Eugene Alfred: carver and sculptor
Eugene Alfred, a carver and sculptor of Northern Tutchone and Tlingit ancestry, showcases his craft at the Adäka Cultural Festival on July 2. His current project is a carving which honours Beaver Man, an important figure in Alfred’s Indigenous history who had the body of a man, but the tail and teeth of a beaver.
Alfred, of the Crow clan, grew up with his grandparents hunting and fishing. “We didn’t have much,” he says. “A lot of it came from the land.” Now, Alfred uses Swiss carving tools to create his art. He uses larger tools for rough work.
Alfred’s grandmother was known for her beadwork and his uncle was a sketch artist. Alfred was exposed to art early and frequently. At early ages, he says, he would draw on cardboard and carve his own toys out of wood using pocket knives. He outlines his pieces with pencil before carving.
He attended and taught at Ksan, an Indigenous art school in northern British Columbia. He says his art allows him to connect to his culture, his community and his history. He shapes the wood through rough work before carving more detail.
For sharper angles, Alfred uses sharper tools. Smaller knives allow him to carve intricate details.
Alfred says his grandfather, who was in an Indigenous dance group, had regalia stolen and placed in museums. This is common, Alfred says, noting many communities have had pieces of art stolen and they are very difficult to find. The artists and owners are never compensated, and the objects are never returned, he says.
Alfred says his art opens doors and builds relationships. “I travel the world with it. All I’ve ever done is try to educate through my art,” he says. He uses mallets and hammers to create deeper dents in the wood.
Next to Alfred’s current project is another carving of Beaver Man, this one sitting upright in a resting pose. Alfred says Northern Tutchone and Tlingit histories are passed down orally, and his carvings present one of the first times their stories have been embodied.
Alfred creates sculptures in the Northern Tutchone style of art, which is known for rigid linework and distinct centre lines. The pieces are divided down their centre and are absolutely symmetrical on both sides.
Alfred’s work has gained international attention. The carving of Beaver Man he is currently working on is destined for a museum in northern Japan. He has work displayed in Canada’s Senate building. “My art helps define me. It helps me understand and respect our land, who and what we are,” he says. “It gives me a direction and leads me down a path. It opens a door for others to follow. They can come along and hear the stories.”