Pandemic brings success to Vancouver Island artist carving COVID masks

Carver Howard La Fortune’s life has changed as his carved wooden face masks have seen demand stretch across North America. (Arnold Lim / Black Press)
Carver Howard La Fortune’s life has changed as his carved wooden face masks have seen demand stretch across North America. (Arnold Lim / Black Press)

For many the pandemic is a hardship, but for a Greater Victoria Indigenous artist it also ushered in opportunity.

Howard La Fortune, of the Tsawout First Nation, was first featured by Black Press Media mid-April after a friend of his joked he needed a wooden carved mask to protect from the virus. La Fortune got on it and carved a half-mask of a bear snout.

Since the Black Press Media story ran, La Fortune says the orders have been rolling in.

RELATED: Greater Victoria Indigenous artist takes unique approach to COVID-19 masks

“I think I lost track after 12,” he says into the phone, taking a break from carving a red cedar mask. “I keep getting messages about this and that, I can’t keep up – well, I can but it’ll take a while.”

The artist won first place in the Masked Heroes contest put on by the First American Art Magazine for his bear snout mask, winning free advertising space.

“That came out of left field,” he says, explaining how a friend told him to submit a photo for the contest. Five days later, he got an email saying he won.

“It means a lot, I’ve been doing this for almost 40 years now and nothing like this has ever happened.”

La Fortune started carving about 40 years ago when he quit school at the age of 16 because he couldn’t sit still. “My brother said I needed something to do, so he showed me how to carve,” he says, adding that a long history of carving runs in the family. La Fortune’s brother was one of the original carvers for the City of Totems in Duncan.

He says what he likes most about carving is being able to create something with his hands – “I need to keep them busy.”

Born in Duncan, the artist has always lived on the Island but settled at Tsawout about 25 years ago where he’s been ever since.

While he’s always loved carving, there was a period where he stopped for about four or five years.

“The tourists, they didn’t really appreciate our work, they just wanted a deal so I quit,” he says. “I’d do small things but people just didn’t want to pay the prices I wanted, so I’d hang onto them until somebody did.”

La Fortune says the market has opened up since he carved his first half-mask during the pandemic. The first mask, which took him between 16 and 20 hours to make, was a flatter version of his more recent work. He says it still looks good, but he’s not sure if he’ll sell that one or hang it on his wall.

READ ALSO: Wearing non-medical masks can stop spread of COVID-19 before symptoms start: Tam

That was about three weeks ago, and since then “it’s been crazy,” as the orders pile up. La Fortune says he’s only been able to get three or four masks done in that time frame as he’s started to improve his own work.

“Since all this started, I’ve cleaned up my lines and everything else because I know people want them and they’re expecting a good piece,” he says, adding that he’s got orders from Ontario, Missouri, North Dakota, Texas and even Germany. “I’m taking my time because it’s got to be to my satisfaction too.”

La Fortune now signs all his masks ‘COVID-19 pandemic 2020,’ so people can remember this “bizarre” time we’re living in. (Courtsey of Howard La Fortune)

While he’s carving, La Fortune thinks of ways to make his work better. He weighs them to make sure they’re not too heavy to be worn and adjusts fine details, such as the teeth on a red cedar bear mask he’s working on now. His inspiration “comes down to the wood.”

When the pandemic hit, La Fortune “didn’t think too much about it.” But when the pool league he plays in was cancelled, he thought, “OK what am I going to do now?” Out in the mountains hunting with his son, La Fortune noticed there were even a lot of people up there.

So he spent his time carving smaller masks to hang on walls, along with rattles and plaques.

“I was carving to make stock for the causeway when it opens up, if it does, and then I did [the initial mask] for something to do because I had the wood laying around and it just hit me fast.”

La Fortune says he thinks the reason people want his carvings now is to remember this “bizarre time” we’re living in.

“[The pandemic] has changed my style of working. It’s not just for the money, I’m doing this for people now, all over and they’re interested and they want it and it’s made my work better.”

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kendra.crighton@blackpress.ca

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