Engraving class first in series of Alaska Native art workshops

Nine copper-engraving students sketched out designs, squinted through magnifying goggles and slowly etched away at thin sheets of metal using handheld tools.

The students were three-and-a-half hours into an eight-hour day of carving at the Wrangell Cooperative Association's Cultural Center on Saturday, Aug. 12. The class's mood was one of quiet concentration. Students took occasional breaks to stretch their legs or massage their cramping fingers, while instructor Abel Ryan offered advice and words of encouragement.

The copper engraving course, which ran from Aug. 6 to 16, was a collaboration between WCA and the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

These classes are the first in a long line of artistic and cultural education opportunities that WCA plans to bring to Wrangell, explained Tribal Administrator Esther Aaltséen Reese. Formline classes with master carver Steve Brown could be scheduled as soon as September, with mini-totem carving classes to follow. Ultimately, WCA hopes to prepare community members to recreate Wrangell's aging totems.

Carving full-sized totems will be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor - it costs between $1,000 and $4,000 per linear foot to carve a totem, Reese estimates - but the project could give the community a chance to "raise up our own master carver in Wrangell," she said. "We currently don't have any master carvers."

The copper engraving class is "part of a bigger-picture strategy for Wrangell," she said.

Reese was engraving a killer whale head design, copied from a box that was traded in Wrangell in 1904. "It is a lot more difficult than it looks," she said of engraving.

Students sketch their designs onto sheets of copper and trace shallow imprints into the metal before starting the laborious engraving process. Then, they use a burnisher to put finishing touches on their work. "This is your friend," said Reese, holding up the burnisher from her kit. "It erases any mistakes."

Amber Wade was carving an eagle and wolf ring that will wrap around her finger once it's finished. "When you design it, it has to be upside down," she explained, "so when you wrap it ... the (animals) are facing each other."

Mike Aak'wtaatseen Hoyt appreciated how the class prioritizes the process over the final product. He's enjoyed "learning how to just figure out the tools and mess up and not feel like it's a huge deal when it's just a smaller project."

This low-stress approach is a big part of Ryan's teaching philosophy. "Every piece that we're doing, basically, is a practice piece," he said. He tries to help his students understand how to use the engraving tools and works with them to compose beautiful, well-balanced designs.

Ryan made his first engraving in 2008 for a printmaking class. The process was "very difficult," he recalled. "My professor was standing over me and laughing the whole time." Beginners have to learn how to hold their tools, figure out the proper angle to attack the metal from and build up enough hand strength to continue carving for long periods.

Ryan tries to prepare his students for how challenging engraving is going to be. "You're actually carving metal," he said. "It's hard. That was one of the first things I told everybody was 'this is going to be hard.'"

But if Ryan's own biography is any indication, students can become proficient with practice. Only six years after he made his first engraving, he became a teacher at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage in 2014. These days, he's based at the Sealaska Heritage Institute art campus in Juneau.

"I love teaching and sharing," he said. "It's always really fun to do - watching people learn something new and ... the excitement that they get when things click."


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