New Brunswick

Spirit guides helped Ned Bear create his famous masks

Ned Bear stands in his workshop armed with a mallet in one hand and a chisel in the other. He looks down at the face that stares back at him: hard lines, grotesque teeth jutting from a gaping mouth.

Ned Bear has been carving wooden masks for many decades. Now his influence is inter-generational

Editor's note: We had the opportunity to interview mask carver Ned Bear on Nov. 7. Sadly, Bear died on Dec. 24, but we want to share the story and video we produced about him and his craft. 

Ned Bear stands in his workshop armed with a mallet in one hand and a chisel in the other. He looks down at the face that stares back at him.

Bear's eyes — congenial and warm — move slowly to study the details before him. The hard lines. The garish exaggeration of features. Grotesque teeth jutting from a gaping mouth.

Ned Bear created this face from his own hands. 

Ned's own face is soft. The skin around his features, delicate in comparison, are crinkled from decades of working outdoors. He smiles almost impishly. 

Ned Bear is well known in Wabanaki territory for carving wooden masks he calls Pawakan, or spirit guides. (Logan Perley/CBC)

Bear calls his creations Pawakan, the Plains Cree word for "spirit guide."

It's what Bear is best known for around Wabanaki territory, which span Nova Scotia, P.E.I, New Brunswick, parts of Quebec and New England. This face is just one of many hand-carved wooden masks he has created. 

Bear, who is of Wolastoqey and Plains Cree descent, grew up in his mother's community of St. Mary's First Nation, or Sitansisk, in Fredericton.

Carving, he said, fascinated him from an early age.

"Well, I had something like an epiphany … when I was a small boy," Bear said. "I was in the community here at St. Mary's, out playing around with a bunch of friends, from house to house, back doors, and stumbled across this old man carving."

Bear remembers being so captivated by the energy coming from the man carving in his garage that he knew he wanted to be a part of it. And he wanted carving to be part of who he would become.

The late mask maker Ned Bear created a woodworking path for younger artists like Justin Sappier, helping them reconnect with their language and Indigenous traditions through art. 6:42

"I just tried to do it myself when I made the assumption that the best way to do it, the easiest way is to use a bar of soap" Bear recalled. 

"So I tried a bar of soap, unsuccessfully," he continued with a laugh.

Bear later spent three years in the Canadian Armed Forces, and when he had down time on exercises, would whittle away at sticks with a dull knife. He still had a will to learn to carve.

When Bear got out of the army, he decided to hone his skills as a carver and enrolled in the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design.

"Somebody told me there was a college in town, so I checked it out," Bear said. "Basically, I worked in the studio by myself learning the techniques, but they had the tools."

Ned Bear is known to carve his Pawakan masks from butternut wood, which is known for its workablity. (Logan Perley/CBC)

Bear said he started carving household items such as axe handles first to get used to using woodworking tools.

Eventually, he began to carve large masks from butternut wood, which has become his wood of choice because of its workability. 

He said his early masks were flatter, with less profile than the ones he makes today.

'Art is healing'

Bear had an exhibition at the UNB Arts Centre titled "Art is Healing" in 1991. He still believes those words to be true.

"What a mask does, it hides the face, it helps heal somebody inside to reveal themselves," Bear said. "Because they're wearing a mask, they're not so inhibited. It's a healing thing, so that's why it's sort of fit altogether for me."

Bear said that the Pawakan masks are meant to be the faces of spirit guides, who are supposed to help people through difficult times.

The inspiration for each of Bear's Pawakan masks comes from within, he said. The faces are not of any particular person, but the way he's imagined the spirit guide.

Ned Bear, who is Wolastoqey and Plains Cree, grew up in St. Mary's First Nation, or Sitansisk, and says he's had a fascination with carving since he was a boy. (Logan Perley/CBC)

"It's like seeing an old friend at a distance or somebody you don't know who it is, but as it comes closer," Bear said. "You can't recognize them until they're right in front of you … it's basically the same idea in my mind."

Bear said he feels as though the Pawakan masks are not his own works, that they belong to the spirit guides he channels as he creates them, so he doesn't put a maker's mark on them.

"I'm just a catalyst, I'm just the person whose hands are being guided by the Pawakan," Bear said.

Bear said he reconnects with his Plains Cree roots through the Pawakan masks by giving them names in Nēhiyawēwin, which was his father's language, instead of his mother's language of Wolastoqey.

"Because I live in the east and my bloodline goes to the west. I didn't have much contact with my own people, my father's people," Bear said. "So I encouraged myself to learn the language with resource material and any of my works I titled them in Plains Cree, just to encourage that within me."

'I haven't felt peace like that in a long time'

Justin Sappier, who is Wolastoqey and Peskotomuhkati, grew up in Fredericton and has family roots in Tobique First Nation. He said carving masks has helped him reconnect with the language.

Justin Sappier says that without the influence of Bear's Pawakan masks, he wouldn't be creating masks today. (Logan Perley/CBC)

"Once my grandmother passed, she was my language, my knowledge, my connection to my people," Sappier, who is a father of two young boys said. "At that point I realized that everything was in my hands … and I needed to change."

Sappier picked up carving unexpectedly when he started the Aboriginal visual arts program at New Brunswick College of Craft and Design.

"I was gonna be a basket maker. I come from a lot of basket makers."

On Sappier's second day of classes at the Fredericton school he was introduced to woodworking, specifically mask carving by instructor Charlie Gaffney. Gaffney learned how to carve masks from Ned Bear. Sappier then learned from Gaffney.

"Everything changed once I put my hands on a chisel and I started working with wood. I haven't felt peace like that in a long time."

Growing up off-reserve, Sappier said, he felt he didn't have a place when he came to visit the reserve. Art has changed that.

"Now I have something to give back," Sappier said.

Sappier, who is Peskotomuhkati and Wolastoqey, learned to carve masks at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design from Charles Gaffney, a student of Ned Bear's. (Logan Perley/CBC)

He gives workshops on woodworking and is taking the skills of mask-making that were passed down to him into other Wabanaki communities.

"I got no problem going in any reserve at all now because I have something to add to that communal pot of knowledge," Sappier said. 

"I can come and offer something and maybe hopefully get something back."

Sappier said he appreciates being able to walk down the path that Ned Bear paved for woodworking artists in this region.

"His influence is everything when it comes to doing these tree spirits and Ned Bear is the originator. I definitely wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for him," Sappier said.

'I haven't felt peace like this in a long time,' Sappier says about creating a mask. (Logan Perley/CBC)

Sappier said that he would like to see his sons pick up the hammer and chisel someday.

"You can call me a third generation and hopefully my kids might be a fourth generation."

Sappier added that he's had the help of Wolastoqi elder Imelda Perley in naming some of the masks he carved in the Wolastoqey language.

Bear said that butternut wood in this region has been infected with canker, which could potentially kill off the tree species within his grandchildren's lifetime. Should that happen, the Pawakan masks will allow people to see the beauty of the tree in the future.

"There weren't any mask carvers in this region for many, many years," Bear said. "It's kind of a legacy for when I'm not here anymore. So I give credit to the Pawakan for that."

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