Kathy Phoenix and the Shuswap School of Carving

Kathy Phoenix and the Shuswap School of Carving

Several years ago, a group of woodcarving enthusiasts in British Columbia, Canada, heard that the school where they had regular taken carving classes might be closing. Their response? “We could start a school.”

And so they did. The Shuswap Carvers Society has run a week-long woodcarving school since 2005. Its original leader, Mike Sykes of the since-closed woodcarving supplies business The Chip Bin, passed the mantle a few years ago to current coordinator Kathy Phoenix.


At the time, Kathy said, “I wasn’t even a carver.” Instead, she said, her husband “drug me along.” He began carving about 12 years ago after being inspired by carved paddles he and Kathy found in cabins along a carry-in/carry-out canoe trip; his first class, on caricature carving, was taught by Rick Wiebe, who will be teaching a class on Knife and Chisel Carving at this year’s Shuswap School of Carving and Arts.

In her first years attending the school, Kathy said, “I was doing my tole painting at the time, and people would walk by and say, ‘You should be taking a class.’ So I said if there was a relief carving class, maybe I would give it a try.”

The next year, there was a relief carving class. During her own time as the school’s coordinator, Kathy said, “Sometimes when I’m trying to book instructors, I think ‘Who do we have that so-and-so could learn from?’” since many of the school’s attendees come back year after year to the one-week school in September.


Some of the more popular classes that act as a draw are those which focus on carvings from the Pacific Northwest Native American cultures. This year, returning instructor Rupert Scow will be teaching carving and painting a Wakes (wah-kess’) or Dancing Frog mask, while Robert Barratt, who was been teaching at the school since its first session in 2005, will offer instruction on Northwest Coast Formline Design.


Other classes for 2016 include Carving a Boot or Shoe with Roman Hrystak, Carving and Painting a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak with Cam Merkle, Carving a Red Fox and Leaves with Brenda Mitchell, and Carving and Airbrushing a Smoothie Decoy with Bob Steele.

Both Bob Steele and Brenda Mitchell originally started attending the Shuswap School as students, and now are returning as instructors. With the classes, Kathy said, “We try to get something for everybody” – which includes one non-carving class in every session for attending spouses. This year’s, based on past feedback on spouses’ interests, will be on quilting.


There are also plenty of other “fun stuff” activities as part of the school week, says Kathy (who admits that this aspect of the school is her favorite). In addition to a “Garage Sale of Sorts” silent auction of carving supplies that people can’t use anymore and want to get rid of; a display of participants’ previous work; and a gift exchange, there is an optional “For Fun” carving contest.


This year’s theme will be leaf boats: an item somehow resembling a leaf with a maximum length of 5 inches. The idea came from a class Kathy took at the 2014 session of the Shuswap School, on carving a Bear and Leaf Nut Dish. “I thought, ‘I could take this little leaf, and I bet it would float,’” she said.


Judging for the For Fun contests takes originality into account as much as skill, and is not a serious, juried event. The 2014 judges of that year’s horseshoe carving contest included staff of the Sorrento Centre Retreat where the school takes place, plus one staff member’s dog. (Blanks were provided for the subsequent horseshoe toss contest, as some participants were reluctant to use their actual carvings.) The 2013 contest centered on curling rocks, which were featured in a display at the 2014 Tim Hortons Brier, the Canadian Men’s Curling Championships. (Unfortunately, the plans for them to be displayed on the four corners of the ice during the televised broadcasts were scuttled after two security incidents of people jumping down onto the ice for a closer view of the carvings, Kathy said. “The display ended up inside where they sell the coats and paraphernalia.”)


The Shuswap School of Carving & Arts had another curling-related disappointment last year, when the 2015 session of the school was cancelled. In a combination of possible early onset of arthritis, plus strain from her own curling activities, Kathy lost most of the use of her hands for a period of several months. No one else on the eight-member Shuswap Carvers Society, whose sole purpose is putting on the school, was able to fulfill the coordinator’s duties.


This year, although “I’m not as dexterous as I used to be,” Kathy said she is back to carving – when she can find the time. “Putting together the school takes a lot of time,” she mentioned, and she has other hobbies as well, including scratch art.

Her recent retirement was supposed to provide her more time for carving, but it hasn’t necessarily worked out that way. Still, Kathy said, she and her husband have met many good friends through carving, often sitting out in front of their fifth wheel camper whittling away at campsites. That’s where they stay during the Shuswap School, too, as the retreat center offers a variety of accommodations.

And, when that week is completed, they bring back what they’ve learned in the form of a completed piece. “You take a week of vacation, and you come back, and you’ve got something to show for it. It’s a piece of art,” she said. “It’s a memento, associated with the time and memory and the people you met, the week you spent at this class with people who like doing the same thing you do.”

Find out more about the 2016 session here.

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