Fire & Ice Totem Pole
Pilchuck Glass School Honors Founders with Multi-media Totem Pole
by Gary Wyatt
On August 29, 2001, under blazing-hot sunshine, several hundred invited guests gathered on the grounds of the Pilchuck Glass School near Seattle, Washington to witness the raising of a very special totem pole commissioned to celebrate the roles that artist Dale
Details of the new totem pole at the Pilchuck Glass School near Seattle, WA-fusing traditional design and carving with contemporary glass art. The initial carving was completed in Alaska.
Final detail carving, painting, glass and neon installation took place at the school.
Chihuly and benefactors John Hauberg and Anne Gould Hauberg played in the founding of this renowned institution. The unique totem pole is the first to combine traditional red cedar with cast, etched and blown glass components, as well the subtle use of neon lighting.
For Preston Singletary, the 38-year-old Tlingit artist of Seattle who directed fabrication and installation of the glass elements, the Founders Pole represented a wonderful bridging of tradition and innovation. A former Pilchuck student and ongoing occasional teacher at the school, he notes, "In a long and roundabout way, it enabled me to embrace and honor my family, tribe and personal past by giving me the inspiration to push forward with new ideas I am privileged to be part of bringing the pole to the school, but the amazing thing about this project is that it isn't about any one person. There were so many people involved."
In fact, it took 22 volunteers just to lift the pole into place. Artist Wayne Price led this effort with the cry, "Think light as a feather!" Carried by cross beams placed under it, the pole was slowly hauled uphill to its new home at the entrance to the school. During the move, Price gave careful directions to the crew, while consulting with Alaskan master carver John Hagen (Eskimo) to ensure safety and protocol concerns were honored.
Hagen remained quietly in the background, proudly watching the event unfold. It is common on the Northwest Coast to allow others to oversee pole-raisings and speak on your behalf, so as not to appear boastful, and, most importantly, to allow the work to speak for itself. In this case, Hagen gave the honor to Price, who had trained and worked as his apprentice for many years and was one of four principal assistants on this project.
Master carver John Hagen working on a detail of the totem pole; Below: Preston Singletary with glass potlatch hat; Preston Singletary, Clarissa Hudson, Rhys Williams and David Svenson stand by as Dan Friday pours the dagger.
The Project Roots
When he first discovered Singletary's work, he immediately understood its emerging possibilities, and they became close friends. It was Svenson who first proposed honoring the Pilchuck founders with a totem pole of wood and glass, based on the school's proximity to the cultural borders of the Northwest Coast and the Haubergs' interest in building a formidable collection of historic and contemporary Northwest art (a portion of it now forms the basis of the Seattle Art Museum collection). For the Haubergs, their gradual shift as collectors from traditional arts toward contemporary glass arts foretold the growing fusion between the two art forms and this specific project.
In Spring 2000, Singletary and Svenson collaborated on an exhibition in Haines, Alaska that introduced glass media into Tlingit territory. On a flight from Seattle to Alaska, the idea for the Founders Pole was hammered out. The concept called for the majority of the pole to be carved in Alaska over the winter of 2001 by a team of carvers selected, in part, by Lee Heinmiller, director of Alaska Indian Arts, based in Haines. Overseeing the apprentice carvers-Wayne Price, David Svenson, Greg Horner and Clifford Thomas-would be John Hagen. The pole's Tlingit design and carving style would reflect both Mr. Hauberg's close associations to the Tlingit Nation and Singletary's ancestry. The pole would then be transported by ship to Washington and delivered to Pilchuck for the carving of final details, painting, and installation of the glass elements and neon for back lighting. The proposal was taken to the Pilchuck board and adopted as part of the school's thirtieth anniversary celebration for 2001.
For Singletary, the project was a wonderful step in his critically acclaimed career. After his own studies at Pilchuck beginning in the mid-1980s, he went on to study internationally before turning to his aboriginal heritage for inspiration. Early in his exploration, he made the connection between the traditional Northwest Coast two-dimensional formline design and what could be achieved with glass. From initial objects that highlighted the play of light through the design, he has recently begun to work with more narrative-style works based on family and traditional stories, which has pushed his creations toward contemporary sculpture while requiring a deeper commitment on his part to learn the traditional design forms of his culture.
