Carver brings life to legends

"Supernatural codfish periodically jumps up and takes a bite of the moon.

  • Friday, March 21, 2014 7:33pm
  • Life

"Supernatural codfish periodically jumps up and takes a bite of the moon. So we have bites taken out of the moon. Sometimes he swallows it whole and we don’t see it at all. That is why we see the moon in different phases."

This is one of the stories that goes with Colin Cunningham’s woodcarvings.

Cunningham was born and raised in Canada where he was intrigued by the native art carvings. As a young man, he moved to California and took a woodcarving class. When he was trying to figure out what to carve, he remembered those carvings and set about recreating them.

Still, his occupation as an auto mechanic didn’t leave much time for the art form until he retired to Sequim four years ago.

Authentic designs

Before he would try carving, Cunningham researched to make his carvings look authentic. He found a book by Bill Holm especially helpful.

"My design forms are authentic. The cheeks, feet, feathers and eyes incorporate the native design forms of the ovoid, which is the main design used on everything, the "S" shape, the "U" shape and the continuous form line."

The basic ovoid is used for joints, such as elbows, knees, anywhere a flipper connects. The "U" shapes are used in most other places as filler and often can be split by another line. The "S" shapes often are bird legs. They can be made by putting two "U" shapes together. The form line is the continuous, often dark line, that holds the design together.

Cunningham also uses the four authentic colors: the base or wood color, black, red and blue-green. There can be many shades of blue-green. It often was added by inlaying abalone shell. The local abalone did not work as well as that from California, which the Indians would trade for.

Original ‘crittters’

The "critters" however, are Cunningham’s own. He doesn’t try to duplicate the art but is faithful to the basic design.

While the designs may look simple, they actually are very complex and follow a pattern.

"First you put the design together, then you disassemble the critter and reassemble it to fit the space you want to fill. The background becomes part of the design.

"Picasso came up and actually learned from the Northwest tribes and, I think, that’s where he got some of his abstract designs. Some very bright, simple colors, noses on the sides of faces. The Indians have been doing that for hundreds of years.

"The problem is to get the balance so you don’t have too much stuff on one end."

Potlatch presents

The art form that Cunningham follows has been around for centuries in Northern Canada with the Haida and Tlingit tribes and on the Queen Charlotte Islands. It uses the form line while other traditions do not. These are the most structured and strictest with the design forms. Most of the woodcarving the Indians did was for potlatch gifts. This form died out when European governments banned potlatches. Now that there is a resurgence of Indian pride and culture, the art form is coming back.

Cunningham has made several potlatch feast bowls that he lines with a polymer epoxy that self-levels and waterproofs the bottoms. The sides are a little difficult to do, so Cunningham does not recommend filling the bowls with liquids.

His woodcarvings are covered with urethane finish to protect them. He also uses oil paint, not the charcoal, salmon eggs, berries and minerals the Indians used before Europeans introduced oil paints. Cunningham’s carvings can be seen at The Blue Whole Gallery, 129 W. Washington St.

Carving came alive

"There was once a man who watched nature and the animals. He finally carved a large fish that was black on the top and white on the bottom. The others laughed at him because such an animal could not exist. In anger, the man threw the carving into the ocean where it hit a powerful sea god on the head.

This made the god quite angry so he decided to punish man by making the creature real and making him the best hunter in the sea so men would run from him. When the orca jumped from the sea for his first breath, the man who made the carving ran and was never seen again."

This story comes to life in the bronze Cunningham designed. "First Breath" is a sleek and smooth bronze orca jumping from the water. The bronze can be given many types of finishes to change the look.

"I do the art because I like the art form and I do it as well as I can. The sales validate my art and give me a chance to go on to the next one. I learn from each piece I do."

Reach Dana Casey at

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