CHEK Upside: Indigenous Island wood carving artist creates pandemic inspired masks

CHEK Upside: Indigenous Island wood carving artist creates pandemic inspired masks
WatchHoward Lafortune carries a casual conversation while using a razor sharp knife to carve his next, COVID-19 inspired project.

On the shores of the Saanich Peninsula, Howard Lafortune makes casual conversation as he chisels down his next project.

“I’ve been doing it for 39, 40 years now,” said Lafortune, as he multi-tasks with ease.

You name it, he’ll make it.

“Poles, bowls, masks, rattles, plaques, rings,” he says.

The list goes on.

The talented wood carver would normally sell his custom work at downtown Victoria’s bustling Inner Harbour area, but times have changed and large public gatherings, for now, are a thing of the past.

Lafortune seemed out of luck until a few days ago when a friend made a special request — a wearable half-mask. So Lafortune got to work and over sixteen hours of labour later, his first half-mask bear snout was complete.

“The hours just go by when you get into one thing . . . and I look at the time and it’s already 11, 12 o’clock at night.”

Made of lightweight yellow cedar with breathable holes and leather straps, Lafortune’s inaugural piece has timely meaning.

“The bear represents strength . . . it’s a protector.”

It’s an appropriate symbol during the pandemic, but Lafortune says the masks shouldn’t be anyone’s primary form of protection and suggests wearing a cotton mask underneath or just hanging the piece on a wall as a way to remember these very strange times.

Either way, he’s already generating a buzz and has found a healthy distraction in quarantine.

“I like making them because they’re fun,” he said, adding. “Trying to figure out the different designs like the next one I was working on is an eagle beak . . . [I] already have orders for a couple already.”

Each mask is one of a kind, takes several hours and are priced in the hundreds. But Lafortune says he isn’t in it for the money.

“I’ve been doing it for so many years, it has to be a labour of love….If i didn’t love it, I wouldn’t be doing it,” he said.

Kevin CharachKevin Charach

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