By Jaed Coffin
Photographed by Michael D. Wilson
Excerpt from our November 2022 issue
Not all barks are created equal, says Butch Phillips, 82, and he should know that. For more than 30 years, Phillips, a member of the Penobscot Nation who grew up on Indian Island, has been making birchbark moose calls in his basement workshop in nearby Milford. Wabanaki hunters have long used moose calls to attract game. Phillips builds his 18-inch-long horn-like calls from bark he harvests from tribal lands. For no-frills – or “simple” – calls, he uses a golden-hued summer bark, which lacks the interior “crust” essential for burning. In late spring and early fall, he salvages the tougher winter bark, stripping it from the tree with the dark bark intact. After a process of wetting, folding, shaping and sewing, it begins the artistic phase: hours of sculpting in the crust to reveal its white underside. “Some barks are thick, some are thin. Some are stiff, some are soft,” says Phillips. “Some are good for carving, some aren’t.”
Butch Phillips bases many of his designs on Wabanaki carvings and beads.
He never engraves with a specific vision in mind. “I just started, and it’s evolving,” he says. And while no two appeals are ever the same, certain aesthetic principles unify his work, always beginning with the “double curve” – a uniquely Wabanaki motif that some say is modeled on the contours of a butt of fern. He also favors compositional balance, etching the same figures on both sides of a call – a moose’s head, a Katahdin’s profile, a hummingbird, or a client’s treasured beagles. Long hours pass in each of them. “I have to think all the time,” Phillips says. “Once you scrape off that brown, it’s gone forever, and mistakes are pretty hard to cover up.” During these periods of artistic concentration, Phillips lets himself be completely enveloped by his craft. “I just go somewhere else,” he says.
tell us more
Where do you find your inspiration?
I try to honor my ancestors – everything my ancestors had or did. In our prayers and ceremonies, we always pay homage to Mother Earth. I always pay homage to plants and animals because they have given us life since time immemorial. I integrate them into my engravings. Some drawings are not mine. My ancestors invented them. I just keep them alive.
How does a moose call work?
It’s a megaphone – you make the noise with your mouth in the small end, and the horn amplifies it. I usually use a cow call. If the moose smells me, I might switch to a growl and scratch it against a tree, so they’ll think it’s a bull. They arrive thinking that they are defending a territory. When they get close, I can put the call on the ground, mute it, and point it outward, so it looks like I’m farther away. I want the moose to come into a clearing. I shot them at 10 paces.
What is the market for these?
I gave a bunch of them, mostly to our hunters. I donate a lot to fundraisers. At first I went to a basket show with 25 calls and sold. At the time, I didn’t sell them much, $35 to $45. Now a basic call with nothing sells for $100. Once I start putting artwork on it, that’s what makes an expensive call. Now I’ve sold hundreds of them. Some with designs cost $800. One of these at an Abbe Museum auction fetched $3,200. I sell them as fast as I can make them.
How do you get so much detail in your work?
I sometimes use X-Acto knives, but I prefer my little pocket knife, which my late wife, Linda, gave me. I fell madly in love with her in second grade. It’s not a traditional tool, but, you know, my wife bought it for me.
To learn more about Phillips Moose Calls, contact him via email at [email protected].
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