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First shavings fall in new carving facility


Dan Rudy/ Wrangell Sentinel

Using a traditional adze, Linda Churchill gives texture to a cedar plank inside the Wrangell Cooperative Association's new carving facility on Front Street Friday morning. She, Susie Kasinger, master carver Steve Brown, and local contractor Todd White have been contracted by the Alaska State Museum in Juneau to construct a Northern Tlingit style house for a future exhibit.

The inaugural project of Wrangell Cooperative Association's new carving facility began Friday, as a special adzing crew from White Enterprises started work.

"We've been hired by Alaska State Museums to create a small-scale tribal house," explained master carver Steve Brown, a former Wrangell resident now based out of Sequim, Wash. Carving for 44 years now, he lived in the borough during the mid-1980s and helped carve the totem poles at City Park.

The 22-by-26 foot cedar house they are preparing will form a centerpiece for a new exhibit focused on northwest coastal Native art at the new State Library, Archives and Museum building being constructed in Juneau.

"This will be the Southeast Alaska part," Brown explained. Based on a North Tlingit style similar to the tribal house on Chief Shakes Island, it will be an exhibit within an exhibit, with patrons able to pass within while observing artifacts and artwork displayed both inside and out.

"It's a real privilege to be asked to produce that for the museum," said Brown who has been collaborating with Alaska State Museums for 30 years.

Heading up the project, contractor Todd White explained his team was chosen for the work because of its recent role in refurbishing the Shakes Island house. The completed house will be a third to one-fourth the size of that on Shakes.

"It will be taken one piece at a time," White said, with actual assembly taking place inside the museum next November.

Brown estimated the adzing will take two to three months. Though sawn first, all beams and planks will be hand-worked by him and local adzers Susie Kasinger and Linda Churchill.

Both women worked on the house restoration project at Shakes Island, and are excited to pick up their adzes again. Neither had ever used the tool before then, being first introduced to it at a workshop presented by Brown before the Shakes project began.

"We just wanted to take the class," Kasinger recalled. At the time she had signed up to expand her knowledge of Native artwork but had no idea it would become a job.

Besides the test of endurance, Kasinger said the toughest part is getting the angle just right. On the Shakes Island project, she estimated it took about 4,400 blows to each side of every board.

Churchill enjoys the challenge. "You can only think of the moment," she explained, so engrossed with being accurate that one's thoughts cannot wander from the work.

The adzers were impressed with the new carving facility, which White said is nearing full completion. The main work area still needs to be equipped with racks capable of holding totem poles, which he explained can weigh around six tons. Afterward, he expects there will be a celebratory dedication for the building next spring.

"This is a beautiful facility," Churchill commented.

"What we've got here to work with is just fantastic," Brown said of the building. Calling it an incredible cultural resource for Wrangell, he added "there's almost nothing like this in the Southeast."

The $350,000 facility is the second of three phases the WCA has planned for rejuvenating Native culture in Wrangell. Once completed, the final phase will be the restoration and new commission of totem poles and other carved pieces. The building will also be used for classes imparting traditional craft skills and covering other cultural subjects.

Of the new poles so far planned, White said eight would go on Shakes Island itself, but that hopefully more could be erected in Wrangell's business district. He recounted there were once more than 20 totems in town, though most were lost to fire or sold to collectors.


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