Canora craftsmen mastering the art of wood carving

Gord Dolan of Canora had wanted to try wood carving for a number of years, but never could find the time to give it his best effort. Then he retired from his career as a custom home builder, and suddenly he had all the time he needed.

“I always thought I could sketch,” said Dolan, “and I thought my skills as a home builder would transfer well. I can’t afford to buy carvings, so instead I decided to try to make them.”

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Dolan and his wife Wendy lived in B.C. before moving to Canora. During that time, he became aware of Haida art created by the First Nations people of Haida Gwaii, formally known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the northwest coast of the province.

“I really like the lines of the Haida art and how it flows,” said Dolan. “I spent lots of time in museums and on the Internet, learning as much as I could about it. The Haida believe everything in life is interconnected. For example, they may include a bear, a wolf and a whale in the same carving.”

In addition to wood carving, Dolan has also enjoyed doing pottery and glass work. He said he is entirely self-taught.

“There is some trial and error involved in wood carving, but I get a lot of satisfaction in overcoming problems instead of just giving up,” said a determined Dolan. “I can lose myself for weeks at a time, working on a block of wood.”

Dolan’s completed projects include a replica of Chief Quanah Parker of the Comanche Nation which stands about eight inches high. The sculpture was made out of an exotic wood known as Purple Heart.

“Quanah Parker, as the last chief of the Kwahadi (Quahadi) band, mounted an unsuccessful war against white expansion in northwestern Texas (1874–75). He later became the main spokesman and peacetime leader of the Native Americans in the region, a role he performed for 30 years,” stated information found on the Internet.

Dolan has enjoyed the wood carvings of well-known Haida artist Bill Reid, and carved about a 14-inch replica of a larger Reid carving of a killer whale out of apple wood.

 

 

Another Reid replica was an eight-inch carving of a Raven and clam shell made out of maple.

“In the Haida belief of creation they think highly of the raven,” explained Dolan. “In the carving the raven is helping humanity by opening the clam shell to let out little people.”

Dolan’s carvings are not to a specific scale, but rather “freehand interpretation.” Larger projects take about three weeks to a month of actual work, but can take a lot longer if the wood has to be dried.

“For the whale carving I cut an apple tree down in our yard, where I could see the beginnings of a whale in a fork in the tree,” recalled Dolan. “I dried out the tree for about three years, and cut out a rough idea of what I wanted for the carving. I took away the excess and dried what was left for another three years. Then I figured it was dry enough and finished the carving. Buying a raw piece of wood that size might have cost me around $250.”

Dolan said he has learned to work with just about any type of wood that happens to be handy. But if given the choice, he would prefer to work with walnut in most situations.

“It’s a hardwood but reasonably soft and has a nice deep grain,” he described. “It’s easy to work with and very rich-looking when finished.”

Dolan has done a variety of other wood carving projects; including goats, deer heads with antlers, and walking sticks. He uses both power tools and hand tools.

“At first I considered myself a purist and just wanted to use hand tools, but power tools really speed things up. I use a dremel, chainsaw, grinders and cutting tools.”

One of the most rewarding aspects of wood carving for Dolan is that he can see progress in his work since his earlier projects.

“I get so involved with it that time passes and I don’t notice it. I’m never satisfied, I can always get better.”

Dolan said he used to race radio-controlled boats as a hobby. There was considerable complex woodwork in those boats, and he found it to be a natural progression from there to woodwork.

He has sold a few of his wood carvings, but “it’s mainly just for my own enjoyment.”