Carman McKay on his work, inspirations, and experiences

The Musqueam/Stó:lō artist has been carving a spindle whorl at SFU throughout July

Image courtesy of SFU via Twitter

Written by: Amal Javed Abdullah

Artist Carman McKay has been relief carving an oversized spindle whorl, which is traditionally used for wool spinning, in front of the Indigenous Student Centre (AQ 2002) every Tuesday and Thursday in July. So far, McKay has worked on the piece for around 10 hours, and he has an additional 40 hours to go.

     The spindle whorl that McKay is carving is reflective of life. In an interview with The Peak, McKay explained that “from its centre, radiating outward is the spirit of cedar, of nature [. . .] I see the life in the centre of all beings.”

     The piece also reflects salmon populations and “what is here [. . .] but also [. . .] what isn’t here. We’re losing salmon cycles. [This is about] remembering fishing experiences, and carving them. [So that makes] this piece of art certainly about life and death.”

     Carving the whorl is representation of Coast Salish tradition, which is “[a tradition] of connection with nature, with either the mountain goat or the woolly dog [. . .] Our relationship with animals is important, [we always] care for them. We’ve never killed an animal for its wool.”

     As people drop by to see what he’s doing, McKay lets them have a go at carving the whorl as well. He gently guides the user’s hand until they understand how much pressure to direct onto wood, and once they’ve got it, he lets them take the reins. In the words of one passerby, “it feels just like butter!”
     As a self-taught artist, McKay explains his journey began with him sitting with a pocket knife and a piece of wood on the bank of a river. “It was a branch and it looked like a bird, so that’s what I carved.”

     One of the inspirations for how he creates his artwork is Roy Henry Vickers, a contemporary artist and someone McKay describes as “very open-minded” and having “a pretty good sense of the past.”

     Another inspiration for McKay is Chief Dan George, a chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation who passed away in 1981. He was also an author who wrote about his connections with nature. McKay “found them quite important to be connected with the earth and respect all life.”

     Above all, nature is McKay’s greatest influence and inspiration. “Sitting still, observing nature [can help me gain] a clear understanding of life — and [of] death as well.”

     This artwork is important for McKay because it gives him a chance to “share [his] stories, [his] history, and share a passion [and appreciation] for the arts.”

     “Being here means that culture is, in some ways, present. [That] 9,000 years of history is here,” he explained.

     As McKay works, he thinks about the region that SFU is built on. “I think about the people, the connections on this land [. . .] the Squamish, the Musqueam.” What made him come to SFU was a personal connection with a friend.

     “This [interconnectedness] is relevant to my experiences. A lot of my experiences have been informal, self-directed. [The idea is] to continue the journey with the network. [With] all people. Not just one group — all groups.”