‘Namgis art reaches around the world

Apprentice carvers Cole Speck and Thomas Bruce stand at the head of a 25-foot totem pole in progress in front of the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay. The pole will be displayed at the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, The Netherlands, beginning this fall.  - Photo by J.R. Rardon
Apprentice carvers Cole Speck and Thomas Bruce stand at the head of a 25-foot totem pole in progress in front of the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay. The pole will be displayed at the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, The Netherlands, beginning this fall.
— image credit: Photo by J.R. Rardon

An ambitious international totem pole project is providing a pair of aspiring apprentice carvers a unique opportunity to showcase their work half a world away.

Cole Speck and Thomas Bruce are part of a team of carvers, led by ‘Namgis master carver Rande Cook, working on a 25-foot totem pole that will be shipped later this month to the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, The Netherlands.

“It’s kind of neat I get to do this pole and go over there,” said Bruce, who will join the rest of the carving team in The Netherlands to perform two weeks of finishing work on the pole. “It’s helping us to be better known around the world.”

The pole will be part of the museum’s exhibit on the First Nations of the Northwest Coast. The exhibit will open in early October, and a delegation of ‘Namgis dancers and singers will be part of the opening ceremonies, said Sarah Holland, executive director of the U’mista Cultural Centre, which facilitated the project.

“It will be the only pole in the Netherlands,” said Holland, who has been working the past couple of weeks in Alert Bay with Dutch videographer Herman de Boer on a video that will be shown as part of the exhibit.

After carving by the combined ‘Namgis-Kwakiutl team began in Fort Rupert, the pole was moved and has been on display just outside the U’mista Cultural Centre entrance during finish carving. The centre, which includes a museum that housed the renown Potlatch Collection of masks, carvings and other art, is tasked with preservation of the cultural heritage of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples. This will be the second year in a row that U’mista has been involved in a major international partnership. Last spring, the centre hosted centuries-old artifacts from the Saxon Sovereign Court which lent some of its Potlatch Collection items for display in Dresden, Germany.

Speck, 23, and Bruce, 32, recognize the unique chance they’ve been provided while working with master carvers Cook, Calvin Hunt and Jonathon Livingston.

“It’s unreal, the odd chance that I lucked out and got this opportunity,” said Speck, who has been carving for little more than five years. “The best part of it is carrying on our tradition of carving.”

Bruce described the new totem pole as a craft pole, the elements of which represent the ‘Namgis carvers’ families.

The carvers noted that tribes and bands throughout the coastal Northwest, from Washington through B.C. and into Alaska, were invited to submit proposal and sketches for poles for the Dutch exhibit. Hunt’s design prevailed, they believe, because it is a full, 360-degree carving of the pole.

“In some places, they cut the log (lengthwise) and it’s just a half-pole,” said Bruce, who has been carving for nearly 15 years. “Other ones use the whole log, but they only carve one side. This will be carved all the way around; I think that’s why this design was picked.”

Kwakwaka’wakw carving is also distinctive for its deep cuts, sparing use of paint and for its use of protruding elements, including beaks, wings and fins.

Cook’s design will feature a killer whale at its base, a human figure in the middle and a thunderbird on top, with wings added to the bird and a large fin to the whale. Cook described the thunderbird as an origin story related to his family, while the whale represents the family of his grandmother, from Village Island.

“I wanted to connect the elements of water, air and earth, which unify all of us,” Cook told de Boer in a video shot after the arrival of the raw log in Fort Rupert, where carving began.

Thunderbird a ‘Namgis origin story, Killer Whale grandmother from Village Island.

Large pole-carving is nothing new for Bruce, who has previously worked with his uncle, master carver Don Swanvik, Beau Dick, Marcus Alfred and others.

“It takes a lot of years to learn carving, so you’ve got to really want to do it,” said Bruce. “I’ve gotten to be around a lot of masters, and it’s amazing how much you learn just being with them.”

Speck and Bruce are both looking forward to travel to The Netherlands this summer, the first trip for either away from North America. On the other hand, they’re already getting a bit of practice being international celebrities.

“There was a group from England that came and videotaped us working on the pole,” Bruce said with a laugh. “And another video crew from France is coming.”

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