Carved from wood, the artistry of Earl Davis

Published: December 1, 2015


Story by Callie White 

Photos by Marcy Merrill 

EarlDavis054The Shoalwater Bay Tribe’s carving workshop looks out on Willapa Bay, a view that has not changed much in thousands of years – sand, water, grass, and the oft-gray sky of coastal Washington State. It’s a place of elemental power and comfort. In the workshop, the shiny edge of an adze scraping on wood, the crispy fall of wood shavings, the smells of resin and oil and sweat are the elements of art that was nearly lost to time. Instead, a small group of local Native craftsmen, led by Earl Davis, is keeping the style and heritage alive.

When Davis started working as the cultural programs director at the Shoalwater Bay Tribe in Tokeland in 2006, he spent most of his time sitting at a desk, shuffling paperwork about archaeological surveys of potential construction sites between the tribe and various state agencies. The muscle-bound former Marine in him chafed at being tied to a desk, and the Indian in him balked at his job being strictly about the artifacts of the past.

“We aren’t just what you see in a museum,” Davis said. “We’re still here, and so is our culture.”

But when Davis looked around, he saw how the arts of his tribe were in trouble. There were classes for kids in bead work and other so-called “pan-Indian” crafts, but little of it was particularly grounded in the traditions birthed on Tokeland soil. Davis wasn’t the only person who felt uneasy about this. He knew he had to do something, so eight years ago, one year into his new job, he decided to pursue carving.

Unfortunately, the art – and the artists – had died out years before. He needed someone with a special kind of know-how that went beyond sculpting and into the traditions.

Luckily, Davis’ first teacher was Randy Capoeman, the late Quinault artist. Capoeman helped him build a foundational set of skills – what tools to use, what techniques work, what to look for in wood for carving, and some of the elements of style of the local Native tribes.

But what Davis also got, and cannot shake off, were Capoeman’s words to him: “You are going to put this place back on the map.”

“It wasn’t a compliment,” Davis said. “It was an order.”

When most people think of Native Pacific Northwest art, they think of towering totem poles. But Davis said that style of carving is from tribes in British Columbia and Southeast Alaska, not so much for coastal Washington.

“What our ancestors did is considered ‘primitive’ versus northern styles, because it doesn’t follow the same rules. But when you dig into it, what they did was actually very sophisticated,” Davis said.

When it comes to Shoalwater art history, there aren’t tons of pieces on display locally, and no one is around to pass on the traditional skills. But Davis had documentation about local carvings from the tribe and a few books that featured photographs of pieces from Willapa Bay.

He has remade some of those pieces. One was a simple and elegant bowl in plain wood, another was a boat with the traditional Thunderbird in red and black (a seminal mythological figure of Pacific Northwest tribes).

“The first thing you have to do is be able to replicate the old stuff. Once you get to that point you can do whatever you want,” Davis said. He concedes that eight years into his carving career, he is “nowhere near” being able to come up with his own pieces. He is still learning from the old masters, absorbing the knowledge and style through his hands.

“If I could make something half as good as these,” he pointed to pictures of old wooden figures, “I’d be thrilled.”

That kind of close study is one of the few ways Davis can understand the carvings. Because a significant number of the carvings originally were created with sacred meanings or purposes, there can be tension around talking about them. For traditionalists, talking about the sacred can take away its power (this is a vast oversimplification), and for Christians the view is the opposite, that talking about it gives them an undesirable power. Then there are others who don’t follow any tenets, and they may have a completely different understanding of propriety.

“It’s hard to know how to navigate,” Davis said. It was a lot easier to pass down the craft 150 years ago, when the values in the community were uniform.

But Davis is bound and determined to pass along the heritage. A few years ago he wrote a grant to the Administration for Native Americans to train two full-fledged carvers – Ken Waltman and Brandt Ellingburg — who both work full time at the workshop. In their first year they had to learn all the basics, like how to use tools and how to make them. They started with small projects, and now they are working with Davis on larger pieces, like a pole (“we don’t call them totem poles here”) of depicting a man with an elaborate hat. At the bottom of that pole, which is destined for the front of the Shoalwater Bay Casino, will be pieces from a 10,000-year-old gambling game that was popular across the Americas.

The Shoalwater program is now the focus of a new exhibit at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma that runs through mid-December. “People of the Adze” will feature a number of the group’s traditional carvings, and the team will carve every third Thursday at the museum.

The exhibit “highlights the creativity, beauty and strength of the work of a young team of carvers from Willapa Bay,” said Susan Rohrer, the manager of heritage outreach services at the museum. “In two short years working out of their hand-built carving shed, they have produced a masterful body of work and brought new recognition and pride to the Shoalwater Bay people.”

Davis is happy for the unexpected recognition, and inspired to keep learning. Currently, he’s teaching himself the language of the Lower Chehalis, which has no remaining fluent speakers but a vast repository of audio and written materials left behind by tribal elders.

In a sense, Davis has been a student of this elders for as long as he can recall. His father was a fisherman and when he would bring crab to the home of elders, he would bring young Earl along to listen to what they had to say.

“As a kid, I thought it was so boring, but I do remember it! And I see value in it,” Davis said. “They talked about kindness; about the time someone gave someone else a ride, or someone cooked a meal. Just the way they talked about others was so full of kindness.”

If Davis is drawing on words from his childhood as he and his team of carvers rebuild their heritage, he can see what the effect is on the next generation. His 9-year-old son sometimes joins him in the shop and already has produced a few of his own sculptures.

Davis said when he was that age, so many traditions had already gone by the wayside. “I didn’t even get in a canoe until I was 25, 26. And that was how my ancestors got everywhere before! My kids will never know a time when we didn’t have canoeing. I’d like my kids, and all the kids, to never know a time when we didn’t have carving.”