BAR HARBOR — Liz Mead of Bar Harbor wears many hats: snowplow driver, lawn care professional, wildlife biologist.
In the downtime between those endeavors over the last 20 years, she also has been a self-taught carver of small stone animals. None are for sale; all are gifts for friends, family and some strangers.
“I think the stone has a spirit,” she said. “I’m trying to put a piece of my spirit into it as well, and I’m praying in a sacred manner. That’s part of why I don’t sell them, it’s a gift to whoever is receiving it.”
Mead, who was born in Alberta and has lived in Bar Harbor on and off since age 7, counts native communities in the U.S. and Canada as part of her heritage. Her family is part of the Oglala and Metis tribes.
“I’m half native, and a lot of the Canadian natives are stone carvers,” she said. “In the mid-‘90s, somebody gave me an antique wood carving knife, and it’s one of the ones I still use. Then I heard about stone riffles, which are little rasps that are really toothy. So I bought a set of stone riffles, and I just started playing with soapstone.”
Her animals are made of soapstone, catlinite (sometimes called “pipestone” for its use making carved pipes), pyrophyllite and other stones or clays. She usually buys raw materials online, on sites like eBay.
When the sculptures are finished, most are bears.
“I consider bears sacred, they’re our cousins, our kinfolk,” she said. “They have always been important to me personally, so that’s what I carve.”
A few are buffalo. “The white buffalo is a holy symbol for my culture. It’s the bringer of our sacred ceremonies. I have only carved those for people who are or were facing serious illness, or have just lost loved ones, or are going through some really serious struggle. I put so much spiritual energy into that I’m hoping this little bonus will help them somehow.”
Each piece takes her 30-50 hours of work. Mead said power tools for carving or polishing would be too fast and too harsh.
“I want to see where the shoulder’s gonna be, and I want to play with it,” she said. “Sometimes I break a face off or a leg, and I have to modify it, and all of a sudden, it’s a smaller bear. I learned over time that it was best for me to use the little carving knife and just go slow. It’s part puzzle and part releasing of the spirit, as I call it.”
A few times, she has held giveaways for friends on Facebook. Whoever left a comment with the correct number won the sculpture.
“The number will come before I even start working on the piece,” she said. “So if 144 comes up in my head and I can’t sleep, I know I’ve got to carve something. Whoever 144 is, it’s supposed to go to them. This is totally what I call ‘the grandfather’s hand.’”
For many years, Mead and her former husband, Craig Cornelius, owned a tattoo shop in Bar Harbor. When they opened in 1993, they were one of only three in the state.
Many of her own tattoos are bears and owls. Those animals, especially snowy owls and polar bears, are messengers and teachers.
“I admire them scientifically, spiritually — all creatures, actually, but especially them,” she said. “Polar bears are the only animal on the planet that hunts men for sport.”
The tattoos are “spiritual protection, things so I don’t forget where I come from and what’s important.”
She also has an outline of a Wyoming mountain range on her temple. She is headed back there this fall, aiming to finish a wildlife biology degree.
“I had these done by a guy named Paul Taylor,” she said of the tattoo. “Up in Laramie, Wyoming, the Snowy Range mountains would reflect off the highway. It’s like a mirage.”
The tattoo is there “to symbolize home to me and to keep my head straight so that I never lose track.
“I think it’s my solemn duty to add as much good energy to this world as I possibly can.”