Eugene Alfred works on a sculpture depicting “So-ji”or The Beaver-Man, a prominent figure in Northern Tutchone stories at his home in Pelly Crossing on Aug. 22. (Jackie Hong/Yukon News)

‘My passion is still art:’ carver Eugene Alfred has been at it for three decades

Alfred also doubles as Selkirk First Nation’s fish and wildlife officer

Carver Eugene Alfred’s passion is clear as soon as he opens the front door to his house in Pelly Crossing.

There’s a small kitchen immediately to the right and a living room with a well-loved couch all the way in the back, but what really grabs a visitor’s eye — it can’t be missed, even by the most oblivious among us — is the amount of wood filling the space in between.

From the planks crammed between a divider wall and his dining table (on top of which are scattered some small, half-finished statues) to the pile of curly wood shavings and sawdust on the floor, the evidence of Alfred’s art is unmistakable and inescapable.

Even his freezer, in the relatively barren zone of the kitchen, does not go without carving’s touch. Alongside the game meat, Alfred stores more delicate pieces of wood to preserve their colours and textures until the right inspiration leads him to take a chisel to them.

“It’s a hard life being an artist,” Alfred says with a shrug as he sits in a work chair, whittling away at a statue. It’s his lunch break, and he’s slipped away from the Selkirk First Nation (SFN) administrative building, where he holds an office as the First Nation’s fish and wildlife officer, to show the News his makeshift home studio.

“It’s hard, (but) my passion is still art.”

Although perhaps not as high-profile or well-known as his contemporaries like Kaska artistic polymath Dennis Shorty or Tlingit master carver Keith Wolfe Smarch, Alfred, who admits that he prefers to keep to himself, still holds his own in the carving world, specializing in both Tlingit and Northern Tutchone style.

He’s been at it for the better part of three decades now and has had his work displayed in galleries in Vancouver and Switzerland. He’s had private collectors from Germany popping up at his doorstep asking to commission or buy whatever pieces he has on hand from him. Last year, he was one of 150 artists to receive a REVEAL Indigenous Art Award.

Alfred seems to be especially proud, though, of his pieces that are displayed locally — there’s the emblem depicting a wolf and crow that currently hangs just to the right of Selkirk First Nation’s administrative building (Wolf and Crow are Selkirk First Nations two clans,) and a massive piece depicting Crow creating the world that hangs in the lobby of the Eliza Van Bibber School that Alfred carved with the assistance of a dozen students.

The piece Alfred is slowly making progress on when the News visits him, though, is destined for Japan — specifically, the Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples after a chance meeting with the museum’s curator led to a commission. It depicts “So-ji” or the Beaver-Man, a prominent figure in Northern Tutchone stories, halfway through his transformation from beaver to man: he’s kneeling on one knee and holding a staff, but while he has a human face, he also has a beaver’s tail.

Alfred says it’s among his favourite of all the pieces he has on the go right now; he’s been playing more with Northern Tutchone style lately because, where Tlingit style is highly rigid, following a certain set of forms, patterns and symmetries, Northern Tutchone is more free-flowing and allows for more creativity.

“I love this pieces because it’s different,” he says, explaining that Northern Tutchone stories have been passed on orally but its characters are rarely, if ever, visually depicted.

That means that Alfred’s interpretation of So-ji is not based on anything he’s seen before, other than in his mind’s eye; he says he thrives on that creative freedom, the opportunity to create something the world has never seen before.

Alfred says he chose to carve So-ji because he found him the “most unique” of all the characters in the Northern Tutchone stories he heard from his grandparents as he grew up on the land.

“It was Crow that made the world for (the) Northern Tutchone … And after that, the Beaver-Man came along and his job was to help all the animals understand who they were and where they fit in,” Alfred says, recounting the tale.

“But he was always important so that he could make it a safer place for us today by helping get rid of all the dangerous animals like the giant bears and giant cats and all of that … And I’ve also heard that he travelled the world, too, to help others.”

Asked when the carving of So-ji will be sent to Japan, Alfred sighs. He also has a massive boardroom table he needs to finish for Yukon College, a few rattles and panels for private collectors, and 10 pieces for a gallery in Vancouver. He somehow needs to squeeze all that in on top of his work as a fish and wildlife officer heading into hunting season, and says he often finds himself carving well into the night, the radio his only company.

Overall, he estimates he has about a two-year backlog when it comes to commissions, but thinks that the So-ji piece should be ready sometime in October.

He doesn’t seem stressed about it though.

“I guess it’s all fun,” he says.

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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