Arts Profile

Heaton: Carving sheep horns and totem poles

Posted: Thursday, September 28, 2000

Soaked in ammonia and boiled: Jim Heaton is a carver, teacher and gallery owner. This fall he's teaching a class in Juneau in carving Dall sheep horns into bowls and spoons. The horn must be soaked for two weeks in ammonia first, then dunked in boiling water every few minutes while carving.

"By the end of the day your fingers are all scorched and everything," Heaton said. "A sheep horn spoon, just a simple spoon with no decoration, can take easily 70 to 100 hours of carving."

Rain forest Navajo: Heaton's grandmother was Navajo and he was born on a Navajo reservation in Hupa Valley, Calif. He grew up in Tacoma where he first saw Northwest Coast style totem poles. He came to Alaska with the Air Force in 1977. He moved to Haines in 1980, where he finally saw totem carving firsthand.

"It wasn't really until I got to Haines that I realized there were people still doing it," he said.

He rented studio space at Alaska Indian Arts and started carving. In his second year he carved the 20-foot pole in front of Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School in Juneau. He said he's lost track of the number of poles he's carved.

"About 160 feet total, somewhere in there. And that's not counting little model poles and things like that," he said.

He's carved frontlets, masks and other items used by the Klukwan school dance group and at the Chilkoot Culture Camp.

Heaton managed the Juneau gallery Objects of Bright Pride for two years before opening his own gallery in Haines called Form and Function, which specializes in the work of local artists. He said he's opposed to mass production.

"If you're in that much of a hurry or you're that greedy you've got to find something else to do because art isn't it," he said.

His wife, Rebecca Heaton, is a bead artist. They live in Haines with 11 cats, two dogs and a parrot that came with their truck. Heaton is on the board of directors of the Sheldon Museum and Chilkat Valley Historical Society.

Powered by hand: Heaton works with traditional hand tools, rather than power tools.

"A lot of times if you're using a power tool you're going to start reproducing the same shapes over and over because you're really limited," he said. "The power tools don't save a whole lot of time.

"When you're using the adzes and the handsaws and things like that you can do whatever you want, you work with the wood and you're not limited to a certain shape it's just much more satisfying to just start strictly with your hands. Plus 200 years ago some of the most gorgeous work was done not with power tools."

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