- Associated Press - Sunday, June 1, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Both fine art and performance art, the carving of a totem pole by father-son duo Doug and Michael Chilton, punctuated by jokes and laughter, is drawing in visitors at the Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tramway.

The charismatic pair of Tlingit artists is working on one of four totem poles that will stand in the Timberline Restaurant once it is remodeled. They will complete the final pole next summer, also to be carved on display at the entrance to the tramway’s gift shop, the Juneau Empire (http://bit.ly/1hjxuFy) reported.

The 10-foot 6-inch western red cedar log was harvested on Prince of Wales Island near Kasaan and was hand-chosen for the project, mainly for its size. There are plenty of carvers working on larger projects who could use the larger, less knotty logs, and Doug said they’re not afraid of knots.

The younger Chilton, at only 23, has been carving with his father for 13 years and has worked on 17 poles. Doug apprenticed under Tlingit carver Ray Peck in 1979 and counts wood carving as his real love, though he also works with precious metals, ivory and soapstone.

The love the Chiltons have for their work is visible - and possibly magnified - as they carve in full view of the endless stream of visitors at the tramway’s Mountain House.

“Honestly, that’s half the fun of doing this on location, being able to share our culture and our history with visitors,” Doug said after an exchange with an elderly man from Scotland. “They come from all over the world … and it’s fun no matter where they come from.”

Many people get their first introduction to Tlingit culture visiting Juneau, and seeing traditional carving in action sticks with them.

Doug described an older couple passing through with their children and grandchildren, stopping with the intention of watching the father-son duo work.

“The grandkids got to come in and try working on the pole. It made a big impact on them as far as how they were viewing their vacation,” Doug said. “They seemed pretty happy after that. The grandfather came back and said we made the whole trip for their grandkids, and that’s always fun to hear.”

Some visitors seem apprehensive when Doug or Michael offer to put a tool in their hands. Others jump at the opportunity.

Doug snags a camera as Michael demonstrates how to hold the home-made skew chisel - feet square, pointing in the direction he pushes the tool in, using short strokes. Many visitors walk away with a grin and a curl of cedar wood, as well as some photos capturing the memory.

“It helps them relax,” Michael said of the hands-on experience. “They spend their whole trip visiting places, seeing things they’re not allowed to touch, so we’ve had so many people already come by, get their hands on and say, ‘This is probably by far the best part of my trip.’”

The Chiltons manage to make the experience accessible to any who pause to show interest. Michael described helping people who weren’t physically capable of handling the tools as the Chiltons do to grip the tool in one hand.

“You put the tool in their hand and they’re just, one hand whittling away at it, and they’re glowing like they’d not done anything like it ever,” he said.

It’s a great opportunity for anyone to get a hands-on experience, he said, but suggested not waiting too long. Once they get further with the carving and each cut or shave is higher stakes, they’ll no longer hand off the tools to passers-by.

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