Awakening Spirits: Echoes of Ancient Yukon Traditions is not just your typical coffee-table book. Released last month, it documents the stories of Yukon First Nation youth who were practically saved by a local carving program.
“I was a skater punk, I wasn’t going nowhere – then. Until I tried carving,” said Jared Kane, 25, one of the 19 artists featured in the book.
The book compiles the carvers’ biographies and pictures of their artwork, including masks, panels, bentwood boxes, and paddles. It also describes the process of carving out a canoe they built together in a 2009 project called Dugout. The last part of the book features the healing aspects of carving a totem by the banks of the Yukon River at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre in 2012.
The carving program, initially launched in 2004 by the owners of the Sundog Retreat Centre, Andrew and Heather Finton, is now run by the Northern Cultural Expressions Society.
Having volunteered at an orphanage in Brazil in their 20s, the two are familiar with youth programs. The couple saw the carving program as a way of “filling the gap” for youth treatment programs for First Nations youth.
They did not want to just address “the psycho-social challenges, but really look at the person who walks into the door as a person who has skills to offer,” said Heather Finton.
In October of last year, she decided to seek funding to celebrate and document the successes of the program, said Finton.
Kane joined the program in 2006, when he was “pissed off” of being a few classes short of graduating from high school. The community education liaison co-ordinator for the Ta’an Kwach’an Council recommended he join the program.
He sketched a carving design within 15 minutes before meeting Andrew Finton, who ran the program at the time. Finton couldn’t believe he drew the piece so quickly, Kane said.
The cover of the book is a mask Kane carved, entitled “Shark Man.” With its stark, green marbled abalone shell eyes, pony-tailed horsehair and its fierce facial expression, the book gives a bold first impression of its pages.
“Jared’s work features clean, striking lines and a contemporary use of traditional themes,” the book says of Kane.
All the artists were between the ages of 18 and 30 when they got involved with the carving program, said the former president of the group, Diane Villeseche.
Villeseche, a graphic designer and owner of Raven Ink, has been involved with the group for six years, initially as a parent. She has seen how the program changed her own daughter, Sarah Villeseche, who was bullied throughout high school.
Sarah Villeseche is one of the artists featured in the book and is still involved as an “advanced carver,” with the group, according to the Northern Cultural Expressions Society’s website.
“They all lack in self-esteem and they all sell themselves short in what their capabilities are,” said Diane Villeseche.
Learning to carve changes that. “First, trusting them with a knife – that is sort of the beginning,” she said. She likens the chipping of the wood to the transformation of the youth when they see their art pieces being admired and bought.
That’s how the program transformed Kane’s life. “It helped me develop as an artist and as a person,” he said.
Kane pursued a career as a carver by furthering his studies. He recently graduated from the First Nations fine arts program at Northwest Community College in Terrace, B.C.
Three out of five of his major school projects have already been sold at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver. One of his masks, called Tlingit Moon, sold for $2,500.
Kane is also still involved with the group and carves everyday at the Northern Cultural Expressions Society’s studio, located near the Yukon Inn.
Learning from elders and carvers from the program, he gives back to the community by teaching a carving course to 10-to-12-year-olds at Elijah Smith Elementary School.
He owes his success as an artist to his carving mentors. “They’ve made me who I am today,” he said.
“To be honest, I don’t know where I’d be right now. I’d probably not be in a good place,” he said.
Awakening Spirit: Echoes of Ancient Yukon Traditions may be purchased at Mac’s Fireweed Store on Main Street or the Northern Cultural Expressions Society studio on 4194A Fourth Ave.
Contact Krystle Alarcon at