Young Bill Henderson with an octopus carving. (Photo by Binny Paul/ Campbell River Mirror)

Inside master carver Bill Henderson’s shed on Vancouver Island

Where Kwakwakaʼwakw mythology and the past comes back to life

Kwakwakaʼwakw artist Bill Henderson’s red-roofed carving shed, tucked right by the shoreline of Campbell River, and a stone’s throw away from Quadra Island, is where the master carver comes in day after day, and spends hours to make ‘wood talk.’

Last year the image of his red-roofed shed was all over news when a helicopter crashed into it.

READ MORE: One dead in Campbell River helicopter crash

The roof has been restored and there’s hardly any trace of the accident.

Inside his shed, items are scattered all around – blocks of cedar, shaving tools, chisels, hammers (made by the artist himself) and machinery. There’s also a large black-and-white portrait of his father, the legendary carver Sam Henderson, standing beside a totem pole.

Apart from one other photograph of a young Henderson with a prized octopus carving, there are no other portraits or news clippings or awards in the workshop.

In fact, nothing in the workshop gives away the fact that this man is a renowned carver.

“This was the toughest piece I ever worked on,” said Henderson pointing towards the octopus in the picture and explained that the process to mould and curve the wooden octopus’ tentacles upwards was a tedious effort.

Seated in his chair, carving out hollow structures in a killer whale plaque with nimble thumb movements, the septuagenarian reminisces about the past. He fondly recalled stories about his father, the culture of his people and the totems he has carved in his lifetime – some spread across the globe.

He was happy that his work had been bought internationally. Not because they bought him fame but because the culture of the First Nations had disseminated through these works.

He had etched myriad cultural stories of the Kwakwakaʼwakw into those carvings.

“It’s a great honour to be able to spread my culture across borders,” said Henderson.

As he carved wood and retold tales, the cedar seemed like a portal, allowing him to travel between stories from the past. It was evident, that the wood made the carver talk too.

“When I work, I think a lot,” Henderson said about how stories about mythology, folklore and his lived experiences played in his mind when he carved.

Somewhere in the conversation he casually mentioned that a 32-foot totem made by him and commissioned by a museum in Osaka, Japan will be erected this week.

Work on this totem had just about begun when the helicopter crashed into his shed in September 2019. Luckily, he wasn’t in his seat when it happened.

The incident was personally harrowing but the first thing he insisted on doing on the site was conducting a rite for the pilot who died in the crash.

“I knew him, he was a friend,” said Henderson.

After a five-week break, he returned to his shed with his nephews to carve out a mythical Sisiutl (three-headed sea serpent) onto the totem to be sent to Osaka.

“The museum initially asked for an eagle, but I suggested this supernatural sea serpent because it was similar to dragons which are also popular in Japanese culture,” said Henderson.

When he spoke about the Sisiutl, Henderson’s eyes sparkled with excitement. He was most animated when he spoke about mythology and the culture of his people.

Layers and layers of stories unfolded, one leading to the other – from mythical thunderbirds and the wild woman to bears and eagles and smokehouses and cedar-smoked fish.

He described the traditional ways of smoking fish with such flair that the listener could almost imagine the taste.

In his lifetime, he has carved more than 50 totem poles, innumerable masks that make appearances during ceremonial potlaches, paddles and plaques that are mounted on walls all over the world.

Many of his totem poles are also displayed around Campbell River. There’s one outside Campbellton school – where he was a student – that he made in his early days.

Totem poles are hard work and they take three to four months, or more, to complete. It often requires more than two to work.

Luckily for Henderson, his family is filled with gifted carvers. Several of his siblings are also artists, including Mark, Dan and Ernie Henderson.

His many nephews, including Junior and Greg Henderson are also acclaimed carvers who trained under him.

“These boys are more talented than I am,” Henderson said.

“Dad always said ‘keep the legacy alive,’” Henderson said and is relieved knowing that the family legacy has passed on to the next generation.

His father hailed from Blunden Harbour – a Kwakwakaʼwakw reserve located on the mainland side of Queen Charlotte strait and 25 kilometres northeast of Port Hardy. The village was well known for producing talented Kwakwakaʼwakw carvers like Willie Seaweed.

But there was a point in history when the art of carving was almost lost to the community.

Around 1964, the reserve was burnt to the ground and the Kwakwakaʼwakw community was dispersed. Many fled to Port Hardy.

“Our people lost a lot of traditional knowledge about carving after that fateful event,” said Henderson.

Henderson began carving at the age of seven, observing his father who was instrumental in reviving the fading art of carving during his time.

As a young boy, he learned how to make his own wooden toys and even made a small wooden plaque for his Grade 1 teacher which still hangs at Campbellton school.

Growing up, Henderson remembers his father’s workshop was always filled with children from the neighbourhood, who came to watch him carve. He would interpret his father’s patient responses in English to the kids as they quizzed him about carving.

Years later, Henderson would also imitate his father’s tutelage skills as his shed, too, started filling up with curious school children from the vicinity.

Midway through the conversation, Junior walks in with a chainsaw.

He had been carving a canoe for a local school. Junior has been his uncle’s protege since he was 17 and they’ve worked together on traditional big houses and numerous totems, harmoniously synergizing their distinct styles.

While Henderson still sticks to traditional tools, the younger generation has found a time-saving tool in the chainsaw.

“The first time I watched my nephews using a chainsaw, I sat back and smiled,” Henderson said about new carving methods that can economize time.

Carving has come a long way since. But to attend to the details and the finesse, you need skilled hands and traditional tools, he said.

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Bill Henderson works on his killer whale plaque in his carving shed. (Photo by Binny Paul/Campbell River Mirror)

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