Her Heart's Work

By Judee Fong

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Raised in a Middle Eastern community in Nova Scotia, the two things Loretta Joseph loved, as a child, was the distinctive sound of doumbek drums in Arabic music and whittling bits of wood with a jackknife. It was years later before she realized the influence of drums and wood.

Working full-time as a medical technologist, Loretta initially channelled her creative energy into transforming houses in her off-duty hours.

“I wanted to be independent and I was a real workaholic,” she explains.

But, working non-stop took its toll and at the age of 50, Loretta retreated to the soothing pace of nature on Cortez Island, gifting herself time to decide what she wanted to do.

“I was walking in the rain every day, occasionally picking up the odd piece of driftwood,” she says. “A year later, I was still asking myself, ‘What would I really like to do?’”

Impulsively, she sat by the water, picked up a twisted piece of manzanita driftwood and using a little box-knife, began to whittle.

“This beautiful tiny fish, six-inches [15 cm] long, emerged from that piece of twisted wood,” she says. “I immediately felt better and began ‘playing’ with wood again.”

On Cortez Day, which usually fell on Loretta’s birthday, a group of musicians would gather in the fields with their drums and percussion instruments.

“The first time I sat with them and joined in with my doumbek, it felt like I was coming home.”

Three and a half years later, she returned to Victoria bringing back what she had found on Cortez - her “heart’s work” - drumming and carving.

While carving was always her peaceful meditative refuge, drumming was her noisy, chaotic life for the next five years.

“I wanted people to play with, but nobody knew how to drum and nobody had drums,” Loretta says. “I found a man in Nelson who made lovely djembes [pronounced jem-bays] and got them from him for the first year. Then, I started making doumbeks and djembes. I taught two young men how to make what I wanted, and they supplied me until they got too busy selling their drums to stores across Canada. Eventually, I found Bill Giles, a drummer/drum maker in Yellow Point who supplied me until I retired from teaching and performing.”

Despite a few glitches, her life was exciting.

“The drumming had a life of its own. I had 30 to 40 people signed up for my workshops,” says Loretta. “I remember one group performing by the water with a graceful crane behind us. It felt so natural and beautiful.”

She describes another extraordinary moment.

“A group of five women, ages ranging from 28-72, had signed up for my workshop at the UVic Spirituality Conference. At the end of the four-day conference, my group ‘drummed’ the 250 women into the dining hall. Later, when the drumbeats started again, the audience immediately responded. They got up from the tables and began dancing; singing out responses to this African song someone started; then moving into a spontaneous conga-line! We were supposed to perform for 15 minutes but it stretched to 40. I still get goosebumps remembering that special evening.”

At age 60, Loretta returned full-time to her first love, woodcarving. “Women would come to my workshops for drumming and see my carvings. They would always say, ‘Oh you carve. I always wanted to do that.’ Drumming and carving are usually associated with men, so it was quite an awakening when women realized they could do it too.”

Using only two basic tools, a straight knife and a bent or hooked knife, Loretta produces a free-form style, following the natural shape of the wood that dictates what the finished form will be.

“This traditional Northwest Native Indian hooked knife is the most sophisticated carving tool in existence. Carvers are now discovering what this knife can do. When I was teaching my workshops, a few men would come just to learn about the hooked knife.”

Loretta uses blades made of a high carbon steel, hand-forged and extremely sharp. The hooked knife is used for concave areas and the straight knife is used for following the shape of the driftwood.

Manzanita grows on Cortez and other places that have high rocky areas with southern exposures near water. Gently holding a piece of manzanita forest-drift, Loretta explains, “See how the manzanita flows this way and then twists to flow that way - I just follow the wood wherever it takes me. I do this dance with the wood.”

Loretta’s carvings have found homes all over the world.

“I don’t do commissions, but I [made] one exception,” she says. “Martin Schaddalee was asked by Marjorie Woodruff, founder of the Island Breaststrokers, to carve a trophy for them. Martin felt a woman should do the trophy and suggested me. At the time, my sister was dying of cancer and I agreed to do this commission for my sister. It took me 10 months. The day I finished the trophy, my sister passed away. It was a very emotional time.”

In 2006, the carving was unveiled at a dinner at Government House for 250 breast cancer survivors participating in the Dragon Boat Breast Cancer Challenge that weekend. This trophy is on display in the Victoria General Mammography Department. Beside the showcase are these words, penned by Loretta: “Emerging from the turbulent seas of life’s challenges, she stands before you, scarred and imperfect in joyous celebration of new beginnings.”

“Finding the right wood is a gift,” says Loretta. “Seeing the details of wood grain, shape and natural colour emerging from a piece of once-dead wood is always a surprise and the most wonderful sense of accomplishment.”


Loretta can be contacted at lajoseph@shaw.ca or 250-386-9873. Loretta’s wood sculptures are at Sooke Harbour House and the UVic Legacy Art Gallery.

Loretta Joseph with the trophy she was commissioned to make for the Island Breaststrokers, a dragon boat team of cancer survivors. Since 2006, the trophy has been won by the Island Breaststrokers and is kept on display at the Victoria General Mammography Dept. It's an incredible piece of art made from a piece of dead, dried driftwood.





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Showing 1 to 1 of 1 comments.

Wonderful biography not to mention the art form!

Posted by Dora Joseph | December 8, 2009 Report Violation

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