Time spent carving has become one man’s outlet to connect with nature, other First Nations communities and to heal himself.
Henry R. Kelly has been carving for 26 years and his latest piece called “Transition” was revealed last week. The pole is a sculptured piece of wood he found on the Nass River. His work began three years ago during one of the hardest times of his life when he was going through a split from his partner.
“I was taught, if you want to be professional in this you have to be able to carve under any circumstances, take whatever pain and turn it around and use it,” Kelly said.
The pole is full of life, endowed with meaning. Eight carved figures emerge from the wood: the eagle with the beaver, the raven with the frog, the killer whale with the owl and the wolf with bear claws representing the four main crests and sub-crests of the Tsimshian, Nisga’a and the Gitxsan.
“This carving is universal in nature, the interconnection between these crests, how they flow and are intertwined almost as if they were all one,” he said.
Tapping into his own culture has been a journey of acceptance. When he was young he was given to his grandparents who raised him in the village of Git laxt’aamiks (New Aiyansh). Traditionally, the eldest grandson was given to the grandparents or the oldest uncle, to carry the culture forward, but for many years, Kelly felt that he had been neglected and abandoned.
“The life wasn’t easy. My grandparents went to residential school, Alert Bay. I’d seen things that I wish I didn’t see but like I said that was part of my learning,” Kelly said.
When he was 11-years-old his grandmother passed away and he went to live with his mother in Vancouver. He didn’t know his parents until he was a teenager, and they had both split and remarried. Then he moved to Prince Rupert to live with his father and he said the bitterness for his parents grew.
“That was when I was drinking. I’d rather stay on these streets in Rupert than go live with my dad. I stayed in abandoned houses and abandoned cars here. I sniffed glue, gas and stole. I even got abused as a kid on the streets here as a 14-15-year old. I was acting out a lot,” Kelly said.
Throughout his life, Kelly has been faced with many struggles, and carving has been a means to let go of the trauma from his past. While attending Booth Memorial School he was given a warning that if he didn’t attend classes he wouldn’t be allowed to continue. He said that something inside him clicked and he realized the importance of education, and he studied Native art. He graduated in 1987.
Two years later, he joined a Youth Corp Group and met Dempsey Bob, a master carver from the northwest. Bob did a First Nations Design class with the youths and taught them how to make tools and knives.
“Inside something just went — wow,” Kelly said.
He started carving and learned to control his emotions. If he makes a mistake, he avoids getting angry so the emotion doesn’t go into his work.
“What I do when I get to that point is I put it down and go walk over and do something else. My energy stays rejuvenated all the time. It stays positive. That is something I had to learn on my own,” he said.
He was invited to attend the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art in Terrace when it first opened, from 2006-2008 where he also won the Dempsey Bob BC Achievement Foundation Award. He moved back to Prince Rupert in 2014 to continue carving. One of his more public pieces of work this year was a mask he carved for Port Edward’s 50th anniversary.
He shares his gift with the youths in the community as well. He teaches First Nations art at the Friendship House Association and he is a part of the First Nations Role Model Program through School District 52.
“As an artist, we’re storytellers. We’re telling the story and part of our identity. This is who I am,” he said stressing that the cultural craft has to be carried on. The father of four is carving for his 18-month-old son right now.
Transition, his latest piece, was inspired by nature and the interconnection between First Nations communities in the northwest. He used a single piece of yellow cedar finished with lemon oil. The eyes, teeth and claws of the animals are inlayed with natural elements, including actual bear claws.
Upon closer inspection the wolf — the crest Kelly belongs to — has some human features. One of the paws matches the carver’s own hand. With still so many years left in his career, Kelly said more will be revealed in his journey.
“It saved my life. I don’t know where I’d be right now.”