Master carver creates legends from wood

West coast wood carver Sanford Williams is at home in his new shop in Hope

West Coast master carver Sanford Williams at his shop in Hope. Sanford also carves out of Friendly Cove

Sanford Williams is a soft spoken man with gentle eyes and a warm handshake. The Hope Standard had the opportunity to meet up with the master carver in his new shop in Hope, where he was accompanied by his wife Marlana.

The newly married pair recently relocated to Hope. Marlana, who is an independent writer and self-published author, is also Sanford’s marketing and sales rep. The indie historian saw an article featuring Sanford and knew she had to meet him. The pair met at Friendly Cove (Sanford’s place of birth) where Sanford has a shop, and there was an immediate connection. They’ve been together ever since.

The West Coast native creates hand carved totem poles, doors, plaques and murals, bent boxes, (where the dead are traditionally stored for burial) benches, masks, paddles, drumsticks and rattles, talking sticks and canes. Inspired by his native heritage, Sanford often uses animal imagery in his work.

Creatures of the sea, myths, legends, folklore and even death masks adorn his shop and are carved using yellow and red cedar, alder, and yew wood. The traditional red and blue hues Sanford uses in his work, mark the significance of his culturally rich history, while maintaining the originality of traditional West Coast native art.

“I believe that working the same way my ancestors did is keeping part of our culture alive — when an individual owns one of my pieces, in some ways, they own a piece of history from Friendly Cove,” said Sanford.

The humble carver also believes in the integrity of his work.

“I want to maintain the beauty of traditional West Coast native art, because it’s more than just my work— it’s my way of life.”

Experiencing Sanford and his shop is like being transported into the mystical and romantic world of legend.

There is a spiritual nature about Sanford and his unique creations, that is like transcending the ties of the conventional world and being transported to a place of mysticism, a place where anything is possible. His work is representative of the beauty of nature and is as uplifting and mysterious as the depths of the ocean he carves by in Friendly Cove.

Legends like Luna are a point of discussion, as Sanford describes the inspiration behind his intricate carvings and his tendency toward orcas.

Luna was an unusual and legendary orca who migrated to Nootka Sound. His friendly demeanor, and unusual nature caused the locals to believe he was the embodiment of the spirit of a dead chief. The little orca had many names, but Luna was the one that predominantly stuck.

Sanford replicates legends like Luna in his work to keep them alive, but also to educate and inspire native and non-native people with the majesty of the old myths, and how they present themselves in the modern world.

One of the most striking masks on Sanford’s shelf is a healing mask. The mask represents different selves of the individual, and is demonstrative of healing rituals in his culture. It is one of the more popular masks that he sells.

“People are healed by these masks,” said Sanford. “They represent the human journey and the healing process.”

Sanford is no stranger to adversity and spoke candidly of his own healing journey. He struggled to manifest his own artistic identity as a master carver, while recovering from a troubling past that included abuses suffered at the hands of residential schools. These demoralizing experiences of sexual, mental, emotional and physical abuse, left scars that took time to heal.

As Sanford completed his post secondary education at the Gitanmaax School of  Art in Hazelton B.C. he also struggled with issues of alcoholism and spent some time battling his demons in treatment centres. Through his work, Sanford has been able to express his emotions and the complexity of his inner world, while translating them into the pieces he carves.

“My journey in life has been as intricate as my carvings. Friendly Cove is where I was born and raised, and though it sounds like a simple life — living and working in a remote area on a small island, our people still endured eventful lives,” said Sanford. “There is no other craft, or place on earth that has given me the same tools to work with to express all of my emotions and experiences.”