Artist: 'I love being creative'

Posted: Monday, November 29, 2010

Abel Ryan told a story as wood chips fell onto his lap from a birch woodcarving at the Alaska State Museum. Ryan told a story both with words and with his carving tools.

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Klas Stolpe /  Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

"This is called 'Shaman's Rattle, Stolen Regalia,'" Ryan said. "It is carved in reflection of the assimilation practice between the church and the government concerning the natives in the late 1800s and early 1900s."

Ryan, 32, is a Tsimshian carver from Metlakatla and a member of the Wolf Clan.

A Shaman's rattle would be very decorative with elaborate design, yet still rather plain, Ryan said. Carvings or decorations made the world of supernatural beings visible. The rattle was used to call up power from other worlds.

Ryan chose to make his rattle stripped of all regalia with nothing but the rattles hands to cover it self. Inside he placed jingle bells for a loud sound.

"I enjoy carving first and foremost and I love being creative," Ryan said. "Turning a chunk of wood into something beautiful gives me the opportunity to learn more about my culture and heritage and gives me more knowledge to teach others."

At age 9, Ryan began sanding some of his great uncle Bert's carvings and became dedicated to the art. He began studying carving at the age of 11 from Metlakatla carver Jack Hudson. Hudson is in his early 70s now and still teaches carving.

At age 12, Ryan carved his first work, a canoe, using X-Acto knives. At 15 he truly became immersed in the art by making his own carving tools and blades, a sign that a young artist is dedicating his life to the craft. His first recognized piece, a Raven ladle, was given to his grandparents upon completion.

"Then I carved a mask," Ryan said. "And then I graduated high school."

Ryan received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Sheldon Jackson College in 2006, and a fine arts degree in Native arts studio and printmaking from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2009.

Ryan's hand-carved Northwest Coast form line art includes masks, bowls, spoons, pipes, ladles, plaques, combs, rattles and much more. He has taught at Sheldon Jackson College, University of Alaska Southeast and UAF.

"I have demonstrated at Auke Bay Elementary and Mendenhall River School too," Ryan said. "Kids eyes are so inspirational when they watch you and ask questions."

Ryan's wife Sarah currently attends UAS so he is available for demonstrations in the area. In January he will teach a carving class in the Sitka school district.

Ryan was part of three artists demonstrating their crafts at the Alaska State Museum in recognition of Native American Heritage Awareness Month.

Tlingit storyteller Tommy Jimmie Jr. was featured Nov. 13. His cultural education came from growing up in the Raven House in Haines and with grandfathers of the Thunderbird House of Klukwan. A member of the Geisan Dancers of Haines and the Naakahidee Theater he performed stories called "Fires on the Water" throughout the United States. In 1979 Jimmie traveled to Norway to share his culture.

"My grandfather used to say there is a story for everything," Jimmie stated in a press release.

On Nov. 20 Juneau's Anna Brown Ehlers, a Tlingit of the Raven moiety (Woodworm clan, Whale House of Klukwan), demonstrated weaving in her ancestors style. Ehlers is called the most accomplished weaver of modern times. She has received numerous grants and awards and her work is featured in natural history and art museums and private collections around the world. She continues to spread the knowledge of Chilkat weaving in seminars, conferences and demonstrations throughout the United States.

• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at

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