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World-renowned Native American artist to carve totem pole at Sylvania

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by Susan Hereford

Towering carved cedar totem poles stand sentry to one’s arrival on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. These magnificent cultural artifacts, part of the heritage of the Pacific Northwest Coast Native Americans, are filled with the images and myths from their world. Bear, thunderbird, killer whale, all have a their place in the tribal art. The Sylvania Campus of Portland Community College will soon have one of these artworks with its commission by Richard Hunt, a fourth generation Kwa-Gulth (Kwakiutl) artist, who will carve a 30-foot totem pole.

Hunt’s first visit to PCC, a carving demonstration on April 27, kicked off year-long plans, which will include an exhibition of his work at the college’s Northview Gallery, lectures and panel discussions, and a pole raising ceremony, tentatively scheduled for spring 2001.

Of his carving and its re-emergence among younger Native American coastal Indians, Hunt said, "We are going back to our school and our kids are coming back to what is theirs ‘ their culture." Of the totem poles ‘ and other tribal artifacts, whose tradition he is continuing ‘ he said, "I see it as an art form, but it comes from a culture ‘ (the totem pole) is like a cross, or a menorah."

"The totem pole will tell a story about Oregon’s native community," said Alice Jacobson, executive dean at Sylvania, who is helping spearhead the many facets of this yearlong project. "The project is intended to be a catalyst for ongoing, community-oriented educational programs and collaborations that will highlight and draw attention to Native American arts and culture."

The totem pole is planned for the north side of the campus, in a grove of fir trees behind the performing arts center and library. "It is intended to be a welcoming pole," said organizer Marie Watt, on the visual arts faculty at PCC and the person who first dreamed of commissioning a totem pole for the campus.

"It will also serve as a teaching and learning tool," she said.

Finishing and raising the pole next spring will include traditional ceremonies and rituals that will create an opportunity for the public to get involved.

Hunt began carving at the age of 12 at the side of his father, renowned artist Henry Hunt. Hunt’s grandfather, Mungo Martin, was largely responsible for the resurrection of Northwest Coast carving. One of his great grandfather’s totems is standing at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Today, in addition to his carving, Hunt creates masks, rattles, jewelry, art cards and prints that are sold throughout the world. He will carve the pole at his studio in Victoria, then put the finishing touches on it at the Sylvania Campus next year.

He estimates, if all goes well, he will be able to carve 10 feet a month. The work itself is extremely time-consuming and physically draining. "Imagine swinging an ax for two hours," he explained, referring to the calluses covering his hands.

"The one thing that really drew us to him was that he is great at working with and interacting with people," said Watt. "He is an impressive person, not only highly regarded in his field, but with great communication skills."

Other upcoming events in conjunction with the totem pole project include several Native American Arts courses held during the college’s annual Summer Art Institute. Pat Courtney Gold will teach Native American Plateau Baskets and Culture for two credits at the Sylvania Campus and Bill Mercer, curator of Native American Art at the Portland Art Museum, will teach a one-credit course, Native American Art, at the Portland Art Museum.

To date funding for the project has come from the Allen Foundation, the PCC Foundation, the Paramount Hotel and individual donors.

People interested in volunteering, receiving further information, or making a donation can contact the project coordinator, Marie Watt, on the visual arts faculty at PCC. Watt can be reacted at 977-8017 or at mwatt@pcc.edu.

Tax deductible donations can be made to the PCC Foundation, PO Box 19000, Portland, OR 97280.

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »

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