Arts and Entertainment

The Art of the Canoe with blue collar academic Duane Pasco

Duane Pasco at his desk with a partially finished totem pole. See more of his work at - Bill Mickelson/Staff Photo
Duane Pasco at his desk with a partially finished totem pole. See more of his work at
— image credit: Bill Mickelson/Staff Photo

Duane Pasco is a modern man well in tune with the ancient art of the canoe. He speaks slow and deliberately — his face solemn and discerning. He radiates tradition from his eyes and wears his weathered silver hair like something of a headdress. He can see the canoe in the wood before he carves it.

"When I'm working on a piece I kind put myself into a, what would you call... a total immersion," Pasco explained. "Mentally, I'm back in that time, in a longhouse, making my piece of work. And there's smoke around, I can hear people talking, and talking about the kind of things people would talk about at that time — in their language."

That’s probably how his work always tends to come out so traditional, he says, why it wouldn’t be surprising to see one of his canoes or ceremonial masks gathering dust in the back of a museum somewhere.

But you might be surprised to find out that Pasco is a white man. And each of his pieces is an originally designed, contemporary work of art.

Pasco will be giving a talk on his art and how the canoe served as a vessel for awakening Native American culture at 2 p.m., Aug. 23 at the Sylvan Way Library in Bremerton, as part of the Kitsap Regional Library's month-long celebration of native culture.

"The Northwest Coast Indian Art Movement started in the late 1960s," Pasco reminisced. "At that time, you'd be hard pressed to count on one hand the number of people trying to do traditional, contemporary Northwest Coast Indian Art... but I was one of them."

Having had a keen interest in native culture since seeking it out as a kid in pre-WWII Alaska, he came around to the art end of the culture later in life, as a working adult. He made one of his first totem poles from a four-foot section of discarded telephone pole in 1959, referencing the design from a picture in a book which he'd stolen from his high school library.

He worked feverishly through the night, finishing the totem just in time to plant it in his front yard before he went to work the next morning. When he came home that night, he compared it to the picture, hated it and decided to dig it up.

In the process of getting rid of the totem, a neighbor drove by and offered him $10 for it.

He accepted, and thus began Pasco's carving career. He carved sporadically, mostly as a hobby, he says, up into the late 1960s.

In his 30s, Pasco went through a period when he was heavy drinker, living in and out of the bars and taverns on First Avenue in downtown Seattle, where he fell into carving curios — "cheap tourist crap, you know" — amongst a diverse group of down-and-out Native Americans.

"Most of the taverns had card rooms in the back, but they weren't being used, so the carvers would sit around the tables carving," Pasco recalled. "I was the only white guy doing this stuff, so sometimes I had problems... but actually, I learned a lot about culture and things just talking with these guys — all these indians were from all over the place."

But the curio shops didn't know anything about native art, Pasco said, they know about curio art.

In 1967, he discovered Bill Holm's book "Northwest Coast Indian Art, an Analysis of Form," which, he said, pointed him in the right direction and led him to pursuing native art as a career. He studied examples from museums and books and sought out the culture behind the art. And over the years, he began to grasp the intricacies of the art form.

"It's the kind of an art form that is a part of a culture," Pasco noted. "Without the culture, the art is kind of out of context. To me, language is important, singing, dancing, its all important, the food, everything."

Midway through work on an enormous installation for SeaTac Airport in 1972 — one of the largest native art commissions in the state, maybe the entire northwest, Pasco presumes — he made his first canoe on the beach at Kiana Lodge, simply because it was something he'd always wanted to do.

His second canoe, a 20-foot Northern style craft built in 1983, was a five-week demonstration for a tribal longhouse exhibit at the Seattle Science Center.

"The simplest thing to say about it is: you can't make a canoe until you've made a canoe," Pasco said with his indefatigable dry wit. "And that's considering that you made your first canoe very studiously — critiquing every move of your process."

Unlike the European process of building a boat where one draws plan, lofts it on the wall or on the floor, then projects it to draw the frames, run the keel and add the planks, carving a canoe is quite the opposite, Pasco said.

"You're doing the reverse," he notes. "You're removing material to get your form instead of adding stuff to get your form. You have to see that canoe in there — if you can't see your mask in a block of wood, or your canoe in the log, you have no business trying to make that thing."

In the mid-80s, when the Port Gamble S'Klallam tribe set out to build a canoe for the first ever Pacific Northwest Tribal Canoe Journey, Jake Jones, the tribal council chairman at the time, paid a visit to Pasco.

"And he said, 'I wanted to talk to you about making our canoe for the Paddle to Seattle,’” Pasco recalled. “And I said, 'How come you came to me instead going to a native guy?'"

Pasco smiled.

He knew at the time he was one of a very few active traditional canoe carvers. He knew of Holm, the renowned University of Washington educator, who'd carved two at that time; another carver named Steve Brown, who'd made three for the museum at Neah Bay; and himself, who, in his limited knowledge, had also made two.

"And we're all white guys," Pasco noted.

However those three white guys are also largely credited with helping to embolden the renaissance of Northwest Coast Indian Art and, partly, the resurgence of the Northwest Coast native culture itself.

“The canoes kind of carry the revival of the culture and the art form,” Pasco noted, which he’ll expand on in his talk Aug. 23 through the story of the 34-foot Salish style canoe he helped the Port Gamble S’Klallam tribe carve for the Paddle to Seattle.

Almost all of the Puget Sound regional tribes were looking to build canoes for that first tribal journey, Pasco said. There were several meetings at different reservations, and he attended them all, willing to lend his expertise.

Even before he was qualified to teach, Pasco had a passion for teaching.

“Whatever I knew I would teach,” he said, thinking back to those days and nights on First Avenue.

It never made much sense to him to learn something and then keep it all to oneself. He doesn’t even keep much of his art for himself.

“To me, making the thing is the whole thrill of it,” he said. “Once its done, I take a picture for the record, but its function for me is over.”

The exception would be some of the canoes which he’s put thousands of miles on, paddling in and around the Sound. But through his teaching, Pasco’s art and the greater Northwest Coast Indian art garners an even greater longevity.

“I enjoy passing on what I have learned to others and hope they will do the same,” Pasco writes in his online biography. “This is world-class art and it needs to be perpetuated.”

HEAR PASCO TALK about the Northwest Coast Native Art renaissance and how the canoe has carried the revival of a culture at 2 p.m. Aug. 23 at the Sylvan Way library, 1301 Sylvan Way in Bremerton, as part of the Kitsap Regional Library's month-long celebration of native culture. Info:

PEG DEAM a Suquamish tribal elder — established artist, illustrator, author and traditional regalia maker — will be demonstrating traditional cedar bark weaving at 7 p.m. Aug. 25 at the Port Orchard Library, 87 Sidney Ave., talking about her heritage and how it weaves in with the modern world within her art.

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