On my last sunny day in Tofino, I walked down to the Carving Shed on Chesterman Beach, a working artist studio that was established in the 1970s by carver Henry Nolla at the Wickaninnish Inn). After visiting the Shed the previous night on a site tour of the inn, I was curious to learn more about how the newest resident wood carver, Christen Dokk Smith, found his way from Norway to a rustic working art studio on a Canadian beach.
Smith and fellow studio carver "Feather" George Yearsley (who studied under Nolla before the artist’s passing in 2004) sat on driftwood logs outside the Shed enjoying lunch beneath the open blue sky. A homemade spread made from mostly local organic vegetables set in small containers in their laps: wild salmon salad on a bed of romaine lettuce and baby kale leaves dotted with tomatoes, cucumber, paprika, and dressed simply with olive oil, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, cayenne. Dates and seaweed snacks accompanied the salad, along with a thermos of nettle tea and a flask of lemon water. I noted how the food, like Smith’s art, reflected both purity of environment and form. When I asked if they had a few minutes to talk, both artists warmly invited me to sit and join them.
Facing the pounding surf, I immediately understood the Shed’s artistic appeal — dramatic seascape meets relaxed open air. As they finished lunch, I listened to Smith’s story. Close to two years ago, love brought him to Tofino, where he returned to join his girlfriend and to learn from notable northwest carvers such as British Columbia artist Joe David and "Feather" George, among others artists who combine Nolla’s style of blending Northwest Coast and personal styles.
A series of related events led Smith away from his once stressful job as a reconnaissance naval officer in Norway to a working artist who combines his homeland’s heritage with that of the Pacific Northwest. While on a meditation retreat in 2007, Smith met an intriguing artist from the Viking Museum in Oslo who mentioned that he needed an apprentice. Something clicked for the aspiring artist who described the moment as "a weird experience… it was like coming home." It took Smith more than a year to transition from six years spent in the military to a wood-carving apprentice, now artist. Once the decision was made, he never looked back as he went on to learn traditional Norwegian ornamental carving styles.
"It’s been an amazing journey," said Smith, "Sometimes I question what I’m supposed to carve and what I’m doing, but I never regretted the choice."
Before leaving the beach, Smith gave me a tour of the Shed and shared some examples of his uniquely hand-carved cedar canoes. His work brings together Norwegian and Native northwest traditions into personal story carvings that are entirely his own. "I’m curious to see how my work will be received in artist and First Nation’s communities here and along the West Coast," said Smith, who plans to start a series of cross-cultural pieces combining wood and stone. If you’re planning a trip to British Columbia, stop by the carving shed to visit Smith and his work. Don’t forget to pack lunch.