Tommy Joseph says Tlingit carving is personal and a true art

Tommy Joseph is a Tlingit master carver in Sitka. He teaches and carves what he is commissioned to do and what he feels inspired to create.

His apprentice, Kristina Cranston, says of him: "I think (Tommy) could recall probably where each tree came for probably if not most, all of his jobs. This tree came from this, and the other half of it went to this job. And so it becomes personal. It's like when you go into a grocery store and you see all these fruits and vegetables, you're really just getting the final product. You don'tknow where it was planted and who grew it and how it was harvested and cared for and transported. Whereas with his trees he's usually part of most of the process and knows where it comes from…And I think when you have that experience it's not a commodity, it's really the entire process, this whole cycle. And the end result is this beautiful totem pole, and usually somebody really happy."

Continue reading to see some of Tommy's work and how it relates to the community!

Tommy Joseph, Tlingit master carver, has been teaching woodcarving for about 15 years to university students, teenagers at camps and to local citizens. The shed to the right of the shop is a heated, well-lit place for his students to come learn and practice.

Right inside the back door of the shop, a bowl rests on a tree stump. Tommy explained that he intends everything he makes to serve a purpose. This bowl will be sealed with oil so that it may hold any kind of food without staining the wood.

Tommy created this armor based on armor he has seen in different Alaskan museums. He wants his next museum trip to be to the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.

"Carving gives a frame for some of our cultural values to come forward," Kristina Cranston explained. Kristina is an apprentice in Tommy's shop and believes carving brings people together and provides a sense of community and commitment for students and local people. The orca tooth necklace Kristina wears was a Valentine's Day gift from Tommy.

"I'm in love with the human face and the human experience," Kristina said of her work in Tommy's shop. Despite a terrible injury early in her carving practices, she now has an apprenticeship where she is learning to make masks.

Tommy and other Tlingit carvers do not just make spoons they make art. He explained that the off-season (the winter) is a perfect time to add color and designs to his pieces.

Tourists from cruise ships often visit Tommy's shop during the week to see his work and learn about Tlingit carving of old growth cedars. The shop stays open seven days a week if cruise ships will be docked.

Tommy travels to other islands in the southeast to find the red cedar he will use for a totem pole project. Sometimes it takes as long as a year for the wood to arrive after he has selected the tree. This project rests outside of his shop.

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