Dennis Liu doesn’t quite feel comfortable calling himself an artist, even though collectors have commissioned his wood carvings, paying as much as $2,000 for a piece.
“Before you know it you’ve been doing it for a bunch of years but you never really thought of yourself as an artist,” said Liu, who for more than 20 years has made wood carvings, paintings, and jewelry in the style of Native American tribes from the Pacific Northwest.
Liu isn’t an artist by profession and he has no Indian heritage at all. The son of a Chinese immigrant and “an Illinois farm girl,” Liu works is trained in genetics and works in science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
But looking at his work—an intricate raven mask painted with ovoid native designs, an oar carved from a single plank of redwood that was once part of a giant pickle vat — few would hesitate to call Liu an artist.
LIU, WHO LIVES on Gary Road with his wife Anne and two children, first encountered the Northwest Coast art at the Field Museum in Chicago, where he grew up. He later lived in Seattle and Oregon for 15 years, where he began studying the art, teaching himself the carving techniques, and eventually, learning from some of its best practitioners.
“My interest is half-artistic, half scholarship,” said Liu. “I’ve been so lucky. I’ve met some of the greatest artists, both native and non-native, who do this stuff and I’ve had the chance to … learn from them. I’m such a total novice.”
Liu’s humility and evident admiration for the Northwest Coast art style defuses the notion that his working in the Native American art form is a kind of cultural annexation — a charge sometimes brought against non-native practitioners of Indian art.
“I want to be respectful of the native aspect, but I have to admit, my priority is just the art. I think these people invented something totally amazing,” he said. “It’s a sophistication in their design. My take on it may not be very good, but believe me, the art itself has so much.”
The region Liu’s art derives from spans hundreds of miles — from central Oregon through coastal Washington, British Columbia and Alaska — and encompasses dozens of tribes with distinctive artistic styles.
The region’s best-known icon is the totem pole and much of its art centers on fauna identified with the Northwest—salmon, bears, whales, and eagles. Still, it is easy for viewers to see native designs simply as “Indian,” a tendency Liu hopes to offset.
“People … picture teepees and totem poles, but it’s worth diving in a little deeper to this art,” he said.
Part of what attracts him to the art is that it is based on firm design principles but still allows individual variation.
“The whole trick is to do something that can even bend the rules, but doesn’t break the rules, but that’s original,” Liu said.
Working in wood-carving requires both having a vision from the start, and being open to adapting the vision as the piece advances. Liu said he relishes the problem-solving aspect of his work: finding ways over and around design hurdles, incorporating imperfections in the wood.
“You can carve yourself into a corner,” he said. “In your design you want to avoid creating a space that you don’t have a tool to reach.”
LIU KEEPS more than a dozen pieces in-progress at a time. Some are commissions, some pieces he “owes” to family members, and some are his own projects. He said that almost any type of wood is usable, though he uses mostly traditional Northwestern woods—red and yellow cedar and alder, which resembles birch.
Most of his tools are themselves homemade and range from tiny picks that resemble dentist’s tools to heavy choppers and adzes with shovel-like blades.
Liu says he finds satisfaction in working with his hands, in an activity not mediated by circuits or gears.
“There’s just no better therapy,” Liu said of the wood-working, which he squeezes in between work and PTA and sports leagues. “It’s the single most relaxing thing I can do.”