Spirit Wrestler Gallery (Vancouver, Canada)

Auliqtuq • It’s Melting


It started with the tree.

I was turning a piece of live-dyed aspen, a tree that we had dyed blue in the spring of 2004, and left to stand through the winter. The blank was shallow, the wood dry, the colors subtle. As I hollowed out the inside, a blue rectangle appeared. I’d never seen this dye pattern show in a bowl . “I’d better stop,” I thought, and decided to re-turn the outside of the bowl to match the inside, rather than losing the picture by turning through it.

The thin blue line which scribed the edge of the rectangle reminded me of an ice cube. As I sanded, the sides of the ice cube started to “melt.” The knot, an eye which floated directly above the ice cube, watched.

What story was forming? I thought of Atarnajuat, the Inuit man who, driven from his home by power and greed, had to run barefoot across melting ice to save himself, and ultimately, his people. Atarnajuat, the “Fast Runner.”

The aspen tree had given me a gift: I could now speak of the melting ice cap in the arctic, of the warming green house gasses that surround our earth, of the spirits of all people who are worried about our planet.

The aspen bowl was a start. It had to be cradled in the atmosphere, so I turned a big birch bowl, riddled with pith patterns and bark inclusions on the outside, smooth inside. In the middle of the bowl, I turned a pedestal to which I would eventually glue the aspen bowl. And then I gessoed the whole inside, and the rim, black.

How to create the greenhouse gasses? With my power carver and a spherical cutter, I created circles upon circles, small ones, large ones, some spaced wide apart, some close together. The carver bit through the gesso to the wood beneath, leaving light coloured dots. It took a long, long time to go all the way around inside of the bowl… When I was finished, it seemed that the “gasses” should be coloured, so I gathered red and blue and yellow india ink, and with a Q-tip, rubbed colors into the dots. Some overlapped and made green, some made the surface of the gesso shine like an oil slick. Many of the circles would eventually be hidden by the “ice cube” bowl, but they were there…

Outer Space. The spirits of the people. The Rim.

Years ago, while teaching in Alaska, I spent time with Boyd Didrickson, a Tlingit ivory carver. I told him how I loved the Inuit faces that are used to make small sculptures by the carvers in the north, and he said, “why don’t you make some?” He sat me down with a foredom and some fossil ivory rounds. “Go ahead” he said, and left me on my own. Feeling a bit intimidated, but knowing I had to produce something, I started carving eyebrows and noses and mouths. It was fascinating, watching the little faces pop out of the ivory, seeing their expressions, seeing them laugh, cry, tease…

I knew the faces would ride on the rim of the world, ride in space where minerals and gasses dominate. I had turned a rim wide enough for the faces to sit comfortably, but something had to be done about the smooth black gesso. With my woodburner and a curved brand, I started burning little patterns in the gesso. It took much longer to burn patterns all the way around the rim than it did to do green house gasses. And when I was finished, I took a brand of another shape, and went around again. And then, another brand, yet again. Shapes piled upon shapes, creating a surface of random pittings. To clean the surface, I scrubbed it vigorously with a brass brush. The brush not only cleaned, it shined, and in places left brass residue which shone with a strange golden glint. When I was finished, I carved shallow shapes to match each face and glued them in place. Choosing hematite, or “Alaskan black diamond,” I placed stones between the faces, a tribute to the realm from which everything comes.

There is a poem on the bottom of the bowl, a haiku entitled “Auliqtuq” which, in Inuktitut, means “it’s melting.”

“Gasses blanket the earth
The ice cap melts
Will the Fast Runner survive?”

Cheryl Samuel

Cheryl Samuel

Adopted Tlingit

(1944- )

Cheryl was born in Hawaii in 1944. She initially pursued a career in science, with an interest in fibre art and weaving. After marriage, children and a move to Seattle, she was attempting to solve a particular weaving problem when she attended a lecture given by Bill Holm at the Burke Museum in Seattle. There she saw the answer to her problem in a Northwest Coast Chilkat robe. She has been largely responsible for the revitalization of Ravenstail and Chilkat weaving by mastering lost techniques, teaching extensively, recreating and expanding the language of weaving, travelling internationally to study and document all historical robes (including fragments).