Wood working was once a daily act. Alutiiq craftsmen made throwing boards and shafts to propel their harpoons, split timbers to build houses and boats, and chiseled images into wood. Through woodworking, they produce many of the tools essential for every day life and designed beautiful works of art that recorded their spiritual beliefs.
Painted wooden birds by Jacqueline Madsen, Sea Duck (l) and Murre (r) purchased with support from the Rasmuson Art Acquisition Fund.
Today artists search Kodiak’s beaches, forests and lumberyards for the perfect grain, but in the old days, before spruce trees colonized Kodiak, most wood came from the beach. Carvers gathered drift logs of Pacific yew, cedar and spruce from Kodiak’s shores, and collected alder, dwarf birch and cottonwood from hillside thickets.
Artifacts reveal traditional carving techniques. Wood workers split driftwood logs open with the help of resilient bone and wooden wedges, pounded with weighty granite mauls. They cut and shaped the resulting planks with a variety of stone adzes tied to flexible alder handles. Hand held carving implements, wooden handles fitted with beaver, marmot or porcupine incisors traded from the mainland, permitted finer carving. Carvers sanded the narrow gouges created by these tools with gritty abraders of pumice and sandstone and then applied finishing touches with a burnishing stone, a
water-worn pebble rubbed over the carving to create a polished, splinter-free surface.
In addition to wood, carvers used feathers, fur, animal hair, baleen, grass, and pigments to enhance their works. Decoration was an essential part of carving, as finely made objects demonstrated respect for the spirit world.