Master carver, Kevin Paul

The challenge of 'presenting something different'

SWINOMISH, Wash. - Swinomish master carver Kevin Paul is a performance artist of sorts whose venue is daily life.

One chilly February morning, he was up early in his front yard, carving an eagle that will someday grace someone's collection. ''I like working outdoors. I like the natural lighting,'' Paul said, making clean cuts into the Western red cedar with his carving knife.

He also likes people to stop and watch him work, just as he did as a teen, gaining inspiration from carvers Mike Cladoosby (father of Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby), Charlie Edwards and Elmer ''Pooter'' Kline.

He was back in the classroom on Monday at La Conner High School, teaching wood carving. Native and non-Native students are likely inspired by Paul's public art, which includes the Spirit Wheel at La Conner's Maple Hall, the 16-foot story pole near La Conner Town Hall and the sign outside the Father Pat Twohy Spiritual Center at St. Paul's Mission. Or they've seen his works in fine art galleries such as Scott Milo Gallery in nearby Anacortes.

''I've been teaching at the high school for 13 years,'' Paul said. ''There are a lot of Swinomish students in my class. My goal is to have an apprentice, but a student has to want it.''

On this particular day, Paul is introducing traditional art in a new form: 13- by 7-1/2-inch blocks of yellow cedar, onto which are carved depictions of Eagle, Frog, Kingfisher, Orca, Raven, Salmon, Seahawk or Wolf - all significant figures in Northwest Coast Native culture. Each piece is like a carved painting on a wood canvas. Fourteen pieces lined the walls of Gretchen's Cafe Culture in La Conner for a show timed to coincide with Paul's 47th birthday.

Each piece took three hours to produce - from cutting each block to drawing the image, carving and painting it.

''I look at a round piece of wood and I want it to be different instead of always looking the same,'' he said. ''I like the challenge of presenting something different.''

Each piece shows the clean, crisp lines for which Paul's work is known, but he particularly likes his depiction of Wolf. ''He's got that attitude,'' he said.

Enriching lives through art

Paul was born in Mount Vernon, the son of a Colville father and a Swinomish mother; his father and uncle were carvers.

Paul started singing when he was 13 and began training as a carver in his late teens. He started carving professionally in 1986 and began teaching carving at La Conner High School in 1993.

He faced the biggest test of his skills in 1997.

''I had had a long-term goal to do a carving of a totem pole all by myself,'' Paul said. ''The opportunity came in 1997 when a collector from Camano Island, Don Bernard, asked if I could do a 36-foot pole in three months.'' The pole would depict Eagle, Bear, Wolf and Whale.

Paul met the challenge, guided by discipline and deadlines.

''You have to be disciplined,'' he said of working on a project. ''It's like writing or reading a book; you don't go part way and do something else. You finish it.''

Paul was recruited to teach at La Conner High School in 1993 by shop teacher Mike Carrigan. The class can be challenging; projects have included a 10-foot model canoe. Students receiving an A or B grade can get art credit at Skagit Valley College.

''It's great for the kids,'' Carrigan said. ''Our school has a 25 percent Native population, so that participation is generally reflected in the class. And the class has the effect of exposing the non-Native population to an aspect of Native culture in a way that engenders respect. Education has a way of making racial relations better.''

As an artist, drummer, singer and teacher, Paul also uses his talents to enrich community life.

Paul regularly donates art for charitable auctions; a hummingbird carving he donated to the Ronald McDonald House Auction in Seattle in September raised enough money to pay for 29 nights of family stays at the children's care center.

He donated a hummingbird to the silent auction of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians September meeting in Lincoln City, Ore. His ''Skagit Sunrise'' raised money for Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland in May 2006.

As an artist, Paul continues to look for new ways to present traditional Northwest Coast Native art, experimenting with color, shape and format.

''He's very well-received here,'' said Daphne Storwick of Scott Milo Gallery. ''Visitors to the area are excited to see his work. It's nice to see local artists represented.''

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at rmwalker@rockisland.com.