QB artist Jessie Recalma inspires students

Carver. How cool would that be to have on your business card?

Like all cool jobs though, there are downsides. Like leaving QB at dawn to drive up-Island to Campbell River, then take two ferries, first, one to Quadra Island and then another over to Cortes Island — to begin what would be a 14-hour day. What was the draw? An opportunity to speak with young students.

Jessie Recalma is a young self-taught contemporary Coast Salish artist and a member of the Qualicum First Nation. He was invited by the Cortes Island School Parent Advisory Committee to participate in their annual Arts/Music program fundraiser, an artist talk series, earlier this year. His challenge was to imbue students ranging from 7 years of age to young teens with a broad understanding of indigenous art.

Design and carving by Jessie Recalma, Saatlam Arts

His artistic impetus begins with understanding and appreciating wood or, more accurately, trees. Recalma’s art is primarily wood-based carving but he also creates compelling sketches and graphic designs. You can see some of his finished works and works in progress at his Facebook page under Saatlam Arts.

As reported by Cortes Radio’s Odette Auger, Recalma “began by asking the youth about local trees… Soon we were deep into traditional ecological knowledge — integrating indigenous knowledge with conventional scientific research. Jessie moved easily from biology, and history, into environmental stewardship and design.”

Recalma informed the students that “holly is not indigenous” to our region, but is instead “an introduced tree that grows well here, to the detriment of other trees.” He also explained that while cedar is a very important tree to people who live on BC’s southern coast, it is not the only tree that provides value. 

Paddle in progress, Jessie Recalma, Saatlam Arts

He explained the different properties of various kinds of wood, and how each contributed to solving different problems when carving wood. “I’m going to pass this around, so you can see how light this is… so you can get an idea of the behaviour of wood,” says Recalma to the students. “Yellow cedar is more dense, but it also has a longer life span, in the sense of how much sturdier it is. It’s light but not too light. It also has some weight to it, it’s something that’s going to cut the waves no problem. Yew wood’s heavy, but yew wood is also very strong and flexible. So, when you’re in a canoe, with yew wood you can have a paddle that’s thinner than this, and just as strong.”

Carving is all about creating designs and shapes, as Recalma showed the students, using different canoe paddles as examples. Some are inspired by culture, others are designed for more practical reasons. “This one is more of a Coastal canoe paddle, and there is a bit of purpose as to how and why it was designed in this way. When it goes into the water, it won’t damage kelp beds. The tip of the blade, it will go right through the kelp, but it won’t cut it, and as it moves through the kelp it still won’t damage the kelp beds. A lot of the regular, more rounded or flat paddle blade shapes, will damage kelp beds because they aren’t meant for ocean-going canoes.”

Recalma recited some stories for the children, then asked them to draw scenes representing what they’d heard. “The intention,” he says, “is not for them to draw indigenous art, but how they would interpret a scene from the story.”

The issue of cultural appropriation is something Recalma has given a lot of thought. He says, “I don’t want to have someone say, “I’m going to become an aboriginal artist, because this one time I had a guy come into my class and showed me how to do aboriginal art. Rather, I was looking at it [working with students] as a way to understand aboriginal art, versus just doing it. As he explained to the students, “I’m not asking you to draw it in a Salish way, draw it in your own way, it’s ​your a​rt.”

Recalma also shared a story with the students (which you can listen to at the following links). “Initially he read it out loud in Island Comox, then in English. Teacher Chris Duketow said ‘It was beautiful to hear him read the story in Island Comox.’ “

 “We have to recognize that cultures aren’t stagnant,” says Recalma. We have to understand there is always a growth within cultures, there is always an evolution in cultures.”

“Artists are always finding ways to grow and achieve something new in their work, says Recalma. “Art is a constant learning process even when the brush strokes or the knife cuts seem dull and repetitive. If you’re ever feeling this, take a step back and breathe, think of the work you’re doing and remember that sometimes you need to look after yourself and keep yourself in a good mind. Put your heart into your work, put your heart into it and let that strength guide you through whatever you’re working on now.”

Then the students got the opportunity they’d been waiting for all along, their chance to do some hands-on carving.

Recalma told the students that their carvings will be,“something that is going to show a connection that the school will have to the territory here. Because even though some of you aren’t from an indigenous background, you have all lived here, you’ve all grown up here, you’ve all made your place here. And understand, look at how we can respect our relationship to the traditional territory, to the people here. I think this would be a fun outcome.”