Stepping through the threshold of Phill Ashbee’s workshop and studio is entering into the lair of a master craftsman.The aroma of cedar fills the sinuses and permeates the senses. There is a collection of various types of wood and an array of carving tools is at rest, awaiting the next opportunity to contour.
An elderly black lab named Elmo meanders through the workshop. With a good-natured wag of his tale, Elmo spies a comfortable foamy conveniently situated for his benefit. He flops down and lets out a sigh at the softness of his resting spot.
I, too, meander through the workspace and yard and pause to admire carvings in various stages of development. A side view of a fish is hollowed out to make a bowl out of the body section; bejeweled with abalone shell and copper accents. Approaching the back yard, I stop at a work in progress. A large, roughly shaped salmon, approximately three feet by two feet adorns pencil markings outlining the eye, mouth and decorative fins. Ashbee shares that a fish of this size takes him about ten days to complete.
Ashbee’s demeanor is low-key: quiet and thoughtful. Born in Barrie, Ontario, he moved to Nanaimo in 1954 at the age of three months. He has worked as a commercial fisherman and was a contractor in the construction industry for eighteen years. Based on the quality of workmanship, one would believe his artistic talents have been honed throughout his lifetime. On the contrary, Ashbee carved his first piece eight and a half years ago, and spawned a new career as his creative flow discovered a unique avenue to express itself. The change in career was initiated by a vision that came to Ashbee where he saw himself as a carver. It spurred him into an amazing journey that has allowed him to honour his true identity and express his true passion.
"The challenges of my human journey are expressed through my carving.” shares Ashbee. "My art is a metaphor for my life. As I shape and mold the materials, I exercise patience, strength and softness. My heart and ears open to the Spirit of Mother Cedar.”
Ashbee tours me through his creative endeavours. A print of his first mask hangs on the wall entitled, "The Keeper of Drowned Souls.” He explains the significance of the piece: a shaman disguises himself by transforming into an octopus to recover drowned souls. We turn to another wall and an incredible sun mask stares out at us with eagle wings and a killer whale fin (pictured here with the blue background). A loving father of two daughters, aged 15 and 19, Ashbee shows me a photo of a mask he and his younger daughter, Daina created together, called Spirit of the Bear. Another photo reveals the fun expressed through the two of them creating jack-o-lanterns for Halloween.
In the creation process of mask making, Ashbee experiences a strong connection with the piece.
"It’s not just a one sided process. The mask takes a part of me; who I am in that present moment. I, in return offer that mask everything I am able to give it."
Throughout his career as an artist, Ashbee has won numerous awards for his artwork including first place awards at both the Brandt Festival from 1995 to 1997 and the Mid-Island Carver’s Association. His work is collected around the world including England, Germany, New Zealand and throughout the U.S. and Canada. In his second year of carving, his mask Transformation Man, was purchased by the Aboriginal Achievement Foundation and re-created to be 16 feet tall for a backdrop in the Aboriginal Achievement Awards shown on television internationally. This powerful piece now adorns the CBC building lobby in Toronto.
Those who have attended productions at Nanaimo’s Port Theatre, will have seen Ashbee’s work adourning the upper wall of the front lobby: Salmon Coming Home. A school of 130 salmon, each one uniquely designed and intricately carved, swim past a sun mask made of old growth red cedar.
"The Sun Mask represents the hope that, in the next millennium, the Sun will remain our friend, the source of all light and life, and that our environment will have been healed from the damage that has been inflicted.”
Teaching and inspiring others to learn the art of carving is a passion of Ashbee’s. His workshops are in high demand and he has had the opportunity to teach at Hollyhock Farm School on Cortez Island, Brieteubush Hotsprings in Oregon with upcoming workshops in Hawaii, Arizona and New Mexico. He has also taught individuals who suffer from mental health issues through Open Minds Open Windows, an organization that works to reduce the stigma of mental illness.
Phill Ashbee is a talented, local craftsman who touches others through his immense creative energy expressed through his carvings. His goals for the future are to continue to inspire others through his workshops and to receive the opportunities offered to him with respect. He is grateful for the support his work has received thus far and will continue to honour his spirit through the creation of these powerful, provocative works of art.
Interview/article by Nicole Shaw.