Mike holds a butterfly, one of his latest creations. (Emily Vance photo)

Not your average Vancouver Island Christmas crafts project

First-time Nanoose Bay carver creates eight-foot totem as a present for his wife

Mike Bellis doesn’t do anything halfway.

When he asked his wife, Kristi Bellis, what she wanted for Christmas in the winter of 2018, she said “oh, babe, don’t make a fuss. Something homemade.”

Kristi says she isn’t a “stuff” person, and wasn’t expecting much more than a poem or a bracelet.

Instead, on Christmas morning, Mike lead her into their garage, where an eight-foot totem pole called Family was standing.

Kristi had had an inkling of what Mike was up to, but she was nervous to see the end result. Since Mike had never carved before, she had low expectations — but what she found far outstripped her fondest hope.

“I was so blown away. Because it’s so beautiful,” said Kristi.

RELATED: Parksville carver turns invasive species into cutlery and more

At the top of the totem is an eagle, Mike’s spiritual animal. The bear on the bottom represents Kristi as the rock of the family. A little watchman sits in the bear’s stomach that protects the house and their family.

Mike’s heritage is Haida. He had never carved before, but he has strong memories of visiting Haida Gwaii and watching his uncle, cousin and father carve.

“I don’t know if that part is in my blood or not, but I remember those days, and I remember those smells, I remember the shavings hitting the floor… I’ll never forget that,” said Mike.

He had always wanted a totem pole for their garden, so he decided to take this opportunity and run with it.

Fast foward seven months, and Mike hasn’t slowed down one bit.

He’s carved eight totem poles to date, the tallest of them reaching 13 feet. He’s also created paddles, panels, boxes, a small canoe and a handful of fishing lures. Mike estimates he’s made about 25 pieces since he started carving seven months ago.

From the way he tells it, his proliferation is part personality and part ancestry, with a bit of luck thrown in.

That first pole, Family, was sticking out of his truck bed as he drove home one day.

As luck would have it, he was stopped by an art dealer who specializes in First Nations work.

“It was really kind of divine timing,” said Kristi.

The dealer asked if the piece was for sale. It wasn’t, but when the art dealer told Mike he’d be interested in seeing other pieces, Mike realized that he may have stumbled upon a serious talent.

“Not only was it enjoyable fun in channelling some of my older heritage through my family and through my father, but it was potentially another stream of income for our household,” he said.

Without that encouragement, he thinks he may have carved a couple more pieces and then been done. All the feedback from his friends and family had been positive, but he wasn’t sure if they were just being kind.

“To hear those words from somebody who does that as a living – it was like, wow. Maybe all my friends aren’t just talking me up. It was nice to get that reassurance, which gave me that initial boost of confidence,” said Mike.

RELATED: Linking culture and recovery: totem project matches people with master carver

Life hasn’t all been roses for the Bellises. A spinal cord injury Kristi describes as “devastating” in 2005 left Mike with mobility difficulties and serious pain. That lead to serious weight gain, and spiralled into a seven-year dependence on painkillers and alcohol. Things were going rapidly downhill.

“I look back to where I was in 2012, and it was no question that I was at my weakest point. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, everything,” said Mike.

Now he’s carved a totem pole called Recovery as a donation to The Orchard, the rehabilitation facility that Mike says saved his life in 2012. Recovery features an eagle as well as several other natural-world symbols that directly apply to those trying to rebuild their lives.

The dragonfly symbolizes new beginnings; the hummingbird peace, positivity and appreciation; and the moon transformation and spiritual guidance.

After leaving The Orchard, Mike took the summer of 2012 off work and spent it working in the garden with Kristi, shedding pounds and rebuilding his life. It wasn’t easy, but in the end he lost 130 pounds and has been sober for seven years. He wants to share his story so that others who may be struggling can find hope.

Now, he and Kristi laugh about how carving has become his new addiction. He spends up to eight hours per day carving, getting up before the sun many days. He also runs an ocean and fishing tour company out of Schooner Cove called Haida Gold Ocean Adventures.

RELATED: Victoria-based carver receives Order of B.C.

Mike had his first public showing in June as part of the Nanoose Bay Studio Tour. He has no intention of slowing down, and is branching out into more unique pieces and contemporary twists on traditional Haida art.

“It’s going to take years to get good to the level that I intend to be. But I am on my way, and I think I’m going in the right direction,” said Mike.

Kristi is right there with him.

“I feel like this is going to be a direction that he’s going to go now with his life. I have this very strong feeling that he’ll be a well-known Haida artist, I feel very strongly about it,” said Kristi.

Anyone interested in seeing more of Mike’s work can find him on Instagram @captainmikebellis.

 

As a fisherman, the fishing lure is one of Mike’s favourite pieces. (Emily Vance photo)

The totem pole Family now sits in the couple’s garden in their Nanoose Bay home. (Emily Vance photo)

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