John Bellis shows some of the carvings he creates in the basement of his Sooke home. (Rick Stiebel - Sooke News Mirror)

John Bellis shows some of the carvings he creates in the basement of his Sooke home. (Rick Stiebel - Sooke News Mirror)

Sooke artist carries on family’s Haida carving tradition

John Bellis didn’t take up carving until he retired from logging industry

One of the first things you learn about John Bellis is that he’s far more comfortable talking about the works of other carvers.

Bellis, a member of the Haida Raven Clan, didn’t take up carving until he retired after 45 years as a machine operator with different logging companies along the coast of Vancouver Island.

“I was so busy raising a family and working that I didn’t have the time,” said Bellis, who grew up in Masset on Haida Gwaii. “I wanted to find something to do when I retired and decided to start carving. Native art wasn’t popular when I was growing up, but I was surrounded by carvers where I grew up. It’s part of my heritage.”

His grandfather, Capt. Andrew Brown, was renowned for his wood and argillite carvings, a stone only found on Haida Gwaii.

“There’s an unwritten law that only Haidas are allowed to carve it,” said Bellis regarding Brown, who was born in 1865 and died in 1962.

“A lot of his work is in the Royal B.C. Museum. He also did totem poles and built schooners. Most of my work is inspired by books about old-time carvers, the works I’ve seen at museums and what I’ve seen on the Internet. I do everything from memory. When I carve, it feels like relaxation and meditation.”

Bellis also relies on what he’s learned from other carvers for much of his technique.

“Clarence Mills is a master carver whose work is displayed all over the world, and he would teach me when he came to visit. Douglas Wilson, who passed away recently, was another master carver and good friend who lived in Victoria and taught me lot. He also did a lot of work as a teacher and counsellor with the Sooke School District. He was a natural artist, born with that gift. My son, Michael, is like that too. He does almost everything, totem poles, plaques, drums, and steam-bent boxes. Everyone is amazed at how quickly he picked it up.”

Although Michael only began carving in 2018, the resident of Nanoose Bay has established quite a reputation for his work, which has found homes worldwide.

“After years of being called Mr. Bellis, I’m now better known as Michael’s dad,” the senior Bellis added with a smile.

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“My oldest son, Noel, began making model canoes 20 years ago,” Bellis said. “They’ve grown in size quite a bit over the years, and he’s working on a 20-foot dugout now. He also does rattles and earrings. I have a lot of nephews and family members in Haida Gwaii that carve, and they all do beautiful work. Some can just look at a piece of wood and know what will come out immediately.”

Bellis appreciates that wherever you go in this province, there’s a community of carvers and artists happy to share their techniques and knowledge. “There are so many talented artists that don’t publicize their work; you wouldn’t know what they do unless you drive by.”

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Bellis said his wife, Carol, knows it’s a given that they will pull over wherever and whenever that occurs, including when they’re on a vacation.

“Carol knows the routine and always brings a book with her to read,” he added with a chuckle while Carol knowingly nodded her head in a way that spoke volumes.

Bellis was chosen to create commemorative paddles for the people selected for the Goldstream News Gazette’s Local Hero Awards for two of the past three years.

“I really enjoyed reading about the local heroes, people who have made a positive difference in their community,” noted Bellis, who also carves totem poles, steam-bent boxes, rattles, and drums.

The couple moved to Sooke in 1974 to make it easier for their children to attend school and participate in the sports they wanted.

“It’s the nice people we’ve met and the fishing that’s kept us here,” Bellis explained. We raised our four children here and Sooke has a special place in our hearts. We enjoy the time we spend with our eight grandchildren, soon to be nine, and three great-grandchildren, and they all come home to visit whenever they can.”

You can find carvings by Bellis at Eagle Feather Gallery in Victoria and Mary Winspear Centre in Sidney. Email for more information.

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