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Indigenous artist-carver opens St. Albert studio

Spirit Wood Designs to open in Riel Park focusing on furnishings, art and decor
Jospeh Amato, an Indigenous wood carver and furniture maker, is opening Spirit Wood Designs in St. Albert.

If everything goes according to plan, Indigenous carver and wood worker Joseph Amato will open Spirit Wood Designs in Riel Park by late July. 

The planned 3,000 square-foot building is divided into three areas: a gallery showroom, a classroom area and a wood shop for creating new styles of inspiring art. 

“Indigenous art should never stand still. It’s important to push the limits and boundaries to create new and exciting art. We are making history,” said Amato, a member of Big Stone Cree Nation. 

He’s standing in the middle of his current Edmonton showroom filled with slabs of raw wood, finished tables, wood carvings, sculptures, and a painting or two. Each piece in some way reflects his proud Indigenous culture. 

“Doing Indigenous art gives me a strong reason to create and inspire people, young and old, to be proud of their heritage and work toward a better future,” said Amato. “We are going through an awakening in terms of Indigenous art. We’re on the dawn of a new threshold. There are more Canadians gaining a better understanding of our life. These art pieces are who we are. I get many white people buying Indigenous art. They love to embrace the beauty of Indigenous art.” 

Amato grew up in West Edmonton and graduated from Jasper Place High School in 1978. He was accepted to SAIT’s commercial art program, but early fatherhood prompted him to temporarily forgo his artistic dreams. 

At one point, Amato supported his family as an oilfield hauler. In between trips he registered for water colour and graphic design classes at Grant MacEwan Community College. The end-game was career in commercial art and by 1990, he was a full-time artist. 

“If you want a tough road to work, that’s the road you take,” Amato said. 

In 2007, the visual artist and carver packed up his bags and moved to Ladysmith, Vancouver Island, a nature-filled historical town with strong roots in history. 

“What drew me? I wanted to be immersed in nature and get out of the rat race.”  

Amato first fell in love with West Coast at 14, when he travelled to Vancouver to play a hockey game. 

“We flew out of Edmonton in a blizzard and landed in Vancouver and it was all green. And I thought, ‘This is where I’m going to live.’”  

Living on the island, the artist/craftsman made it a point to meet elders and knowledge keepers, and in doing so developed a fresh perspective in caring for the planet and all living things. 

“When you work with trees that are 400 years old, you realize they will still be here as part of Vancouver Island long after you are gone,” Amato said. "I am a woodworker, an environmentalist, an artist. A great deal of what I do promotes awareness of endangered species. It's critical. Did you know the Northern Spotted Owl is nearly extinct due to mismanged forests and habitat loss?"

While some carvers and furniture makers harvest their own logs, the shrewd environmentalist paid licensed loggers to travel through cut blocks, defined boundaries authorized for harvest, and retrieve wood. 

“The forestry companies would go in and cut trees and leave the gnarly figurative wood. I paid loggers to go to the sites and extract those beautiful trees. Otherwise, forestry companies would push all this beautiful wood into piles and burn it.”  

Amato also works wood from rogue logs that flow freely along shorelines and are considered dangerous. Once permit holders rescue rogue logs, they are taken to mills and cut into slabs. They are then kiln dried and cut or carved. 

Prior to reshaping the wood, the visual artist researches trees, where they grow, their habitats and the woodland creatures that are part of the ecosystem. In doing so, he’s elevated his West Coast furniture-making style to an art. 

His West Coast “live-edge wood” style is quite popular locally since he moved back to the region six years ago. Live edge suggests the perimeter of the wood furnishing is not smoothed by hand tools or machinery. It remains raw and untouched and keeps the original characteristics of the tree — both its shape and bark. 

To retain a natural look and higher quality, table tops and counters are thicker than most, measuring about 2.5 inches (6.35 cm). One of the standout features of tables is they are made from two pieces of wood fitted together with epoxy. 

In one of his live-edge tables on display at his current studio, the two wood slabs are joined together by translucent epoxy that looks like a meandering river along the table’s length. Upon closer inspection, Amato has personalized the table by incorporating maple seeds, seashells, sweet grass, lichen, petrified wood, and porcupine quills into the epoxy. 

“Our quality is much higher. I treat every piece as a piece of art, whether it’s an eagle or a table. I’ve built hundreds of tables, and each one has its own personality.”  

His art collection is equally impressive, representing iconic wildlife important to Indigenous peoples—turtles, bears, humpback whales, orcas, eagles, and wolves, to name a few. 

Perhaps Amato’s proudest piece is creating a ceremonial table that will be installed at the new high school recently constructed at Wabasca located about 120 km northeast of Slave Lake.  

“After three generations of my family being there, I got the honor of building a ceremonial table where my grandmother (Maybelle Alook) was born, and that’s so exciting for me.” 

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