Master woodcarver brings his lessons to the Peninsula

Jim Bergeron, Astoria port commissioner and retired Oregon Sea Grant extension agent, is well known for his woodcarvings and skills as a teacher. He gave a class last weekend at the River City School of Arts. DAMIAN MULINIX photo

ILWACO - Six students came away from a two-day woodcarving class last weekend with a lot more than a pile of wood shavings and a smell of cedar on the skin - they gained a new appreciation for an ancient art.

Woodcarver Jim Bergeron led a class at the River City School of Arts and Crafts, teaching the art of Native American wood carving. Bergeron particularly likes the techniques and designs of Northwest tribes.

He's carved for over 30 years, having attended some classes in training on the subject and read many books. He creates his own tools, bent wood boxes, drums, fishing gear and masks.

It all started for Bergeron three decades ago when he spent a winter in Kodiak, Alaska.

"I discovered that in Kodiak, either you did some positive things, like woodcarving, or you tended to do negative things," he said with a laugh.

Bergeron was in the northern-most state helping to set up fishing programs at Kodiak Community College. Bergeron, now retired, worked as a Sea Grant agent for Oregon State University. He presently serves as an Astoria port director.

"Actually, I considered knowing about the people that lived here years ago, who were very marine oriented, part of my job," said Bergeron of the Northwest tribes. "I learned about them and I actually taught some of this [wood carving] as part of my job."

He said his love for the art is what has kept him interested all these years, in addition to an appreciation for the technology used by the Northwest coast Indians. He continues to use the traditional tools to this day. He uses knives, also a traditional Indian carving instrument, not relying on European devices like chisels. Another tool used is a curved bladed knife - this comes in handy when making masks with rounded shapes. Once carved, masks are sanded to a smooth finish. Sandpaper was also used by Northwest Indians, but their version consisted of the skin of a dog fish.

Bergeron concentrated on flat carving in his Ilwaco his class because the two-day period didn't afford them enough time to try more sophisticated styles.

Carving isn't that hard to learn, said Bergeron, who pointed out the fact that by noon of the first day, his pupils were coming along very well, some having already finished the basic design of their carving.

"I'd say that's making pretty good progress," he said.

Bergeron brought several pieces of carved art with him, an example for his students to work with, showing different styles and types of carving.

"They get a chance to see things like they're doing, things they could possibly do, and beyond that," he said.

Once he had instilled the basics to the group, Bergeron spent much of his time overseeing the class, answering questions and giving help when needed.

"As they go through, they're going to run into problems," said Bergeron. "Why did this chip out? What do I have to do next? And that's what I do."

Though it wasn't a packed house in the back room of the River City School, those who did attend were there for a reason, including Karen Davis, who drove from Lake Oswego, Ore., just for the class.

"I haven't found a class that does this kind of wood carving before," said Davis.

Bergeron supplied all the tools, supplies and insight needed for his students to learn the basics and make one carving. He also welcomed those interested to copy any of his designs to take home with them, if they wanted to continue to learn the art.

"Hopefully, they will continue to carve - that's something that I'd like to see," said Bergeron.

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