "It had a purpose beyond just looking pretty," which made it actually prettier, he said. "A good portion of the beauty of the art comes from its purpose."

He also took part in another project back in Kasaan, helping restore "the last traditional longhouse in the country, in my village." The village received a grant to restore the longhouse. All the lumber of the building was shaped with a hand adze. Hamar helped carve a head for the middle pole of the longhouse.

Hamar can be reached at 907-401-3742.