Meet the Maker: James Harry
Lonely Planet Magazine
Coast Salish carvers have been transforming cedar into mesmerizing artworks for thousands of years. Meet one Vancouver-born artist connected to this deep tradition who’s taking his work in new directions.
Hunching one shoulder and fusing both hands to his number three gouge, James Harry slides the broad blade through curls of yellow cedar as if slowly skimming the surface of a large tray of butter. “I keep my tools really sharp,” says the sneaker-clad Squamish Nation carver before stopping and laughing as he recalls slicing his thumbnail off during a demonstration a few years back.
Honing his craft over countless hours in a live-work studio in Richmond––just south of Vancouver, British Columbia––it’s not a mistake the 29-year-old artist makes a habit of. Still in the opening chapters of what’s becoming an intriguingly diverse career, Harry began flexing his creative muscles in childhood, while watching his master carver father Rick Harry at work.
Initially emulating his dad’s approach, art school helped him find his own path. “I’m proud to be indigenous but I didn’t want to only be a traditional carver. I needed some conceptual training to force me from my comfort zone,” says Harry, adding that his big break came in 2011 when Vancouver International Airport commissioned a six-foot-high aluminum totem pole with internal LED lighting that was ultimately viewed by thousands of visitors.
Since then, he’s worked hard to craft a sustainable career that pays the bills without sacrificing his creativity. Commissions have helped––Harry’s works are on show locally at Granville Island, the University of BC and beyond––while his approach has grown in three key directions: abstract carved panels; metalwork totems and collaborations with partner and artist Lauren Brevner that fuse his carvings with her paintings of women.
Working with wood––particularly red or yellow cedar––remains the foundation of his approach. “I start my carvings by drawing a diagonal line on the surface then sketching a gestural image. I try not to think too much; I want the wood to tell me what to do,” says Harry, who’s been working from sections of a single centuries-old cedar for several years.
Each carving can take months of eight-to-twelve-hour days. “I mostly spend that time slowly detailing,” he says, adding that he listens to playlists of R&B, electronica and inspirational speeches while working. “In the early days, I wondered if anyone would want to see what I was carving. But now it feels like I’m doing something of value.”
His work is connected to a rich tradition of Coast Salish cedar use, with roots, bark and wood historically deployed for everything from clothing to fishing nets and from Bentwood boxes to woven hats. But carving––including sculptures and masks, intricate panels and poles––has always been a vital part of the creative use of this spiritual tree.
Over the centuries, a rich palette of visual elements has developed in Coast Salish art, and Harry uses these features throughout his work. Recurring shapes include circles, crescents and three-pointed trigons, while regular creatures range from ravens (often symbolizing creativity and changes in life) to salmon (typically indicating determination and abundance). Some elements, says Harry, are easier to carve than others.
“Humans are the most challenging to carve and bear snouts are also difficult if I’m doing them three-dimensionally. But I’ve always loved carving eagles. I wanted to be one when I was a kid––I still do!”
Finding alternative materials and new ways to visualize his ideas will always push him in different artistic directions, says Harry. But carving cedar––an ancient creative tradition in Coast Salish communities––is something he feels born to. “Cedar is in my blood; it’s part of who I am. I used to smell it in my dad’s shop when I was a kid and it’s been with me my whole life.”
James Harry’s works are on view in galleries and public spaces in and around Vancouver––and online at jamesharry.ca
Sidebar: Carving out a Creative Visit
James Harry offers his tips for First Nations arts and culture hotspots to discover in and around Vancouver:
Visit the Museum of Anthropology (MOA).
“Their Bill Reid collection is extraordinary and inspiring. And there are some incredible old totems on display––I used to sketch them when I was younger.”
Discover the region’s artistic diversity.
“The Lattimer Gallery has a strong, well-rounded collection of local indigenous artists. From Haida to Coast Salish, there’s a great mix of modern and traditional approaches.”
Take a road trip to Whistler’s Audain Art Museum.
“It’s an amazing collection. I love James Hart’s work The Dance Screen but there’s also a metal totem out front that was created by my dad––he was definitely inspired by me!