Luke Marston introduces me to his brother John and his mother Jane as we step into the family’s carving studio housed in an A-frame cabin on the shores of Kulleet Bay.
Jane sits in front of a small wood stove, weaving what looks like a miniature hat from narrow strips of cedar bark as John works on a paddle at a table nearby. A cedar dugout canoe sits in the far corner of the room — one of John’s projects — and a large wooden crucifix looms overhead, a reminder of the cabin’s former life as a local church. Adzes, axes and carving knives lie on the tables and benches surrounding us as Luke and I sit down to discuss his most recent achievement.
Luke, a renowned 35-year-old Coast Salish carver and father of two, has just returned from Victoria where he attended an award ceremony at Government House on Oct. 31. Luke was one of 16 sculptors, artists and musicians awarded the prestigious Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal by former B.C. Lt.-Gov. Steven Point one day prior to the end of Point’s term as lieutenant-governor.
Jane says Luke received his medal as recognition for his contributions to the community, especially his carving of the Healing Pole, a piece commissioned by Point and installed in Government House in 2009.
“I call it the Healing Pole because it represents the unity between different cultures,” Luke says.
The 14-foot-tall pole, carved from red cedar and painted sparingly, features an owl perched on a rainbow arcing over the head of a shaman holding a butterfly. Between the shaman’s legs sits a frog. The pole symbolizes the shaman’s preparation of medicine intended to heal the friendship between aboriginal people and all non-aboriginal peoples.
It is one of two pieces Luke says he’s most proud of.
Another of Luke’s most memorable carvings is a bentwood box he created for Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Medicine Box was to be a centrepiece of healing circles as the commission toured across Canada, and it was originally intended to house objects symbolizing people’s letting go of the past.
“The box was full on the first day,” Luke says.
From that point on, the box served more of a metaphorical role, Luke adds, serving as a depository for people’s feelings and stories as they met in sharing circles.
The box was a project he took seriously, forcing himself to examine how the history of Canada’s residential schools had affected his family and his community.
“I used to wonder why my grandmother didn’t teach us our language,” Luke says. “I used to get mad about it, but it’s not their fault at all.”
Luke’s grandmother was taken from her family when she was young and prohibited from speaking her language, Hul’q’umi’num,’ while at residential school.
“At one point, I remembered how her hand was crippled,” Luke says. “I always thought it was arthritis, but when I started talking to my mom about this project, she told me it was because [my grandmother] was thrown down the stairs. Her hand broke, and they left it. They didn’t take her to a doctor, and it healed crooked.”
His grandmother’s residential school experience led her to discourage Jane, Luke’s mother, from speaking their language as a child. As a result, Luke and John grew up speaking English exclusively, but they’ve since begun to study the language of their elders.
A list of Hul’q’umi’num’ words and phrases and their English translations is taped to a wall behind one of Luke’s work benches.
Luke’s daughters are learning to speak the language too, something Luke considers key to helping them establish a healthy and confident sense of identity as it relates to their culture.
He’s teaching them to carve too, but they’re not allowed to touch their dad’s tools. At least not yet.
In a family of carvers — Dave, Luke’s father, is a carver, too — introductions come at an early age, but skills evolve slowly.
“My first memory of carving was from when I was four years old,” Luke says. “I was carving little bows and sticks with my dad.”
At 10, he started carving letter openers and tiny canoes. Through high school, he carved plaques and helped his parents carve their poles.
Luke moved to Victoria after graduating from high school and soon found himself working as a carver-in-residence with the Royal British Columbia Museum’s carving program.
During his five-year tenure at Thunderbird Park, Luke worked alongside his younger brother John and assisted carvers Jonathan Henderson and Sean Whonnock with one of their poles. Working with carvers 10 years his senior taught Luke a great deal about the finer points of his craft, he says, and having access to older carvings in the museum’s collection was an enormous asset.
Luke returned to the Stz’uminus Reserve to continue carving. His work led to commissions from the governments of Canada and B.C.
His pieces are on display at the Stz’uminus Community School and at galleries throughout the country and around the world. He visited Japan as a guest artist in 2008 and plans on travelling as an artist-diplomat again in the near future.
To view samples of Luke’s work, visit his website.