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The Journey of the Healing Mask

Sometimes I find myself walking down a street or waiting in line for a cashier and someone will tap my shoulder and say, “Aren’t you Sanford Williams? The master carver, Sanford Williams?”

“Why, yes,” I say, humbled yet proud.

“I’m a huge fan,” they’ll say. “May I?” They hand me a pen and paper for an autograph.

“Sure,” I laugh, taking the pen, then scribble down my name with some authority.

Just as my carving fan says thank you, my dream sequence music comes to a stop, I blink, and then realize that none of this even happened.

You see, my mind does what it can to forget about the past of residential school. In its place I think of designs, I think of where my carvings will end up in the world, and I think about what my wife is making for dinner.

Basically, I try to focus my thoughts on what’s pleasant rather than look backward – a direction I’m not headed for.

In 1974, I was taken from my family and home at Yuquot and was forced to live at a boarding house called Kakawis Christie near Tofino. I’ll spare you the details of the abuse.

As a teenager and young adult, I was constantly having trouble focusing, and my feelings had two settings: sensitive and angry. I wanted to quit highschool and end the misery of trying to learn academics. My foster father in Victoria handed me a newspaper one evening, showing me an ad for a carving course at K’san. Gitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art, as it was called back then, was meant for serious carvers. Students were accepted based on their level of commitment to the art and to their education. I had to be a high school graduate, and must have some prior experience with the traditions and with carvings. It helped to have a client base, and as an amateur, provide photographs of my work.

“Ugh,” I said to myself, “I have to graduate?” This meant putting in two more agonizing years at a school where the student body consisted of only three First Nations kids (my brother and I being two of them).

I had to focus on what was needed to bring up my grade point average in order to complete Grade 12. Any art or woodworking classes helped, as did any academic classes that required any sort of right-brained thinking.

All the while, I still hadn’t put residential school behind me. It was always looming in the forefront of my thoughts, and interfering with my finding happiness. These negative feelings told me I wasn’t good enough and being a child of First Nations blood was less than desirable in society.

Then I realized that what I needed to do in order to fight these negative feelings was to claim them as something positive. My being First Nations is a privilege, and my ability to create art from our traditions is a gift. These things were a vehicle to tell my story and get myself back on track.

I had individual counselling and group therapy to teach me how to talk about what had happened. These meetings allowed me to meet others who were in the same situation as me. To find strength, many chose religion or some other method to help find purpose. However, I didn’t drink or take drugs to get here.

Carving was my drug and my salvation. Digging in to the history of our totem animals, the meanings of the designs, and the process of how to make a block of wood a work of art using similar tools my ancestors had used – it all made me feel closer to the true person I am as a man of First Nations blood.

It wasn’t long before I manipulated the designs to describe my feelings, creating pieces that represented me instead of the history of my people.

My first design was called The Wellness Mask. The blue-green colour is regarded as a sickly colour, which is where the shell of my former being was housed. I was in a hole, wanting out, and the figure of the small human took on the look of a scared child in the fetal position. That’s how I felt: small and damaged. The hair was cropped on one side and longer on the other. It occurred to me that when some people go through stress, their hair falls out. On the blue-green side, the hair is short to reflect this. Also, the blue-green side shows tears flowing. The face says it all. There is sadness, frustration, even the mouth has been hollowed and left blank to signify speechlessness.

On the other side, the colour red represents power. A hand is reaching for help. The eye sees clearly as it’s now wide open. A human form is opening up and appears to be finding his way. The hair is healthy and long, representing vitality.

This is the origin of the mask’s meaning. Though I’ve made variations throughout the years, it usually has the same components throughout: the tears, the blank mouth, the human in the fetal position, the colour red, the stretched out hand, and the human coming out of the shell.

I used my traditions and abilities as a carver to create something that was mine, and each time I carved it, the stronger I became.

However, over the years I noticed clients requesting this design more and more. I had thought they admired my story, but it didn’t take long to realize that my design could give strength to others for many different reasons.

A bereavement group manager displays the mask at their facility for those who attend the clinic to cope with loss. A clean-and-sober husband keeps his in his home as a reminder of his own battles. A poverty-alleviation group requested one for their lobby so that members who use the site can draw on its message. So many others, who have suffered through abuse, separation, abandonment, mental or physical downfalls, even personal setbacks such as money troubles or a break-up have requested this mask.

What was once a healing journey for me turned in to a healing journey for so many others who have identified with the design.

To me, nothing has been more healing than to bring that sort of joy to those who need it most each time I carve it.

It reminds me just how powerful First Nations art really is.

Čačimḥap. [Stay strong.]

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