Thunderbird Pole

Old Growth Red Cedar

“Unlike most of my pieces, I have chosen to leave the wood unfinished on this model totem. In May 2012 I spent nine days on Haida Gwaii with a small group of friends. We arrived in Sandspit late in the afternoon and spent the night at a B&B. The next morning we went to the museum at Skidegate. The museum has a great collection of Haida art and culture. I had been at the museum a number of times before; this time I wanted to focus on the large totem poles, looking at the small details of each.

After leaving the museum we stopped at the band council office in Skidegate to see Bill Reid’s totem. I think this totem pole is the finest contemporary Haida totem standing on the coast today, and it was never painted. After taking the time to discuss the figures on the pole with the group and take many photographs we continued the bumpy drive to Moresby camp at the head of Cumshewa inlet, boarded the boat and headed south into Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve.

We were lucky with the weather and were able to get to all the sites we had planned. They are all beautiful and unique in their own way, and all share some common traits: sheltered landing for canoes, fresh water, and a flat area above the beach suitable for multiple houses. Most of the sites have remains of houses and totem poles that can easily be seen. Each of these has a Haida Watchman to guide you through the site.

Three of the sites that have the most standing totems are SGang Gwaai, K’uuna (also known as Skedans) and to a lesser degree, Cumshewa. Having been to these sites for the first time sixteen years before, then back again three more times over the intervening years, I was able to take photographs of the poles, download them and compare them with the images from previous trips. Some had deteriorated a great deal, and some had changed little.

More than the comparison of condition, I was focused on the carving details: the variation of depth, under cutting, detail of the two-dimensional formline, sculpting of the eyes, small faces, hands and feet. Although I have been carving for forty years there is always something more to learn from the old carvers.

Among the many things we talked about on the boat was the strength that the sculptured surfaces of Haida totems have that are somewhat masked by paint. Yes, in some ways paint can bring focus to an area of the pole, but at the same time shift focus away from other more subtle sculpture. Most, if not all, of the old totems were painted at one time but the paint was left to fade and eventually disappear altogether, leaving the beautifully silvered patina we see today.

When I got back from Haida Gwaii this is the first piece I worked on. On the old model poles, the rough shape (the shape of the wood when the carving of the figures starts) is slightly different than on a large scale pole, but the form and detail is often the same. This pole follows that idea. It’s a little deeper from front to back compared to its width than a large scale pole. I’ve incorporated many of the observations from the Haida Gwaii trip in this carving. One of which was to leave it unpainted. I had originally planned to put it outside and let it get a silvered patina before sending it to the Stonington Gallery. However, the red cedar is such a beautiful color I thought I would let the new owner make that decision; it should take about six months outside to achieve this. Alternatively, keep it indoors the way it is now. Over time it to will evolve into a beautiful dark brown patina on its own.

The red cedar I used for the pole came from a friend who builds logging roads in the Mount Baker area. He found this log while trying to find a place to cross a small creek. Some of the first loggers a hundred years ago or so had felled this huge cedar tree across the creek, split it in half, and with the flat sides up, nailed down a deck of thick split cedar planks for a bridge. When my friend first saw it, it was covered with moss, ferns and small hemlock trees he had to clear away before he realized what he had found. Because the cedar spanned the high-bank creek and had the deck to protect the top, the wood is in perfect condition after all these years. I think patiently waiting for a new life. I estimate the tree to have been at least eight hundred years old when it was felled.”

-Scott Jensen