Sitka High design class marries tradition and technology in student paddle carving project

Sitka High School junior Asa Demmert created a paddle featuring an eagle using computer design software and an automated router. (Photo by Enrique Pérez de la Rosa/KCAW)

Indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska have carved wood paddles and other works of art using tools and methods developed over thousands of years. But that’s not to say this art form is incompatible with new technology.

Instead of blueprints on drafting tables, modern architects and engineers use computer-aided design, or CAD, software to develop and create new products. That software can create 3D animated models of their final products in seconds, saving time and materials.

Students at Sitka High School are using that software to create traditional northwest art.

Asa Demmert is one such student. He is a junior in Sitka High School’s Design and Fabrication class. He and his classmates are learning how to use CAD software by designing things like phone cases.

“I’ve learned how to extrude lines, how to change angles from 90 degree angles to curves and radiuses and change a two-dimensional objects into a three-dimensional object,” he said.

They’re also producing their designs using 3D printers and computer-controlled routers. But Asa is not making a machine or an engine block.

“I’m creating a northwest coast style paddle with formline art and I’ve decided to put an eagle on it because my mom is an eagle so I’m an eagle,” Demmert said. “All of my shapes are formline shapes with things like circles and ovoids. And the way that they run together is very fluid because that’s how West Coast art works.”

Sitka High School junior Asa Demmert keeps a watchful eye over the computer-controlled router carving his paddle. (Photo by Enrique Pérez de la Rosa/KCAW)

Asa’s teacher, Mike Vieira, is the design and fabrication instructor at Sitka High. He has co-developed the paddle carving project over the last two years alongside Charlie Skultka Jr., a traditional arts instructor with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.

“We’re always talking about the ‘holy grail’ of combining arts, culture and technology in our courses here,” Vieira said. “I can’t think of a better project that combines the technical skills that I want to teach more than this. So, it’s really the perfect marriage of culture and technology.”

But is this marriage contradictory in it’s blend of tradition and new technology – or is it part of the continuing evolution of indigenous cultures? Skultka said it’s all of the above.

“Yes, it contradicts with everything but at the same art is evolving,” Skultka said. “If art stayed the same and it all stayed the same it wouldn’t be art. It’d be pretty generic.”

Once Asa finishes designing his paddle, he and Vieira load the design into the shop’s computer-controlled router. The router is mounted to a shop table and receives data from Asa’s CAD design and carves out the paddle.

Then Asa secures a plank of wood onto the table. He finds the center of the plank and marks it in the computer as the “zero-point.”

Once that’s done, Asa and Mr. Vieira run the router a few inches above the plank of wood, just to make sure the machine is doing what they want it to do before it tears into the plank.

The computer-controlled router in the Sitka High wood shop tears into a cedar plank to create Asa Demmert’s paddle design. (Photo by Enrique Pérez de la Rosa/KCAW)

“It’s always a nervous time when you press that button because you put in this effort and you have some value of material on the table ready to be cut,” Vieira said. “We just want to make sure that its operating doing what we want it to do.”

Then, Asa lowers the router and hits a big, green button. He waits and watches as carving begins.

“Right now, I’m just watching it, making sure it doesn’t go off-course and destroy everything,” Demmert said, laughing. “I’m a little nervous but I’m excited to see how it turns out.”

But suppose the paddle really is destroyed by the router. Demmert still has his design in CAD files. In fact, what’s to stop Demmert from making another one? And another one? And another? Vieira said that presents a teaching opportunity on our relationship to art.

“What is the appropriate way to use traditional art so that you’re not just taking someone’s idea and duplicating it and replicating it and mass producing it, which you can do very easily digitally, but making something unique and your own,” Vieira said. “There’s been a lot of misappropriation for a long time here and making sure that we’re not involved in that is very important.”

Demmert says this project is very different from others he’s done in CAD that require precise measurements and a bit of math. He says designing this paddle has taught him about both northwest art and his own creativity.

“I’ve realized that people like to create things that relate to them,” he said. “With this paddle, I get to be creative and form shapes differently. Nothing has to be perfect because in the end it’s going to look like you want it to and it doesn’t have to be perfectly lined up with something that has already been created.”

Once the router is done carving the paddle, Demmert still has to sand down some rough edges and give the wood some color.

“We’re going to fill it in with a colored epoxy and then sand it down so it’s flat and that will really bring out the design. It’ll be cool,” he said.

But if he doesn’t like the end result, Demmert can always carve another paddle and try again.

Sitka High School junior Asa Demmert, center, shows off his nearly-finished paddle featuring an eagle alongside Sitka High design instructor Mike Vieira, left, and STA traditional arts instructor, Charlie Skultka Jr., right. (Photo by Enrique Pérez de la Rosa/KCAW)