By Venta Rutkauskas–
On the windswept plains near Mankota, Saskatchewan, a young boy rides a pinto pony, following his mother as she checks the cattle on the vast ranch she and her family have worked for generations. The little boy senses this land is alive. Something about it, its great silence, leaves its mark on the boy. “I rode that pony over top of tipi rings,” Jacob Moondog, carver and artist, recalls. The ranch lay near the border of Montana, in the territorial area of the Plains Indians, and later the Metis, whose nomadic lifestyle was dependent on the movement of the buffalo. Grassy plains and rocky outcrops stretch far and wide, and the young boy lived and worked the land like his family before.
It was his mother who directed the boy to work with his hands. “If you’re bored, go make something,” was the motto, so the young boy started whittling with a jackknife. At first he only managed toothpicks. Soon, however, he mastered the knife, and the drive to carve and create took hold.
Now the artist makes his home near Horsefly, BC, and lives a life centred in his connection to nature. Besides carving and creating, Jacob, his partner, and their two sons, farm garlic during the warm months. When the cool winds blow, he returns to his rustic workshop and sets to work on his art. His mother also instilled in him a passion for making things of beauty: “Keep making beautiful things for beautiful people,” she told her son. He describes the joy he receives when for just a small moment, the art touches the heart of the viewer and they find themselves far away from their worries. Jacob says he aims to, “help people find a beautiful place, a glimpse of spirit that will lead them to find it in themselves.”
In the workshop, there is a simple light box set up for the intricate carving work: two holes for the arms appear on the front, a glass top from which to view the work, and a vent to carry the dust outside. A variety of materials are found around the room, antlers, wood, and leather predominately, all awaiting the carver’s next inspiration. Two beautiful antler carvings, an eagle and a dragon, lay almost lifelike here, full of energy and spirit. Two leather medicine pouches are displayed and along the walls, several wooden pieces, including a traditional mask in the Coast Salish style, reveal the diversity of Jacob’s ability and style.“It’s three-dimensional art that really calls to me,” he says. “I really like a challenge.”
The majority of Jacob’s pieces are animals. He has a passion for the eagle and the spirit of the buffalo. “I went to the school of nature,” Jacob says. Passion for the detail of natural form permeates his creations. His natural style and ability showed similarities to the Coast Salish style of carving, where simplicity in form and detail produce smooth and calm lines. Then, for three winters from 2001 to 2003, Jacob sat with renowned Cowichan carver, Simon Charlie, and was given the elder’s permission to carve in this style. Simon Charlie shared his cultural heritage with native and non-native artists alike, and Jacob feels blessed to have developed a relationship with the master carver. Although he is not a Coast Salish First Nations artist, this kinship in style was not on-purpose. Rather, it was innately born in him.
In these times where cultural appropriation is a pressing topic, Jacob calmly creates the art that he is called to do. Throughout his adult life, he has pursued the path of ceremony and teachings with First Nations elders, and has a strong belief that these teachings are shared willingly to those who are grateful to learn and respect the traditions. So it is with his art. An elder once advised him: “Tell them you are an Eagle Carver.” It may raise questions of appropriation for people who are not aware of his path.“When you box something in,” says Jacob, “it can only grow so big.” For this artist, certain ideals and truths are universal, and deserve to be seen without restrictions.
Jacob also has a passion for carving hummingbirds, simply because they bring so much joy to people. The carvings, the drums, they each have their moment. Then, a new idea may strike, when Jacob seeks out a fresh antler, for example, that resembles the creature he is called to create. Other times, it is the material itself that lends the idea, holding within it a shape that is meant to come forth. Each piece’s development occurs in stages.
“I have to be in the right space,” Jacob notes, “and my body tells me when it is time to work.”
It is easy to feel the reverence for nature, for right-relations and a love of beauty when in the presence of Jacob Moondog’s artwork. The stillness and silence of the plains lives in it, while a deep emotion and depth can be felt in the intricate details of each carved treasure. The spirit of each creature is honoured and honed just so, in order that the viewer, you and I, may be uplifted and held within a spell, if only for a moment…
This winter, Jacob will return to his carving sanctuary to hibernate with his ideas and dream new forms into being. To contact the artist for inquiries, find him on Facebook as Jacob Moondog, or email Moondog.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Venta Rutkauskas is the co-ordinator for the Community Arts Council of Williams Lake (CACWL). She is an advocate and lover of the arts, and has taught drama and written plays for young children. She is also passionate about the healing arts. Visit www.williamslakecommunityartscouncil.com to learn more about CACWL and local artists.