Carey Newman’s carving workshop is tucked onto a seaside property on the Saanich Peninsula. The barn-like space smells of fresh cedar wood shavings, and purposefully has no windows to make everything inside seem enclosed, timeless and sacred.
Twice per week there are more hands working away than usual, thanks to a partnership between Newman and the Victoria Cool Aid Society.
“We were really looking for an opportunity for some of the Indigenous clients we serve to be in a cultural experience and get them out of the city and working with some tools, working with their hands,” said Grey Showler, director of health and support services for Cool Aid. “Working at a cultural practice is a way for people to recover and to find meaning and wellness in their life, and this grew out of that.”
When Cool Aid approached Newman, who is a world-renowned artist and master carver, he thought it was a great idea.
“I said absolutely, I thought it was a really great thing,” Newman said.
Since the idea came up a year-and-a-half ago, half a dozen people with artistic interest have visited his workshop, and together designed the pole. Upon completion, it will be put up at an undisclosed location to celebrate Cool Aid’s 50th anniversary.
“We don’t have a really strict agreement, we’ve been approaching it in a very relaxed and cultural way where we’re not being governed by a schedule. We’re trying to be open to working in the manner, and on the schedule, the person wants to work with,” Newman said, adding that the carvers aren’t so much apprentices as they are friends and colleagues.
“I don’t know if I have a particular hope other than that we continue to keep doing these kinds of things together. It’s a way that we do things as a community; we work together and share knowledge.”
Showler said what he’s witnessed from the project is profound.
“I’ve seen a real change in where some of the guys are at in their lives. The way the carving has inspired them to do different things for their health, like eating well and exercising– things you wouldn’t expect,” Showler said. “As people build confidence and self-esteem, there’s reason to take care of those other things.”
This was true for James Taylor, a First Nations artist from Alert Bay and Kingcome Inlet who has worked with jewelry and carved masks for nearly 40 years. Taylor has also been a patron of Cool Aid’s medical centre for decades, and was told about the totem project by his doctor. Since he was introduced he’s been a steadfast participant, even helping Newman with outside projects as well.
“This helped me quit drinking. I used to be a big-time drinker so when I come here it’s great, it just feels like… away…It’s a different world when you’re so focused on something,” Taylor said.
Taylor has been dedicated to learning from Newman and his assistant, Tejas Collison, even though technically he is the elder.
“James is very intuitive and very committed and driven, which is nice,” said Collison, who often acts as a supervisor for the team. “For him the confidence was always kind of there, but it’s cool to see him notice things… it’s a kind of confidence with the eye and the art and that’s petty cool.”
Together, the three have formed a strong bond. “My favourite part would be the three of us just sitting here doing our own thing, listening to the knives against the wood and just being together,” Taylor said.
Taylor will continue to work with Newman on other projects once the totem is complete.