Pandemic brings success to Indigenous artist carving COVID masks

Carver Howard La Fortune’s life has changed as his carved wooden face masks have seen demand stretch across North America. (Arnold Lim / Black Press)
Carver Howard La Fortune’s life has changed as his carved wooden face masks have seen demand stretch across North America. (Arnold Lim / Black Press)

For many the pandemic is a hardship, but for a Greater Victoria Indigenous artist it also ushered in opportunity.

Howard La Fortune, of the Tsawout First Nation, was first featured by Black Press Media mid-April after a friend of his joked he needed a wooden carved mask to protect from the virus. La Fortune got on it and carved a half-mask of a bear snout.

Since the Black Press Media story ran, La Fortune says the orders have been rolling in.

RELATED: Greater Victoria Indigenous artist takes unique approach to COVID-19 masks

“I think I lost track after 12,” he says into the phone, taking a break from carving a red cedar mask. “I keep getting messages about this and that, I can’t keep up – well, I can but it’ll take a while.”

The artist won first place in the Masked Heroes contest put on by the First American Art Magazine for his bear snout mask, winning free advertising space.

“That came out of left field,” he says, explaining how a friend told him to submit a photo for the contest. Five days later, he got an email saying he won.

“It means a lot, I’ve been doing this for almost 40 years now and nothing like this has ever happened.”

La Fortune started carving about 40 years ago when he quit school at the age of 16 because he couldn’t sit still. “My brother said I needed something to do, so he showed me how to carve,” he says, adding that a long history of carving runs in the family. La Fortune’s brother was one of the original carvers for the City of Totems in Duncan.

He says what he likes most about carving is being able to create something with his hands – “I need to keep them busy.”

Born in Duncan, the artist has always lived on the Island but settled at Tsawout about 25 years ago where he’s been ever since.

While he’s always loved carving, there was a period where he stopped for about four or five years.

“The tourists, they didn’t really appreciate our work, they just wanted a deal so I quit,” he says. “I’d do small things but people just didn’t want to pay the prices I wanted, so I’d hang onto them until somebody did.”

La Fortune says the market has opened up since he carved his first half-mask during the pandemic. The first mask, which took him between 16 and 20 hours to make, was a flatter version of his more recent work. He says it still looks good, but he’s not sure if he’ll sell that one or hang it on his wall.

READ ALSO: Wearing non-medical masks can stop spread of COVID-19 before symptoms start: Tam

That was about three weeks ago, and since then “it’s been crazy,” as the orders pile up. La Fortune says he’s only been able to get three or four masks done in that time frame as he’s started to improve his own work.

“Since all this started, I’ve cleaned up my lines and everything else because I know people want them and they’re expecting a good piece,” he says, adding that he’s got orders from Ontario, Missouri, North Dakota, Texas and even Germany. “I’m taking my time because it’s got to be to my satisfaction too.”

La Fortune now signs all his masks ‘COVID-19 pandemic 2020,’ so people can remember this “bizarre” time we’re living in. (Courtsey of Howard La Fortune)

While he’s carving, La Fortune thinks of ways to make his work better. He weighs them to make sure they’re not too heavy to be worn and adjusts fine details, such as the teeth on a red cedar bear mask he’s working on now. His inspiration “comes down to the wood.”

When the pandemic hit, La Fortune “didn’t think too much about it.” But when the pool league he plays in was cancelled, he thought, “OK what am I going to do now?” Out in the mountains hunting with his son, La Fortune noticed there were even a lot of people up there.

So he spent his time carving smaller masks to hang on walls, along with rattles and plaques.

“I was carving to make stock for the causeway when it opens up, if it does, and then I did [the initial mask] for something to do because I had the wood laying around and it just hit me fast.”

La Fortune says he thinks the reason people want his carvings now is to remember this “bizarre time” we’re living in.

“[The pandemic] has changed my style of working. It’s not just for the money, I’m doing this for people now, all over and they’re interested and they want it and it’s made my work better.”



kendra.crighton@blackpress.ca

Follow us on Instagram
Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

kendra.crighton@blackpress.ca

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Comments are closed

Just Posted

New exhibit at Point Ellice House examines history of waste, water and privilege

Night soil scavengers in the 19th century would collect human waste and dump it around the city

Salish Sea scavenger hunt turns participants into citizen scientists

Public invited to join the Great Salish Sea BioBlitz

Coastal scenes at the forefront for July shows at Victoria galleries

From sculpture to landscape paintings, summer art is about nature

It’s showtime: Victoria theatre reopens with new COVID-19 protocols

Capitol 6 theatre and SilverCity Victoria have reopened with limited seating

Rapid bus system could increase frequency, reliability in Greater Victoria

BC Transit studies methods for improving major routes in Capital Region

13 new B.C. COVID-19 cases, Langley Lodge outbreak ends

Health care outbreaks down to four, 162 cases active

Two injured hikers airlifted from North Vancouver Island Park

Campbell River and Comox Search and Rescue hoist team rescued the injured from Cape Scott Provincial Park

Alberta health minister orders review into response after noose found in hospital in 2016

A piece of rope tied into a noose was found taped to the door of an operating room at the Grande Prairie Hospital in 2016

B.C.’s major rivers surge, sparking flood warnings

A persistent low pressure system over Alberta has led to several days of heavy rain

B.C.’s Indigenous rights law faces 2020 implementation deadline

Pipeline projects carry on as B.C. works on UN goals

‘Mind boggling’: B.C. man $1 million richer after winning Lotto 6/49 a second time

David O’Brien hopes to use his winnings to travel and of course keep playing the lottery

B.C. teacher loses licence after sexual relationships with two recently-graduated students

The teacher won’t be allowed to apply for a teaching certificate until 2035

Lower Mainland teacher facing child pornography charges

Elazar Reshef, 52, has worked in the Delta School District

Most Read