Sunday September 17, 2017

Lost art: Haida designer traces history of traditional jewelry making

Jewelry carver and artist James Sawyer in his studio.

Jewelry carver and artist James Sawyer in his studio. (Erica Daniels/CBC)

Listen 9:55

James Sawyer sits inside a wooden shack along Eagle Avenue in Old Masset, overlooking the water. Paint cans, tools and boxes clutter the space, golf clubs lean against cupboards and a treadmill waits to be used.

James Sawyer's work

Artist James Sawyer shows off some of his work. (Erica Daniels/CBC)

At a massive desk under a single light Sawyer spends hours, kept company by the whirring sounds of his carving tools.

He started making jewelry in 2003 but got started as an artist in 1997. 

"I took a break and went out clam digging once for three days," he laughed. "Clam digging's for the clam diggers. You gotta have a good back and be fast at it. I think by the third day I finally got to 100 pounds of clams and I said, 'no thanks.' I like doing art and I'd rather paint and carve and do the stuff I'm good at."

Sawyer said he's not sure how far back the tradition of making jewelry goes for the Haida. "Everyone has their own family styles you can see from their paintings and some of the jewelry that's left over from the late 1800s or early 1900s."

James Sawyer working on a design

James Sawyer works on a ring in his studio. (Erica Daniels/CBC)

But, he added, a lot was lost over the years, taken from the communities. Ultimately, those pieces, from art to traditional goods to entire longhouses ended up in museums. 

"It would be nice if it all came back here. It'd be nice if we had a big house for everything to go to. A lot of the bigger museums they have around in the world have them locked away in warehouses or storage rooms and no one gets to see them."

Sawyer hopes that kids in the community pick up the skills and continue the tradition. "I think it's a big part of our culture. It's been part of our life in the past and it'd be good to keep it in our life in the future."