It all began with a Raven
Sometimes we find ourselves rising from the ashes when all we really meant to do was get a bit of a tan. So it was for my first phoenix carving and like so many other northern tales, it all begins with a Raven…
I was a couple of years out of sculpture school and living in the two yurts I’d built and moved on top of the hill behind the little community of Dogpatch were I grew up. I was care-taking a neighbors place in exchange for squatters rights.
The larger yurt doubled as studio, cool looking and useful junk storage, and kitchen. I’d made a small wood stove with a soapstone oven built of slabs from salvaged sinks. It worked as both an updraft and downdraft stove and I’d made an angle iron frame inside the bottom of the firebox with a grate in it. Attached to the frame were two rods with hooked upper ends protruding through the top of the stove. With a makeshift, bike sprocket, ratcheting crank suspended from a yurt rafter and hooked into these rods, I could raise the glowing coals to just under the cooking surface. This way, cooking supper didn’t cook me out house and home as well.
Well, that stove was the tool I intended to use to make my new raven carving it’s requisite black – and all without instructions to tell me just how deep the coals should be, how long to leave it in and how often to turn it. I of course thought I was checking it regularly enough, but despite my best intention, it got a wee bit blacker than planned. The legs were ashes and smoke and it had taken on a simpler shape overall. Well, always one to see opportunity in disguise, my first phoenix and I were soon found rising to the occasion.
Back at Naguib School I’d spent time drawing at an animal sanctuary. I had watched a raven as it perched on a branch with its head back over its shoulders eyeing me. I modeled that pose life-size in clay, made a plaster mold and cast it in blue-black paper. My parents have that sculpture and this raven carving had started in a similar pose. It no longer had the means to perch upon its branch. My experiment had gone belly up and that’s how I mounted it, with marble egg nestled in its breast.
That winter, I entered it into a Fairbanks area art show but despite it’s jurors choice and UAF museum purchase prize, I expect it now lies lurking with dusty mammoth bones, deep in the catacombs of the Museum of the North.
And so began a phoenix phase. I probably saw them everywhere. It’s a wonder I stayed warm in the winter. When I split firewood, it seemed every other piece went into a carving pile.
My yurts sat among the aspen and birch trees whose small seed scales littered the snow each winter. Their classic fleur-de-lis shape suggests a rising phoenix and became the inspiration for a series of carvings. I’d “salvaged” a couple of arcs of a hollow cottonwood log from my neighbors firewood pile which I carved and burned through multiple iterations before they were finally abandoned as “finished.”
While I was working on these in 1984, I was chosen as one of six sculptors to make pieces for the UAF campus. We each got to choose the location for our sculpture. I think I was the only one to choose an indoor spot. Ron Senungetuk, one of my teachers, made a teak timber sculpture for outside the library. He knew where I could find an old untreated cedar telephone pole and we went together to get some sections.
I brought mine home to the woods outside my yurts where I carved and burned and carved and burned. That phoenix now stands on it’s steel base in the entry to the Great Hall. Often when I visit, I glance either way to see that I’m alone and hugging the wooden base, I give it a bit of a turn on it’s hidden swivel to add some spice to the lives of observant passers by.
After a fifteen year hiatus-phoenixia in Tennessee and North Carolina, Ranja and I moved back to Alaska where the winter solstice is cause for celebration and a fine time for a party. We livened the winter evening with fires sculptures and other treats.
My first fire sculpture was a phoenix. Made from a leftover piece of a wide, beetle kill spruce board, it made a large wooden silhouette with fanning wood chip feathers and egg of ice mounted within it’s breast.
After the fire died down, we all went into the workshop where a large woolen rug was spread upon the floor under circling hay bales. People sat and gazed inward upon a large blue egg that lay nestled in it’s beach stick and yarrow bower. In the meantime, I snuck off to the loft. The orange flame-shaped candles flickered and all was quiet in the darkened room.
From the shadows came the voice of my daughter reading her phoenix poem and at just the right time, the egg began to rock.
“…From the egg within the ashes, The phoenix rose again.”
It’s two halves fell open and an orange phoenix looked sleepily about before spreading its wings and rising into the darkness of the hammerbeam ceiling to the surprise and delight of all.