Man of stone 

Haida carver Lawrence Knowles creating a rock legacy

Stone isn’t like wood, carver Lawrence Knowles explains. Wood is soft and predictable. Stone is often tempestuous, known to crack without warning, a regular destroyer of expensive tools.

But it was a particularly well-behaved stone that Knowles found himself working on recently in Whistler. A co-operative piece of Squamish basalt that stayed intact while the 38-year-old master artist from the Haida Nation reshaped it in a traditional design of a bear.

The sculpture currently sits watching the rushing Fitzsimmons Creek from a spot under the longhouse shelter in Rebagliati Park.

The Public Art Committee and the RMOW commissioned Knowles’ bear sculpture in 2004 as part of an initiative to install public art pieces outside Whistler Village. A multi-media piece by Whistler artist Penny Martyn was installed recently at the Valley Trail trailhead at the end of Lorimer Road as part of the same project.

Knowles began the intense blocking process for his bear sculpture in the safety of the municipal yards in late April before moving to the public carving site under the shelter in Rebagliati Park.

The project was blessed with smudging, prayer and traditional Haida dance on the afternoon of Saturday, May 14. The ceremony served to banish negative energy from the stone, Knowles said, and marked the official start to the finer detail-carving phase.

The nature of the medium, complete with project ending cracks, do-overs and redesigns meant Knowles had to budget up to six months to complete the bear. But the carve proceeded smoothly and aside from a finishing coating, the bear currently sits completed at his work site.

Knowles has been retained for an additional public carving project featuring four basalt pillars. The sculptures will eventually be moved to a site that RMOW parks planner Kevin McFarland anticipates will be close to the Memorial bench on the Valley Trail by Meadow Park – a locale frequented by many of Whistler’s live bears.

Just as with totem poles, Knowles says the sculptures will be blessed and smudged again when finished "to make sure there are no negative feelings, only happy feelings."

Unlike those who put velvet ropes around their art, he hopes the resilient piece will attract playful kids. He wants it to be climbed upon and loved, just like the grandfathers the Haida believe the bear to be.

Just as a grandfather may be old in his physical person but retain a youthful zest for life, Knowles shows how he has carved sprightly figures in the basalt eyes of the Whistler bear, to symbolize the youthful spirit within.

"It’s everybody’s grandfather," he says, observing his creation.

A self-supporting artist currently residing in the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii), Knowles started carving in argillite (a soft stone found in the islands) 15 years ago after getting squeezed out of the fishing industry. Not one to shy away from a challenge, he then moved into basalt and granite.

"Nobody carves harder stone up north. So I had to teach myself," he said, describing a first day that cost him thousands of dollars in broken tools.

He remained undaunted, displaying the same determined spirit that had allowed him to make the jump to a career as an artist.

"It’s a lot easier to do it than talk about it or just dream about it," Knowles says. "If you sit there and dream about it you never accomplish anything. You just end up growing old with a pile of dreams."

His work attracted acclaim, earning him a wealth of private commissions, which he prefers to gallery work for the more personal touch.

Carving in public in Whistler was not a gimmick but a choice, he says. He completed a similar project for the museum in Prince Rupert, the town he grew up in, and says he draws inspiration from interacting with the community.

By working in public he says he also hopes to promote traditional stone carving, a practice that he fears may be fading away.

"It’s a chance to save the artform," Knowles says. "There’s a very limited number of stone carvers on the coast, especially working in the harder stones like basalt and granite. There’s a few more working in marbles. The softer the stone, the more carvers there are.

"There’s a risk of it disappearing because it’s expensive," he adds. "But the value of stone compared to other media, it’s actually a bargain. When you think about it, a thousand years from now, this bear is still going to be sitting here, whereas with a wood sculpture the lifespan is maybe 80 years."

The longevity of stone is a source of personal pride for Knowles.

"It’s going to be my legacy when I eventually pass away" he says. "In a thousand years my work’s still going to be here. That’s something me, and only a handful of people in B.C., can say. Knowing in a thousand years from now my carvings will still be here.

"They won’t look the same," he adds, surveying his newest creation, "they’ll be worn and weathered, but they’ll still be masterpieces."

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