You get the feeling Lonnie Acord's mother must have kept on her toes during his busy childhood.
"When I was a little tiny kid I played with knives," Acord said, carving "toys and things."
He repaid his mother's patience by keeping all of his fingers, and as an adult, he has made a name for himself as a mask carver in the Tlingit tradition.
Colleen Kennedy, owner of Rainsong Gallery, usually does not sell Northwest Coast art. In Acord's case, however, she made an exception, citing his knowledge of Tlingit art standards and his whimsical take on traditional forms.
"We really like the way he depicts Tlingit art," said Kennedy. "People love his artwork."
Though Acord is not Native by birth, he was fascinated from an early age with Northwest Coast art and people. His childhood curiosity was encouraged by his mother, who painted in oils as a hobby.
She moved the family from Oregon to Ketchikan when Lonnie was about 6 months old.
"The only art that I ever remember seeing was Northwest Coast Indian art. My mom was fairly talented," Acord said. "I remember being in the Cub Scouts and I had a little soapbox derby car. ... She painted a raven and something else on it, and I thought, 'Man, that is really cool. I like that."'
He was driven by a basic question, which no one was able to answer to his satisfaction.
"I always wondered what the difference between Haidas, Tlingits and Tsimshians were ... so I started doing some studying," Acord said. "There was a lot to it!"
Acord continued his study of Northwest Coast art in high school, taking carving classes and trying to copy some of the classic examples of Native artwork he found in books. More than once, he told his mother he was sick so that he could skip school to carve.
He made his first sales while still a student at Juneau-Douglas High School, but confesses it was his first gallery sale in 1987 that made him feel like he had hit the big time.
He laughed as he remembered thinking, "If I could ever have something downtown, I've made it."
Looking back, Acord calls his first commercial efforts "pretty ugly pieces." But making those sales encouraged him to take classes in Native formline design at the University of Alaska Southeast, which dramatically improved his skills. He also began to meet established carvers and learn whatever they would teach him.
Acord, a maintenance worker for the Juneau School District, feels he is continuing the traditions of the Northern Tlingit artists he has studied for so long. He stopped copying the works of the masters in an effort to pursue his own vision of how traditional styles would have evolved.
"I don't know if I have it yet, but I'm working on it," Acord said.
Others agree that he is on to something.
"Before I even met him, I saw his work and I was very impressed with his style," said Archie Cavanaugh Jr., another Juneau carver. "Lonnie carves much like the Wrangell and the Klukwan style."
Acord believes his deep respect for Tlingit culture and art has led to his acceptance and credibility in artistic circles. He was adopted as a Coho of the Raven moiety with the Native name Na Geik. Although his adoption makes him a Tlingit, Acord, 47, does not market his masks as "Native-made," because he feels his pieces have their own appeal.
"I'm a white guy," he said, "but I'm respected by the people that adopted me and my friends that know me. I don't try to tell people that I'm an Indian."
Art is central to Acord's life, but there is a lot more to him than just his homemade carving tools.
His side of the spotless garage tells the story.
In one corner is his carving studio, with adzes, punches, and chisels of every description. Then there is the rebuilt engine painted bright yellow, clean enough to eat off. And he has pictures of the shaggy gray dog that shared his life for 18 years.
He describes himself as "a little different than a normal guy," and he has some proof. For starters, there is the hot rod in the driveway, a 1955 Ford F100 with vanity plates "2HAPPY," gleaming white with cotton candy-pink flames.
When he explains the low-riding truck, Acord gets an impish smile. "Some guys buy diamonds for their wife for their anniversary. Well, that showed up on my anniversary."
He and his wife of 23 years, Audrey Acord, love to drive around in the "street rod," as he calls it.
"You're like a parade," Acord said.
In between carving, driving with Audrey and rebuilding anything with a motor, Acord does not have much free time. What he has is spent with Molly Beans and Jordie, his two "kids," a pair of rare Coton de Tulear dogs that joined the Acord household last year. But he has his next project lined up already.
"I have a '33 Plymouth that I'm going to start building pretty soon," he said. "There's a body and a frame and that's about it."
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