Verna Erikson and Charles Jimmie, Sr. participated in the pole-raising.
As the project developed, a major consideration was that it continue this mandate. Textile artist and student Clarissa Hudson (Tlingit) added the Chilkat blanket design after the pole arrived at Pilchuck. She notes, "It was a life-changing experience." The inlaid glass elements were created during 2001 summer programs at the school led by Singletary and Svenson, in which a number of scholarships were offered to Native students, in keeping with a long-standing school policy. The glass inlays and glass base were cast from designs created by local Coast Salish artists Marvin Oliver, Joe David and Steve Brown, the former assistant curator of the Seattle Art Museum and cataloger of the Hauberg collection.
In 2000, Singletary had been instrumental in securing an artist-in-residence position at Pilchuck for master carver Joe David (Nuu-chah-nulth). As the totem pole project evolved, he was asked to assist on numerous issues regarding ceremony and protocol.
The painting of the pole was also completed at Pilchuck. It began formally, but soon involved all the students and staff, who were drawn in by the excitement. At one point, 15 volunteers were found painting side by side on the pole. Notes Joe David on Hagen's recruitment efforts, "Anyone with a brush or knife in hand and a shine in their eyes was welcomed to help."
The designs chosen are symbolic of the school's founding. The bottom figure of the pole represents John Hauberg, as a chief wearing a robe and wolf headdress. In his hand rests a glass dagger with a double-headed killer whale design, which acknowledges his adoption into the Tlingit Nation after his repatriation of a historic ceremonial dagger, and his commitment to make his collection accessible to First Nations. The second figure is Raven, which represents the creation story of Raven bringing light to the world and the creation of Pilchuck. The gift of light is represented by a glass disk and additional glass inlays in Raven's wings. The next figure, a human, represents Dale Chihuly. The internationally renowned glass artist is shown holding Raven as the messenger of the idea, with one eye rendered in glass, depicting Chihuly's ever-present eye patch. The top figure represents Anne Gould Hauberg, Pilchuck's patron. She wears a potlatch hat made of glass, created by Singletary.
"I would have to say I was not aware in the beginning of all the millions of details that were to go into this project," says Singletary. "It was an amazing learning experience from all perspectives-from negotiating with the board for the project, to coordinating where the glass elements would go with the Haines carvers, and contacts with elders from many different communities whom we asked to participate. It was a great honor to work with the Alaskan crew. They were open to new ideas and willing to stand behind the project."
Pilchuck has always taken great pride in its hospitality, and the feast that followed was no exception. Following the meal, the guests joined in a traditional potlatch, where Singletary, Svenson, the carvers, students, staff and witnesses were all acknowledged with gifts-often duplicate cast-glass pieces from elements within the pole. Joe David spoke of the potlatch tradition, in which the guests were paid great hospitality and given gifts to witness and remember the energy and feelings of the proceeding.
It was dark when the potlatch concluded and the guests began to wind their way around the pond and down the road to their cars. The pole, now brilliantly lit from within, glowed in the distance, beginning its life as both the boundary and welcome to the Pilchuck Glass School. Here it stands as a testament to vision and as a symbol of strength and partnership between cultures.
Preston Singletary is represented by several galleries including the following: Quintana Gallery, Portland, OR (503/223-1729); Blue Rain Gallery, Taos: NM (505/751-0066); Spirit Wrestler Gallery, Vancouver, BC (604/669-8813); Chappell Gallery, NYC (212/414-2673) and Boston (617/236-2255); and William Traver Gallery, Seattle, WA (206/587-6501).
Gary Wyatt of Vancouver, British Columbia is the author of Spirit Faces: Contemporary Masks of the Northwest and Mythic Beings: Spirit Art of the Northwest Coast.