It may come as a surprise that Vancouver Island is home to its own ‘ivory’ trade.
Fortunately, it’s cruelty-free and doesn’t come from elephants or rhinos. However, the material is still highly contentious in these parts.
For the past two-and-a-half years, Francois Lavigne has been hard at work etching out a niche for himself. He’s a wood carver whose primary material these days comes from the trunk of the notorious invasive plant, Scotch broom.
He calls his product ‘Island Ivory.’
It’s partially a tongue-in-cheek recognition of the plant’s not-so-cherished status.
“Everybody sees a bit of humour in it,” said Lavigne. “It’s like you make something with garbage and it turns out good, people are like ‘oh my god!’”
The name is also an ode to the fact that wood from Scotch broom can take quite a high polish. The finished product is smooth and glossy, a far cry from the scraggly roadside growth that’s brought the ire of many environmentalists since its introduction from Europe in 1850.
Lavigne says he started to carve the wood because it was cheap and plentiful. He currently takes the plant out of an area by Spider Lake.
He mainly makes spoons and knife-like spreaders, but also dabbles in other small items like hairpins and barrettes.
A nod to the European background and name of the plant, he also makes spurtles, a popular item in Scottish cutlery used mainly to stir porridge.
His most ambitious collection carved from the invasive species was a series of spoons with a skull carved into each bowl, and handles shaped to look like bones.
For a plant that’s reviled enough to have groups devoted to its eradication, the public reaction to his work has been mostly positive. Lavigne sells his wares at the Craig Street Market and the Qualicum Beach Market, and he says he does good business.
He says he can tell instantly if someone is a tourist or a local based on their reaction to his work. The tourists are curious, but those with experience of the plant are somewhat skeptical.
“It is so disliked, that people have never thought it could have a use. It’s strange,” said Lavigne. “People seem to take it almost personally.”
He said myths about the plant also abound.
“A lot of people have the impression that if you swallow the dust, you’re going to die. At the worst, if you’re going to make an infusion, with the broom, it would lower your blood pressure. That’s what I’ve read on the internet,” said Lavigne, shouting over the sound of the MakerSpace’s band saw.
Good thing, too, because the dust is flying and the woodworking room at MakerSpace is covered in the stuff.
Lavigne says he tried to encourage others to carve with it, but it hasn’t caught on.
A few people have used it for art, including a woman based out of Port Alberni that he says makes jewellery from it, but not many others.
“I was trying to share it, and make it almost an Island product,” said Lavigne.
“It’s everywhere, it’s really well-adapted, you might as well kind of embrace it.”