Carving out confidence

Josh Lesage lifted up his shirt, revealing a fresh 10-centimetre scar just below his heart. The 19-year-old carver doesn’t remember how it…

Josh Lesage lifted up his shirt, revealing a fresh 10-centimetre scar just below his heart.

The 19-year-old carver doesn’t remember how it happened.

“I was at the riverbank having a good time, then I was instantly in my bedroom,” said Lesage.

“I woke up, looked at my hand and it was covered in blood and I looked under the sheets and I had these stitches.”

Like many of the youth in Sundog’s carving programs, Lesage is learning as much about himself as he is about chisels, paint and basswood.

“I do, maybe, have a bit of a drinking problem,” he said, taking a break in the Sundog office on Thursday.

All the kids in here have the same profile, said Sundog founder Andrew Finton.

“They come here with multiple barriers — huge dysfunction at home, alcohol abuse, sexual abuse.”

Finton would get frustrated when a youth didn’t show up for a couple of days.

“Then I’d look at what this kid is facing,” he said.

The program should be called, Two Steps Forward, One Step Back, added Finton.

Youth that have never had routine in their lives are suddenly showing up five days a week, he said.

Now and then, there’s a slipup, but these grow farther and further apart.

At 10:30 a.m., there were still a couple of vacant seats in the beginner carving program.

About an hour later, Morgan Ayles showed up.

“I need to get a new alarm clock,” said the 18-year-old.

And it has to run on batteries.

Ayles lives in a tent.

“Some nights it’s cold,” he said, handling a light wooden bowl he was working on.

These days, tenting is soggy — there’s a puddle in the middle of his nylon shelter.

Folded on his worktable was a green tarp he’d acquired to stop the leaks.

Until he was 12, Ayles lived with his grandparents. When they died, he moved from house to house, was cared for by Child and Family Services for a while and then moved from one cousin’s place to another.

Some nights, Ayles slept at the Salvation Army shelter.

“I’ve gotten too used to moving around,” he said.

The stability, for Ayles, has been carving.

Although he only started the beginner program two months ago, he’s been chiseling at Sundog for more than a year.

Of nine students in the beginner group, six had been coming in for months before it started, said Finton, who has a wait list that grew to 92 people last year.

“The key is commitment,” he said.

“I want to come on time everyday,” said Ayles, who intends to continue with the advanced carving program.

“I plan to work here all year ‘round for the rest of my life,” he said with a grin.

Advanced carver Ben Gribben spends about 10 hours a day at Sundog.

After spending three and a half years homeless, Gribben considers the program a path to recovery.

“I was too out of control with my drinking,” said the 19-year-old.

“I spent a lot of nights out in the cold.”

There was the Salvation Army, but Gribben was only 14 at the time.

“I had to lie and say I was 19 to get a bed,” he said.

Now, a year and a half into the carving program, Gribben was chipping cedar shavings off one of two large totems in the middle of the studio.

He was getting pointers from Sean Hinton, a master carver from BC.

“My plan is to improve my skills every day,” said Gribben, who counts himself lucky to be part of Sundog.

“There are a lot of kids out on the street because their family’s drinking and not there for them,” he said.

“Politicians are good at saying ‘sorry.’ But how do you say sorry to a youth who had no place to stay and ends up whacked out of their gourd because they had to stay at a friend’s who’s hooked on stuff?”

Youth need a future, said Gribben.

“Rather than lying down and having the shit kicked out of them by life.”

Premier Dennis Fentie recognized this when he agreed to help fund Sundog, said Finton.

“Fentie said we need to invest in their future now, so these guys have a future,” he said. “It’s better to spend the money than wait five years until they’re in jail and then support them.”

But Finton still needs money.

Right now the advanced carving program is funded for 10 students, but Finton has accepted 14.

One of them has returned after drinking his way out of an earlier program.

“He was one of the best artists I’ve seen walk through the door,” said Finton, pointing to the ornate paddle hanging in his office that the youth had carved.

But after two years, he was drinking all the time.

Finton kicked him out of the program and stopped paying him the $247-a-week carving stipend, but still welcomed him in the studio if he was sober.

Finton didn’t see him for a year.

“It was brutal,” he said.

Then one day he got a call at home, around 9 p.m.

“It sounded like he was inside a cave,” said Finton.

The youth was in jail and was hoping to return to his carving.

Now, back in the program for three months, he hadn’t missed a day.

“He was actually glad he ended up in jail, because he realized he had to change his life,” said Finton.

Youth kept swinging by Finton’s office, hoping to chat.

“The program’s 40 per cent art, 20 per cent business planning and the other 40 per cent is health and life skills,” he said, motioning to one youth he’d be with him in five minutes.

Even with alcohol and drug counsellors hanging out with the kids a couple days a week, and various local and national carvers mentoring the youth, Finton is run off his feet.

“I hoped five years ago that if I was still in it in five years, people would be fixed,” he said.

Five years later, many of the youth are still struggling with homelessness, addictions and family troubles.

But Finton has seen some remarkable changes.

Introverted kids without self-esteem, who openly called themselves “stupid,” are now selling masks and plaques for several thousand dollars.

Governor General Jean Michaelle Jean and Prime Minister Stephen Harper both went home with carvings made by Sundog students. And the Yukon’s phonebook cover is also a Sundog piece.

“We all have something in common,” said advanced carver Angel Hall.

“We’re all chronic underachievers, and some of us have substance abuse problems or come from pretty horrific backgrounds.

“And this is a good platform for us underachievers, because it gives us a platform where we can achieve and not feel pressure.”

Many of these students flunked out of school — academia is not designed to recognize their artistic abilities, said Finton.

Now, carvers who started the program without realizing they had any potential are teaching the beginners.

“You have these kids — the toughs you see downtown — teaching these younger kids,” said Finton.

“These youth are coming in with bruised or broken fingers from fights and working with the kids like they’re baby lambs.”

“You can learn from your students,” said 25-year-old instructor Calvin Morberg, who started carving with Sundog’s first program five years ago.

“It helps me stop drinking because I have to get stuff done and drinking’s not going to help that,” said advanced carver Aaron Blanchard, who’s also living in a tent.

“I got into a lot of trouble before,” added 24-year-old Jason Johnson.

“But this has given me a positive outlook on life because (Finton) actually cares.

“He’ll take you aside and ask you if you’re alright — it’s more like a family.”

Talent is secondary, said Finton, preparing to go to court where he’s helping out a youth who wants to join the carvers.

“It’s about committing to want a better life.

“They come with nothing, but could have everything.”