Zhijun An

Zhijun An

Nanaimo students chip in to carve totem

NANAIMO – Artist Bill Helin heads Dover Bay Secondary School totem carving cultural exchange.

Students at Dover Bay Secondary School are carving out an exchange of ideas and cultures with help from one of Canada’s most renowned artists.

Dozens of students are chipping in an hour here, a study block there, to carve a legacy for their school from a section of a 280-year-old cedar tree.

Leading the process is Bill Helin, a Tsimshian First Nation artist, jeweller and designer who’s work literally found its way around the planet when he created mission uniform patches for space shuttle and International Space Station missions.

His current project is a little more down to earth, but has still managed to draw international interest.

“We got 60 students who signed up for this with a mix of ancestries – lots of international students,” said Erin Moody, aboriginal education teacher. “We have First Nations, Metis and Inuit students and non-aboriginal kids.”

Moody and Dover art teacher Janice Uvanile are working with Helin on the project.

Helin is teaching students how to make the tools to carve the four metre-tall pole. During the first week of March students were drawing grid lines on the surface of the log to scale up Helin’s design.

Helin works with the students three days a week and so far he has been able to figure out each student’s particular knack or natural ability and where each participant best fits into the carving team, which is important for the outcome of the pole and for the students, who each have no more than 90 minutes per week, to get the most out of working on the project.

“Once I get cutting into it and I get everybody sort of tasked in to shaping … that’s the whole thing is getting used to working with some of the tools, but I’ve got everybody figured out pretty much as far as what everybody can do,” Helin said.

The pole is being carved in the Coast Salish style, which is different from the Tsimshian designs of coastal Alaska Helin normally draws upon.

The pole from bottom to top features a box, representing knowledge; a human spirit, representing teachers passing knowledge; a dolphin representing the spirits of the students who swim upstream through their learning process until they are carried off to higher levels of wisdom and knowledge; and the spirit of the eagle at the top of the pole.

Zhijun An, an international student from China, carefully drew scale lines on the pole and said the opportunity to work on the project was fun, but found specific aspects of the work to be the most interesting.

“Drawing, painting and a little bit of carving,” An said.

Upon completion in June, the pole will be raised inside the school with a blessing ceremony.