When Robinson Cook arrived in Tofino in ‘91, the old growth cedars of Meares’ Island “radically changed his world.” That encounter sent him on a trajectory that continues to this day: a commitment to carving, to learning, to teaching, and to the coastal carving community. In his words, he is a “student and ally of the woods.” During his first summer in Tofino, he met Henry Nolla and was mesmerized by watching him carve. Robinson began by carving drums, and it was here that he “got the fever.”
“I wasn’t mentored by Henry. He wasn’t really interested in that. But he did make space for people to come hang out and carve…As I got to know him over the years, he shared a lot with me. He would always come over with ‘bombs of wisdom.’”
Following work on the Wild Side Trail, Robinson’s “journey of belonging somewhere” found a home in the Ahousaht community. It wasn’t long before he became a part of the community, specifically as a member of the Sam family and was formally adopted into the community.
Many in the local community know Robinson from his countless carvings across the peninsula and his commitment to the community. In recent years, he launched an initiative called the Carving Club under the umbrella of the Carving on the Edge Festival, where he is a key member of the festival team. Each year, the festival lineup includes an open carving area, where carvers can bring their most recent project and carve alongside one another, chatting, swapping stories and techniques. The “genesis” of the Carving Club emerged a few years back following requests Robinson was fielding from participants in that year’s festival. They were missing the open carving area and missing the shared space of hanging out together to carve. Robinson’s goal was to create that space and to provide something free during the wintertime. That originating principle of sharing space to carve together is what drives the resuscitation of the Carving Club post-lockdown. During the pandemic year, people expressed how much they missed sharing space and carving together. Bringing the Carving Club back, and juggling the Province’s Reopening Plan and COVID-19 protocols to do so, is worth the effort to Robinson for what it means to the community. His favourite part of the festival is the “gathering of souls” and the “brilliant exchange that happens when people feel good about sharing in an environment of safety.”
The lockdown did not mean downtime for Robinson. Like many during the pandemic, when faced with new challenges in work and gathering, he took the time to develop a new skill. Mask carving, something he had opted not to work in previously, is now something Robinson is taking the time to cultivate, something he describes as a career-long journey. “I have so many pieces of wood that are calling out for different things.” That posture, where ambitious creativity meets humility and inquisitiveness, is emblematic of Robinson’s attitude towards carving. He is constantly learning and eager to be taught. The ethic of sharing knowledge is something Robinson considers unique to the Nuu-chah-nulth communities. As opposed to hiding away knowledge and technique, “we share the best of what we have together,” Robinson says.
Robinson’s career and artistry has evolved in many ways over time, but especially in the ways that he has become more selective about the work he takes on. He says it’s a tricky balance, the life of any kind of artist, but certainly for carvers. Balancing the time it takes to carve and make a living with the overarching dedication to family, spiritual practice, commitment to community and keeping a home is not an easy equilibrium to strike. He feels grateful and lucky that “the things he can do for money are beautiful and rewarding in their own way,” keeping one foot in the art world and the other in functional pieces like cabinetry and furniture making. “I’m still in my shop, building stuff with my hands.” What has also evolved, in his words, is the “standard of work.” Everything that leaves his shop has to satisfy his standard of work, a standard that has been honed over decades of carving in fine art, cabinetry and furniture-making. That exacting standard is the mark of a master craftsman.
Robinson is looking forward to the rest of the year, with some collaborative projects with the Tla-o-qui-aht community on the horizon and hopefully more mentorship opportunities where he can take on more beginner carvers. Reflecting on the teachers that he has had throughout his life, Robinson is eager to continue the legacy by teaching, offering workshops, and getting involved with beginner carvers. “I have a lifetime of gratitude to give back.”
Watch Robinson’s five-part workshop series, “Introduction to Wood Carving with Hand Tools,” by clicking here.