The poet, the painter, the sculptor, the musician… seek each to concentrate the radiance of the world on one point, and in each his several work to satisfy the love of beauty which stimulates him to create. Thus does nature work through the will of the man filled with the beauty of her first works. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
On the windswept plains near Mankota, Saskatchewan, a young boy rides a pinto pony, following his mother as she checks the cattle on the vast ranch she and her family have worked for generations. The boy, not much older than a toddler, sensed the land was alive. Something about this land, its great silence, left its mark on the boy. “I rode that pony over top of tipi rings”, Jacob Moondog, carver and artist, recalls. The ranch lay near the border of Montana, in the territorial area of the Plains Indians, and later the Metis, whose nomadic lifestyle were dependent on the movement of the Buffalo. Grassy plains and rocky outcrops stretch far and wide, and the young boy lived and worked the land like his family before.
The impression of the wide open spaces was matched by a rich family life, where values of hard work, compassion and service were pillars for the young Jacob to lean on. It was his mother who directed the boy to work with his hands. “If you’re bored, go make something” was the motto, so the young boy started whittling with a jackknife. At first he only managed toothpicks, whittling the wood down to nothing. Soon, however, he mastered the knife, and the drive to carve and create took hold.
Now the artist makes his home near Horsefly, BC, and lives a life centred in his connection to nature. Besides carving and creating, Jacob, his partner and their two sons, farm garlic during the warm months. When the cool winds blow, he returns to his rustic workshop and sets to work on his art. Both vocations feed the soul and embody this artist’s concern for health and the spirit. His mother also instilled in him a passion for making things of beauty: “Keep making beautiful things for beautiful people,” she told her son. To witness Jacob speak to the moment when his art finds its owner is to discover the nature of gratitude and wonder. He describes the joy he receives when for just a small moment, the art touches the heart of the viewer and they find themselves far away from their worries. Jacob says he aims to “help people find a beautiful place, a glimpse of spirit that will lead them to find it in themselves.”
In the workshop, there is a simple light box set up for the intricate carving work: two holes for the arms appear on the front, a glass top from which to view the work and a vent to carry the dust outside. A variety of materials are found around the room, antlers, wood and leather predominately, at an arm’s reach from the desk where a few works-in-progress await the carver’s next inspiration. Two beautiful antler carvings, an eagle and a dragon, lay almost lifelike here, full of energy and spirit. Two leather medicine pouches are displayed, waiting to be filled with treasures. Along the walls, several wooden pieces, including a traditional mask in the Coast Salish style, reveal the diversity of Jacob’s ability and style. “It’s three-dimensional art that really calls to me,” he says. “I really like a challenge.”
The majority of Jacob’s pieces are animals. He has a passion for the eagle and the spirit of the buffalo. Last winter, he was drawn to the human form, for a challenge, and carved a series of feminine forms that hark back to ancient goddess carvings. “I went to the school of nature,” Jacob says, and it is this passion for detail and natural form that permeates his creations. His natural style and ability showed similarities to the Coast Salish style of carving, where simplicity in form and detail produce smooth and calm lines. Then, for three winters, from 2001 to 2003, Jacob sat with renowned Cowichan carver, Simon Charlie, and was given the elder’s permission to carve in this style. Simon Charlie shared his cultural heritage with native and non-native artists alike, and Jacob feels blessed to have developed a relationship with the master carver. Although he is not himself a Coast Salish First Nations artist, he cannot explain this kinship in style as something that was on-purpose. Rather, it was innately born in him.
In these times where cultural appropriation is a hotly debated topic, Jacob calmly creates the art that he is called to do. Throughout his adult life, he has pursued the path of ceremony and teachings with First Nations elders, and has a strong belief that these teachings are shared willingly to those who are grateful to learn and respect the traditions. So it is with his art. An elder once advised him: "Tell them you are an Eagle Carver." It may raise questions for people who are not aware of his path. “When you box something in,” says Jacob, “it can only grow so big.” For this artist, certain ideals and truths are universal, and deserve to be seen without restrictions.
Back in the workshop, Jacob shares with me a few other projects he’s got on the go. He is an avid drum maker, with several styles of drum that differ in their form. There is the hand drum style. Of the stand-up style, one is formed like a barrel, with 16 or more separate pieces laminated together to create the cylinder shape, while the djembe is burned out and carved directly from a log. Jacob also tans hides, and describes the very sacred process of bringing the spirit of the deer back to life “so it can dance again”. At the very point where the deer’s skin is about to dissolve, the hide is retrieved and resurrected to become the powerful sounding energy of the instrument.
Jacob also has a passion for carving hummingbirds, simply because they bring so much joy to people. He has a small box full of them, some complete, some in progress, much like many of the projects he has on the go. The carvings, the drums, they each have their moment, then the artist turns to something else, when it is time for a change. A new idea may strike, when Jacob seeks out a fresh antler, for example, that resembles the creature he is called to create. Other times, it is the material itself that lends the idea, holding within it a shape that is meant to come forth. In either case, the time it takes for a carving to be complete varies, and definitely occurs in stages. “I have to be in the right space,” Jacob notes, “and my body tells me when it is time to work.” The drive to create is ever-present for him, so it is a process of balancing the duties of life with the time in the workshop.
It is easy to feel the reverence for nature, for right-relations and a love of beauty when in the presence of Jacob Moondog’s artwork. The stillness and silence of the plains lives in it, while a deep emotion and depth can be felt in the intricate details of each carved mark. The spirit of each creature is honoured and honed just so, in order that the viewer, you and I, may be uplifted and held within a spell, if only for a moment…