Artists learn to engrave

Master carver teaches locals about traditional NW form line

Posted: Sunday, December 05, 2004

In short, confident strokes of pencil on paper, master carver Steven Brown drew a killer whale design for Steve Griffin.

"Just make that kind of a broad bevel," Brown said Saturday of one line that would become an engraved notch on a silver bracelet. "The dorsal fin is up and bend it back, like that. This OK?"

Griffin was one of several students who took a six-day course last week in silver engraving at the Riverbend Housing community center. Brown also taught a three-day class in Northwest Coast form line for Sealaska shareholders the previous week at the Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority offices.

A $3,000 grant from the Alaska Native Arts Foundation, and help with travel expenses from Sealaska Heritage Institute, made the classes possible. Students also paid a $150 fee for the engraving class.

Brown, who lives in Seattle, Wash., is a carver and instructor in art and art history, and is a former curator of Northwest Coast Native American art at the Seattle Art Museum. He is known for his original art and for restorations and reconstructions of historic pieces.

Robert Cesar, who applied for the grant, said art judges at the biennial Native event Celebration have expressed the need for up-and-coming carvers to become more familiar with traditional form line, the basis of Northwest Coast visual arts.

Doug Gray, who carves alder and birch headdresses as a hobby, said he has taken several form line classes before, but each time he learns something new.

"Each time you get more details," he said. " 'Oh, that's how that's created.' "

In the form line class, Brown gave Gray pointers on drawings that will be the design for a button blanket. Gray's design shows an eagle with a wing, whose tip is transformed into a human hand. The other half of the design shows a woman's head and hand and a wing. Gray said his designs go through six or seven drafts before they start to look like what he wants.

"What I liked about Steve's class is he helped me jump ahead a few steps," Gray said.

Griffin, who carves wood and makes carving tools, said he began to create art several years ago as physical therapy. He was seriously injured in an industrial accident in 1994 and has no feeling in his hands.

"I do everything through my eyes and hearing," he said. Carving "is how I keep my sanity."

Brown, with 35 years' experience carving and gathering historical knowledge, spoke with unassuming authority.

He showed students how the old-time Native artists engraved silver bracelets by holding in one hand a wooden doughnut over which the piece of silver had been bent. They held a tool in one hand and turned the piece of silver with the other hand.

"This is the old way of holding a silver piece for a bracelet," Brown told students on Monday, the first night of the engraving class. "The real old-timers who started doing them in the 19th century ... did the engraving when the bracelet was already bent into bracelet shape."

Carvers today can place the doughnut in a metal clamp that is attached to a ball that easily swivels in a base. It's called an engraving block. But many carvers engrave while the silver is a flat piece, Brown said.

"I didn't like working on an engraving block because it felt like someone was holding onto me," he said. But Brown realized it was less tiring on his hand and more productive to use an engraving block.

The students learned by making tiny repetitive cuts on small squares of silver. They practiced V-cuts to make lines and beveled edges, and U-cuts. They needed to make circles, ovoids, crescents and other lines.

"Once you get used to silver, it's like cream cheese," Brown said. "A little harder but just as smooth."

On Saturday, Cesar, wearing a headpiece with magnifying lenses, was bent over his engraving ball. He slowly moved the ball with his left hand and held in his right hand the cutting tool close to its blade point, his thumb keeping it in place.

"The problem with this is I end up holding my breath. Pass out," he said, joking.

Cesar, who has carved wood, hadn't engraved silver before this class. His design was of a raven, a baby raven, and flowers.

"It's a little more complex as far as form line design," he said. "A lot of it's about the design. More in a smaller space."

Brown, before showing the class how to bend a piece of silver over a wooden doughnut, asked student Harold Martin to engrave his name on the back first.

"The old ones, they never signed them except in the style of their work, but it doesn't hurt," Brown said.

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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