Sooke artist’s work to adorn premier’s office

Phoebe Dunbar creates work from salvaged Western yew tree

Pirjo Raits || Special to the Sooke News Mirror

A Western yew tree perhaps 400 years old now sits in the B.C. premier’s office in Victoria.

The tree salvaged in 2011 by the late Maxwell Wickheim and Mike Herrling has been given new life thanks to the hands of Sooke artist Phoebe Dunbar.

Dunbar was in Victoria on Wednesday to present Premier John Horgan with a carving from the Western yew tree trunk called Last Tree Standing. The trunk was enhanced by Dunbar and included a small owl in an opening in the wood carved from bird’s eye yellow cedar.

The piece which stands about four feet high was found on Jordan Ridge, west of Sooke.

Last Tree Standing is on loan in the premier’s office and Dunbar is thrilled. Getting it to Victoria happened quickly once the nod was given to bring the carving to the legislature.

“I asked John if he would like for his office, and he said he would love it,” said Dunbar.

Last Tree Standing is a departure for Dunbar, as she sees it as a political statement. It took her three to four months to complete. Dunbar said that with salvaged wood it is often the wood itself that will tell her what it will be.

“I wanted to do some woodwork beyond bowls,” she said. “I love experimenting.”

The richness of yew wood makes it a sought after commodity by woodworkers as it often rots from the inside creating hollows and swirls along its length. It has strength and durability, used for bows in ancient Britain and for fish hooks, tools and paddles by coastal Indigenous people. It was sacred to the Celts who long associated it with magic, death and rebirth. It appears the ancients knew of the properties of the yew long before modern day researchers did..

Western yew was often left on the forest floor after being harvested for its medicinal bark and needles. Yew is a very strong wood is prized for its strength and character.

In the past, the Indigenous people used the bark and needles for medicine and more recently researchers identified a chemical compound in Pacific yew called paclitaxel. It was later approved for use against ovarian and certain types of beast cancer and is sold under the trade name Taxol. It is now also approved for use against an AIDS-related cancer.

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