Hjalmer Wenstob is excited to welcome the West Coast to the grand opening of his art gallery on March 17. (Photo - Andrew Bailey)

Tla-o-qui-aht artist carving out conversation in Ucluelet

“When you’re creating together and making work together, those conversations really come naturally.”

A gathering space for carving and connecting is coming together within Ucluelet’s Whiskey Landing.

Tla-o-qui-aht artist Hjalmer Wenstob is transforming the Cedar House Gallery into a venue for sharing, showcasing and experiencing West Coast culture.

“We’ve changed the space around a lot. It’s no longer just an art gallery. We’re going to make it a more creative and community space,” he said. “We have so many indigenous and non-indigenous people living in one space and we want to share a bit of our culture and share a bit of our language to understand each other and understand the space we call home and share together.”

The 25-year-old artist recently wrapped up his Masters of Fine Arts degree at the University of Victoria and received funding from the Nuu -chah-nulth Tribal Council to purchase the gallery from his uncle in December and, he said, his family has been helping him shape out his new venue into his communal vision.

“I definitely wanted to bring my degree back home,” he said. “We all recognize that we want to transform the space from being a gallery and a place of selling art into a place of actually creating art together and finding a way to create more of a community around this space.”

Wenstob and his partner Annika Benoit-Jansson have a 14-month-old daughter named Huumiis and, upon completing the purchase of the gallery, both were delighted to learn that its official name was Huu-mees (Cedar) Ma-as (House).

“They weren’t meant to be that way, they weren’t tied together, but it’s really neat because, if you look around, underneath the carving table is Huumiis’ doll house and some of her toys and it really is Huumiis’ house. It’s her space and she’s letting us work in it,” he said.

He attributed the spelling discrepancy to varying coastal dialects.

“Huumiis is a word for red cedar but the actual translation means ‘to give to life,’ he said. “The cedar tree traditionally gave everything it has: it’s cedar bark was our clothing and our baskets and our blankets and the body of the tree became boards for our houses and our canoes and our masks. Everything came from a cedar tree.”

A grand opening event will be held at the gallery on March 17 beginning at 11:30 a.m. and will include the start of a community carving project Wenstob is putting together to create a roughly three-metre high orca fin that he plans to donate to the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.

He hopes bringing students and community members together to collaborate on the piece sparks conversations and connections.

“When you’re creating together and making work together, those conversations really come naturally,” he said. “In that time we create not only a beautiful object that we can give to the community, but we also create a space where we can come together and work and work through some really important things in our life.”

He said the large fin will be carved out during daily workshops held throughout the Pacific Rim Whale Festival and should be ready to present to Parks Canada at the festival’s closing.

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