In November, visitors will be able to watch Tlingit artist Tommy Joseph craft a 16-foot totem pole for permanent display at the Museum of Natural History.
Near the offices of the BBC in London stands an 8-foot-tall totem pole carved of red cedar. Forms of a sailboat, compass, and full moon tell the story of the longest-running children’s television show in the world, Blue Peter, which at the time of the pole’s installation in 2008 was celebrating its 50th anniversary. While some may consider the totem pole unusual for the nontraditional symbols it employs, its creator, artist and wood carver Tommy Joseph, thinks differently: “I believe it’s all very much traditional,” he says. “The art form is continuing to evolve the way it always has.”
Tommy Joseph creates work that combines traditional elements with new shapes that speak to contemporary stories.
A native of the Tlingit people of southeast Alaska, Joseph creates totem poles that combine traditional elements—like figures of ravens and eagles that represent a tribe’s clan system—with new shapes that help him tell contemporary stories. Joseph, whose work can be seen in New Zealand, Germany, and throughout the United States, is currently applying his skills to creating a totem pole for Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Last year, he became the inaugural recipient of the museum’s Living Cultural Treasures Award, a project of its Center for World Cultures.
Inspired by the Japanese tradition of honoring living national treasures, the award seeks to celebrate artists whose work embodies the evolution inherent in living cultures, says Sandra Olsen, the museum’s curator of anthropology. “We always recognize— as Tommy does about his own work— that an individual artist expresses tradition in his or her own way. We don’t want to see everyone in North America, or anywhere, homogenized,” says Olsen, who is also the director of the Center for World Cultures and the force behind the new award.
As its first recipient, Joseph has been commissioned to spend several weeks carving a unique 16-foot totem pole inside the museum’s R. P. Simmons Family Gallery this November. Visitors will be able to watch and interact with the artist. His completed artwork will be permanently installed at the entrance to Polar World and Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians.
“I can’t wait to dig in and start making chips fly,” says Joseph. But he adds that, for him, the process actually began long ago, when he explored a stand of red cedar trees on Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island. Looking for a trunk with few limbs and straight bark, Joseph walked the grounds with maps and a representative from the U.S. Forest Service, to ensure that he only removed a tree from a legal zone. The red cedar he selected then traveled about 160 miles to his studio in Sitka, Alaska, “a small town on a huge island,” he says.
The southeastern portion of Alaska, home to the Tlingit tribe, comprises many glacier-cut fjords and islands hugging the coast of British Columbia. Historically, totems would stand in front of traditional clan houses near the ocean, for passersby to decipher. “They’d look at the pole in front of your house and tell which clan, or group of people, lived in that house,” says Joseph. Totems were also traditionally used as mortuary poles, a practice that shifted once Europeans arrived and encouraged the tribe to begin burying their dead underground.
Throughout time and still today, the poles’ primary function has been to tell stories. “There are stories about individuals, about groups of people, about events that have taken place,” says Joseph.
When they were first developed in ancient times, there was no written, indigenous language, he adds, and generations were brought up in the strong tradition of oral storytelling that accompanied the ever-present images in various orders on the totems. “You can’t read a totem pole. That’s impossible to do,” he says. “You point out the figures as you tell the story.”
Today the number of carvers maintaining this tradition in southeast Alaska is small but steady. “I think every community in southeast Alaska has a handful of carvers that can do totem poles,” Joseph says.
Most, as he does, pursue an artistic process that utilizes traditional tools and a few modern conveniences. For instance, instead of creating oil-based pigments produced from salmon eggs, Joseph opts for modern commercial paints. Instead of using hand tools to mill the trunk down before carving, Joseph uses a chainsaw. “But as far as doing the actual carving, I’m doing that by hand in the traditional way,” he says. Primarily, he uses v-shaped tools called elbow adzes, many of which he makes himself with blades that range in width from 1 to 5 inches.
The use of these tools often resonates with onlookers, he says, because they see what’s really involved. Sandra Olsen provides an example: “I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, and my dad helped to build [Boeing] B-52’s. When you see that whole B-52 built, you don’t stop and think about who helped hang the doors or do the electronics.” After you watch people build it, you do.
Joseph himself first began carving after seeing a live wood-carving demonstration in the third grade. He now teaches wood-carving classes at high schools and universities throughout Alaska. He also spent 21 years demonstrating for tourists at the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center in Sitka.
The practice has been a means through which Joseph constantly learns more about his own culture. Many people who visit him in the studio, he says, are Tlingit. “I hear their input and learn stories about when they were young or about their parents or grandparents.”
His curiosity doesn’t end with the Tlingit. He has studied the anthropology collections at museums around the world and has a particular interest in doing so at Carnegie Museums. Olsen recommends for him the museum’s carvings from New Guinea, from various parts of Africa, and from Southeast Asia.
“There’s so much more out there to learn from,” Joseph says. “I don’t think you could help but be impacted by the things you see.”