IACA Journal: Winter 2014 - page 12

IACA Journal | Winter 2014
No one knows for certain when the first totem poles were carved, but legend has it one
washed ashore on Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands from the South Pacific, some 2,000
miles away. The Pacific Northwest natives carved totem poles long before the Europe-
ans arrived, but the poles that survive are only a few hundred years old, having escaped
natural decay and human destruction. The moist climate breeds moss, seedlings sprout
on the figures, and birds build nests in the large fissures. Missionaries burned them,
thinking they were symbols of idolatry. But once the native people began acquiring iron
(often from shipwrecks) in the 1780s and fashioning metal tools, the art of totem-pole
carving took off.
Today, the transformation from log
to totem pole begins with a chainsaw.
Tommy uses one mainly to mill the log
and hollow out its center. The hollowing
not only makes the pole lighter, it also
removes the part that would rot first
and helps prevent checking as the wood
Tommy begins the design on paper, then
transfers it onto the log. He renders the
first half of the drawing freehand, start-
ing at the base and spacing the figures
accordingly. Then he uses calipers and a
sometimes a template to create the same
image on the log’s opposite side, using a
series of dots and points.
It takes many years of practice to get the
figures on a totem pole to flow effortlessly
from one image to another. Some carvers
never seem to create fluidness in their
work. But all the figures and the pole as
a whole should be pleasing to the eye
and connect in a marvelous way. When
Tommy looks at a chunk of wood, he can
peer into it and tell if the image is in there
or not. He can find it if it is in there.
“There was a time when I’d look at that
big raw log lying there and I’d think,
‘Where do I begin? It was so intimi-
dating.’ Now I know where and how to
begin and I can’t wait to dig in.”
Tommy works with a combination of
new Swiss-made gouges and hand-
made tools. He collects antique tools
and forges his own from scrounged car
springs and saw blades. Adzes with a
handle made from a natural tree trunk
and branch angle are still used today, as
they were centuries ago. Tommy has a
few woodcutters who watch for the right
type of branches and deliver them for his
students’ handles. Tommy likes to find
his own.
“You have to learn to make the tools at
the same time that you learn to carve”,
Tommy explains. “It’s another art form
and I enjoy it just as much. It’s part of
what I do.”
Tommy uses only five tools to gouge
and remove the wood, to pull the image
out, and finish it to glass smoothness:
two adzes (a lip azde or a ship adze is
his workhorse), and three knives, some
which he uses as scrapers.
Painting a totem pole is easier today than in times past.
Photo by Cindy Ross
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