Hjalmer Wenstob can’t remember the last time he’s felt so connected to his family or his art.
The Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation artist has been isolating at his Ty-Histanis home with his wife Annika, daughter Huumiis, 3, and son Cinkwa, 1, since the coronavirus pandemic cleared his work schedule and he’s found needles of joy in the haystack of terror COVID-19 has wrought.
“I’m seeing so many people out gardening and out walking and out spending time with their kids and their families and I’m one of them. I truly haven’t spent this much time in my own yard with my kids and my wife until now and I think that’s really weird. I just don’t normally do it because we’re always on, we’re always busy, we always have something on the go,” Wenstob told the Westerly News. “The kids have never had all of us, my wife and myself and the two of them, stuck inside the house for so long where we had to just sit and make and be creative and spend time together. For my art, it’s been great. For hanging out with my kids, it’s been wonderful. There’s definitely some silver lining to the pandemic for us.”
Wenstob recently carved a unique COVID-19-inspired mask entitled ‘Survivor Gas Mask’ for a Masked Heroes: Facial Coverings by Native Artists competition hosted by First American Art Magazine.
“The idea of the title being ‘Survivor’ was that, no matter what we’re going through, art, culture and who we are as people continues on. And, even if we were going out of the house with gas masks on to be able to survive, our art and our culture still finds a way into that space,” he said. “This idea of surviving and thriving through these times is important.”
He said the piece was motivated by a photo he had seen of children wearing gas masks during the Second World War
“It’s just strikingly awful and beautiful and speaking of the times during World War II,” he said, adding he recognized similarities in a photo of Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation members welcoming Canadian Government officials to their West Coast community around 1914.
“Those two photos really just stayed with me for a while.”
The mask competition was open to Indigenous artists throughout Canada and the United States and Wenstob encourages art appreciators to experience a virtual exhibition of the masks at the magazine’s website, firstamericanartmagazine.com.
He said the mask he submitted is one of about ten pieces he has carved during the pandemic, adding his usually busier schedule only allows him to create one or two in a year.
“It feels like it’s been a lifetime since I’ve actually carved,” he said. “This is really the first time, I think, I’ve been able to sit still in years…It’s been so long since I’ve just been able to sit and carve and make work, moving my hands and working with red cedar.”
Wenstob splits his time between teaching at Victoria’s Camosun College and running his Cedar House Art Gallery, which he opened in Ucluelet three years ago.
“The idea was that I was going to carve all day and make work and be able to hang it up on the walls and I really haven’t had that opportunity because we’ve been so busy just getting the gallery up on its feet. So, there’s such a silver lining to the pandemic for me in a really weird way; something that I’ve loved to do, I get to spend so much time and put energy to it,” he said. “It really has been such a beautiful thing to be able to sit and carve and have my two kids and my lovely wife around while I get to do it. We’ve been collecting cedar bark for carving and spending time making work together and it’s been a really wonderful thing. I hope that, if one thing comes out of this that’s a good thing, it’s that I can continue to do that and continue to do it with my family around me and hopefully more family soon as those circles are allowed to get a little bit bigger.”
He added that, while he’s appreciated the time he’s been able to spend with his family without the gallery sapping his focus, the financial hit has been daunting as Cedar House largely relies on American and European travellers visiting the gallery, which remains closed.
“We really exhausted our savings through the winter, like all of us do out here, waiting for Whale Fest and the big kick off to the season and it was a big shock but, at the same time, we’re all in it together and it really does have that feel. We’re all in it together and we’re all trying to make it work,” he said, adding the gallery is doing online and by-appointment sales, but won’t be opening to the public yet.
“We’re still struggling along. We have to just keep pushing and keep trying. It’s definitely scary…We’re trying to find a way to keep ourselves safe and keep our family safe right now and that’s such a bigger priority than a business; it’s such a bigger priority than getting in the shop.”
He added he’s concerned for the roughly 35 artists his gallery represents.
“They live off their art and they’re definitely taking such a hit right now as well,” he said. “We’re trying to find solutions to keep buying artwork through this time. When we do get a sale, we go off and we buy a couple more pieces and we’re going to keep looking for brighter horizons for now. We’re still here, we’re not going anywhere at this point, but of course we all have a stomach ache about it, there’s no doubt about that.”
He added that he has particularly enjoyed telling stories with his wife and kids and that sharing stories has brought back memories of the stories he was told by his parents and grandparents when he was a kid, motivating him to continue making time for his family, the way his elders did for theirs, after isolation is over.
“It’s those moments that I hope come out of this and it’s those moments I hope we can hold onto. We’re really blessed that we get those moments, I know a lot of people don’t and I know a lot of people are all alone through this and a lot of people are grasping for something to hold on to,” he said.
“Just speaking for myself and my family, there’s been some really beautiful things that have come out of this. I know it’s an awful time and I know we’ve had losses and those are really humbling to hear when we are thinking about the good things, but there is some good for us to just remember to slow down a little bit…We’re holding all those in our hearts that we’ve lost throughout this. It’s a humbling time. It’s a really humbling time.”