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;Watch out for the cars'

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Carving, art yields expression

CANASTOTA, N.Y. - Eric Schweig, Inuk, isn;t shy. He's not afraid to share his opinion. His ability to not block that expression is shown with his skill of carving.

Carving was a gift he acquired at an early age. It started as a love that was nurtured into adulthood.

Schweig studied traditional Pacific Coast carvings before refining this scope toward the traditional masks of his ancestors, the Inuit. He hand-carves the masks from the red cedar of Vancouver, British Columbia.

''I've been doing it my whole life, since I was a kid, just because it was the most organic form of expression that I could think of.''

Schwieg explained how he and his clients conceptualize a mask.

''It's art. You can do anything with it. It doesn't matter. ... It's open to interpretation. It's alchemy. You make something out of nothing. It just depends on what I want to do, or what I feel like doing, or what a client feels like doing, or your state of mind. Whether you're happy, sad or angry; whether the client's happy, sad or angry. It just depends on what he or she wants, or what you want. You can do anything. It's wide open. It's freestyle and it's wide open. So, there's no one way to design something. Absolutely no [limitations].''

The masks can take up to a few months to complete, depending on the level of intricacy. He said that while the colors used can symbolize different things, they're often chosen because they hold special meaning to the client.

''It's usually open to interpretation. If somebody wants something done, I'll usually get a color swatch from them and then I'll go to an art store and I'll match it, and that'll be it.''

His signature style includes a certain distinction.

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''To me, the only thing that sort of sticks out that I like is contrast. That's why I always put a white base coat on everything. So anything I put on top of that is going to pop out.''

Schweig recently received an honorary doctorate in education from Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario.

''That's like a once in a lifetime thing. It was cool. And it was so nice, everybody was so nice. The graduates were polite and accommodating. ... It was a really classy event and I was glad to be a part of it.''

Schweig told Indian Country Today the words of wisdom he shared with the graduates.

''Creativity is the building blocks of intelligence. And when they're given the chance to incorporate as much of that alchemy and creativity, there's a sort of sense of originality in their schoolwork. Because right now, the reason why everybody is stupid - and everybody is stupid - is because the education system is more preoccupied with teaching kids what to think instead of how to think. And when you teach kids how to draw or let them express themselves through art, they develop their own sense of individuality and identity and then they're able to form their own thoughts and opinions about a number of issues on a number of different levels.

''But, the education system ... is more interested in getting kids in line, pay attention to the rules, watching the stoplights instead of the cars. If I had kids ... I'd want them to watch out for the cars, not the stoplights, because stoplights fail, but your eyes don't.''

In addition to being an artist, he's an actor, musician, and a volunteer representative and motivational speaker for street outreach. He appears throughout North America speaking to indigenous, American Indian and First Nations youth about suicide prevention, alcohol abuse and adoption, among other things.

He also wanted to prepare the graduates for the world they're about to enter.

''I was trying to tell them from an outreach point of view, that the kids they're going to see, they're going up to some really troubled communities. ... They're going to run into some of the areas in Canada where the socioeconomic conditions of indigenous people up there are horrific. It's the bottom of the barrel and that's where they're being sent.

''A lot of those kids that are graduating don't have any life experience, so they don't know. When they get thrown curve balls or fast balls or drop balls, they don't know how to hit them. They're going to back off the plate. They might not know how to handle that and they need to be prepared.''

For more information on his masks, or to book a speaking engagement, contact Michelle Shining Elk at (818) 302-6122 or