IACA Journal, Summer 2014 - page 17

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Stanley Hill:
THE STORY OF A BONE CARVER
When asked about his occupation, Stanley
Hill would simply say, “I’m a bone carver”,
but his fame and expertise as a carver
came after a variety of jobs and war-time
experiences.
Stanley R. Hill, a Mohawk of the Turtle
Clan, was born November 16th, 1921 on
the Six Nations Reservation at Oshweken,
near Brantford, Ontario, Canada. His
parents were both talented craftspeople—
his mother made exceptional quilts and
objects from cornhusks, and his father
worked with wood while recuperating in
England after World War I.
Hill dropped out of school when he was
13, and went to Buffalo, New York, with
his father to look for work, as jobs were
scarce on the reservation. He worked as
a laborer on fruit farms, and helped to
build and paint houses for a man who
later became his father-in-law. At age 19,
he became an apprentice ironworker, but
that career was cut short by World War II.
After marrying Alma Wilson, he joined
the U.S. Navy where he studied advanced
welding and then deep sea diving. He
became a world class deep sea diver who
did dangerous salvage diving in the South
Pacific following the war.
Back in the United States, Hill became an
ironworker, following in the footsteps of
generations of Mohawk men in “skywalk-
ing” while constructing some of world’s
tallest buildings. Hill’s Mohawk tribal
ancestors built longhouses, often 200 feet
in length, and bridges to cross the rivers
in Ontario and New York State. It was
bridgework that propelled the Mohawk
people into careers in construction, rein-
forcing their building skills and fulfilling
their love of adventure and a life outdoors.
Skywalking was dangerous, but gave Hill
and other Iroquois a comfortable living
and a respect from non-Native people.
During his time as an ironworker, Hill at-
tempted his first carvings – animal heads
on stainless steel rings. With one of
those rings he took a fourth place award
in an annual Indian exhibition in Scotts-
dale, Arizona.
The tragic death of one of his sons made
Hill take stock of his life. After over 30
years in construction, he decided to leave
After doing a few carvings,
the antlers and bones seem to
come alive. A whole
new world opened to me.
It appeared that any
discarded bone or antler
could be transformed into
a life-like object of beauty.
—Stanley Hill, from “Bone Carvings
by Stanley Hill” (1977-1978)
that life, and he became a full-time carver
in 1974. An avid hunter, he worked most-
ly with deer antlers and sometimes with
moose and elk antlers or bone. Having
lived away from the reservation for most
of his life, Hill had no knowledge of the
carving traditions or methods of his own
people. Using trial and error, he devel-
oped his own techniques—band saws to
cut rough shapes, hobby tools to shape
and buff, motorized sanders to polish.
Finished works were mounted on stone or
hardwood bases.
His focus was on what he knew best.
Growing corn and other plants, and the
animals that he observed and hunted for
food. He believed that plants and animals
have a life force, or spirit, a belief that goes
back to the Iroquois concept of orenda,
the energy that the Iroquois believed to
be part of all elements of nature—hu-
mans, plants, animals, rocks. Hill carved
traditional subject matter from Iroquois
culture and history like Three Sisters,
turtles, and the Tree of Peace. Knife han-
dles, combs, pendants and belts were all
included in Hill’s carvings, and all kinds
of animals and plants covered the pieces.
Hill’s work was a masterpiece of imagina-
tion combined with realism.
Hill still needed to support his family and
he studied all kinds of fairs, galleries, and
shows, and created saleable pieces de-
pending on the type of show – everything
from inexpensive key-rings to intricate
artwork worth thousands of dollars. He
worked in a studio at his home in Grand
Island, New York, and also had a shop
on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario,
Canada.
Today, Stanley Hill’s work can be found
in museums throughout the U.S. and
Canada, including the National Museum
of the American Indian in Washington,
D.C., as well as in private collections and
occasionally in a gallery. He won more
than 50 awards in major art shows in the
United States and Canada. Since his death
in 2003 at age 82, Hill’s work commands
prices in the thousands of dollars.
Stanley Hill was a master. This “bone
carver” is perhaps the finest ever of the
Mohawk artists and his work will live
forever.
Bone carvings by Stanley Hill can be
found in museums and private collections.
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