The 2008 St. Paul Winter Carnival has come to an end. Most organizers and participants have packed up their talents and put them away for another year. Not everyone. Not the wood carvers who demonstrated their skills at Black Bear Crossings on the Lake in Como Park. Periodically throughout the year, they will show their art at the Historic Como Lakeside Pavilion.
David Glass, the owner of Black Bear Crossings on the Lake, sponsored the wood carving demonstration. “Small businesses have a responsibility to the community to step up and sponsor winter activities too,” says David, and he wanted to keep some winter activities in Como Park. Based on strong positive public response, woodcarving will be an official winter carnival event next year, Glass said.
Joe Semler and his family demonstrated their chainsaw carving skills outside the coffee house, and inside the coffee house was Terry Wilson. For Wilson, the winter carnival event was the sustenance his career needed.
Work of the Semler Family, Wilson, and other Native American artists can be purchased at Black Bear Crossings on the Lake, Como Lakeside Pavilion in Como Park. The coffee house opens at 8 am every day. The mission of Black Bear Crossings is to celebrate American Indian identity, provide a venue for multicultural sharing, advocate positive change and create positive effects in the larger community.
Living in Sisseton, South Dakota, Terry Wilson had heard about St. Paul’s winter carnival, but prior to this year, he had never given it much thought. Wilson, who is part Sioux and part Blackfoot, is a proud Native American artist – a wood and pipestone carver, chainsawer, and bead worker. A few weeks ago, Wilson’s sister, a New Hope resident, invited him to come and live with her and he had the opportunity to show some of his smaller works such as his wooden canes, beaded jewelry, and antler and pipestone carvings at Black Bear Crossings.
When Wilson was ten years old, his foster grandfather taught him how to carve, and he has been doing it ever since; he’s now 51. He likes to do carvings of animals, such as bears, wolves, turtles, owls, and eagles, which have a lot to do with his culture.
“Those animals are sacred to us,” he says. He carves in wood, deer antlers and red pipestone.
Historically, Native Americans have used pipestone, also known as catlinite, to make the ceremonial pipes that are an integral part of their religious and civic ceremonies. Since 1937, only American Indians are legally permitted to quarry the soft red stone.
“This week has been very successful – I have made many connections, sold a few pieces, and even got a couple of jobs,” Wilson said with a wide smile. He was very excited that he has been hired to carve a dead tree at someone’s house. “It’s nice to be able to create something beautiful from something that is nothing. It gives me a sense of accomplishment.”
To support himself, Wilson has worked at a lot of different jobs – auto mechanic, construction, landscaping, and bus driver. But art, he says, is what he really likes to do. His last job was as a porter in a casino. He has also worked with juveniles within the Department of Corrections. He explains that he tried to get them interested in carving, using a bar of soap so they would get an understanding of what he does.
He has also done demonstrations in schools and talked about his culture and how his people survived. One of the objects that he uses in his lectures is the buffalo robe, which was central to his culture. “It kept us warm in the winter as clothing, and it was also our bed in tepees. Now it’s a learning tool.”
Wilson says he moves around a lot, and everywhere he goes, he carves. Minnesota, however, will be his home for a while. He is with his sister now, but mostly, he says, “It’s just me and my art. Art is a way for me to express myself. I put myself into art totally. I express my inner feelings and my spirit comes out in my carvings. It’s very therapeutic to be able to do my artwork.”
“There have been times when I’ve been angry about things and I turn that anger into love. To me it’s a release. I’ve been discouraged in life. People have said to me, ‘Terry, you’ll never amount to anything with art.’ But it’s been there for me through tough times, financially and emotionally. I sell everything I make.”
He describes his emotional relationship with his art. When he is sad and depressed, he is able to turn those feelings into happy ones. When he creates a piece, he feels good about himself. It’s very relaxing. Creating an image from a piece of rock or stone is exhilarating. “It helps me deal with a lot of stress,” he says.
Wilson also describes some of the difficulty he has faced as a Native American artist. “It has been tough sometimes. A lot of prejudice has been thrown at me, but I manage to deal with it. Being Native American, people think that just because we have casinos we’re all rich, but we’re not. Some of us are still struggling. We have to make it, just like everybody else. So I use my artwork to make it through life.”
“I look at the struggles today, such as increasing gas prices, and I think back to how my people survived. Culture taught us how to survive – spiritually and economically. We learned how to create things – how to build canoes, tepees, whatever we needed. I learned how to gather different medicines for my health.”
Wilson’s message to the young art student is, “Don’t stop what you’re doing. Keep on creating. Keep on going with your art. It’s a healing thing for people. It will help some through hard times. Art says a lot of positive things to people. That’s what I see.”