Wood carving has been practiced in the Pacific for millennia. Here on Guam there are a few master carvers still practicing this cultural art form. In its small part, the Marine Corps, in conjunction with the Department of Chamorro Affairs, have identified the wood from areas where the new Marine Corps base in Guam is being built, and staged it, so cultural carving practitioners can select pieces they want to use for their craft. Marine Corps Activity Guam sat down with one of them, master carver Robert Taitano Sr., to delve into its history on the island, its cultural ties to the Chamorro people and what wood carving means to him. The practice of carving started over 45 years ago for Taitano. Fueled by a love for the art, he taught himself how to carve and began completing small projects for his home. Visitors would see his creations, admire his craftsmanship, and eventually request pieces to be made for their own homes.
Soon after, Taitano began taking more requests from family and friends. His passion would turn into a world-renowned art form that has touched many different people in distant lands, to include a U.S. President. “I’m very proud when I was given my statue for being a Master Carver downtown, and also that a President of the United States (Bill Clinton) has two chairs that I carved for him in the White House,” Taitano said. Despite the many accolades he has received as a Master Carver, none holds more meaning to him than passing on the tradition to his son. Robert Jr. became serious about carving five years ago and his father could not be more proud. Keeping it in the family is important according to Taitano. However, he also recognizes the importance of passing on his knowledge to anyone willing to learn. Locally, the father and son duo have started a couple of programs to grow the ancient art. Currently they run a program through the Department of Corrections teaching the incarcerated how to carve wood using native ifit wood. They also run a program where they host three-day workshops for children interested in continuing the tradition. “They want to make something for their mamma, something for their auntie. They are very excited,” quips Robert Jr. with a smile, remembering the children’s enthusiasm. According to Taitano, a desire to learn is equally as important as the type of wood. Native ifit wood is the preferred medium for the Master Carver. It is a very dense, heavy and hard wood, which makes it a favorite of carvers.
Ifit wood does not crack or break easily, but it is increasingly difficult to come by. Finding trees suitable for carving usually requires an intense hike and the wood itself can be very heavy to lift. “It’s so hard for me to go into the boonies, by the cliff line, and carry it out. This (turnover) is going to help us big time.” said Taitano, referencing a program by which carvers can receive wood from the area where the new Marine Corps Base is being built. The Marines hold a special place in Guam’s history, and take the role of cultural and historical preservation as a sacred duty. Helping enhance the local economy and bolster cultural arts is one of the initiatives the Marines Corps is focused on. “Getting this wood is going to make it easier for us to get all our orders done. We can donate more items as well, since we have more wood,” Taitano said. Most, when watching them work with chisel and mallet will be amazed. The Marines remain committed to this endeavor working with carvers, artisans, and future students in the years to come. (Marine Corps Activity Guam Communication Strategy & Operations Office)