Hands that Carve the Tongass: Tommy Joseph

Similar to how one would peel an orange, Tommy Joseph uses his hands to "peel" logs. The wood shavings surrounding his cottonwood trunk table are a testament to this, as are the masks, hats, and hand-made tools present in the artist's 9-week-old gallery, Raindance. Tommy's ability to transform wood into art has brought him to many distant places yet threaded throughout his work is the Tongass National Forest, a constant source of raw materials and local inspiration. Yellow cedar, red cedar, and alder are his muses and according to Tommy, "each wood has its own personality, aroma, and attitude." Personalities that can determine how Tommy uses the wood, such as alder—a soft, no-grain wood that does not irritate, and is an odorless, tasteless, material well matched for masks, bowls, spoons, and salmon-smoking.

The artist also turns to his immediate surroundings —such as a neighbor's yard or the coastline —to gather the wood and other materials he eventually transforms into images of land, culture, and community. After 21 years of working as instructor, interpreter, demonstrator and commissioned artist at the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, Tommy now uses one of the bright blue houses on Monastery street as his gallery and work space, which people can walk through and admire his work.Raindance symbolizes Tommy's dream of having his own gallery to support himself and other artists. "Nobody can fill up a shop by themselves. That's how I started out. Its good to give other people opportunities."

Through his work, Tommy has been able to carve out different ways of seeing the Tongass National Forest. He brings out from the wood shapes of ravens, salmon, armor, and hats---teaching us about Sitka's rootedTlingit history while also allowing it to grow.


Alder served as the mould for Tommy's large bronze piece titled "Lovebirds," which features a raven and an eagle sharing a clam between their beaks. Visitors often think the two birds are fighting over the mollusk, so Tommy takes the time to act on his commitments to education and artistic transparency by explaining the true meaning of the sculpture.

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