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Review

Carvings and Commerce: Model Totem Poles, 1880-2010

By Pat Glascock

November 4, 2013

Review By Alan Hoover

In 2010 the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon held an exhibition of 194 Northwest Coast style model totem poles. This handsome book is the catalogue for that exhibit. The model poles are presented chronologically in five defined “phases,” and within each phase by cultural or tribal group. Information is given for each piece including artist’s name, birth and death dates, tribal affiliation, date of manufacture, media, dimensions, comments, and collection of origin. Michael Hall and Pat Glascock have included essays by academics Aaron Glass and Aldona Jonaitis, Kate Duncan, Charlotte Townsend-Gault, and an interview with Haida artist, Robert Davidson. In addition to the excellent images of the model poles are black and white and colour photographs associated with the essays and interview and portraits of nine of the carvers featured in the book.

In a concluding, well-illustrated essay, Hall and Glascock discuss model poles as a commodity produced for consumption by non-Natives. The essay is supplemented by four short sections illustrating nine model poles by non-Northwest Coast carvers, eight by non-Native carvers, seven utilitarian objects and object pairs such as salt and pepper shakers in the form of model poles, plus seven model poles that are either reproductions in non-traditional media or were carved off-shore. The final section is a useful and informative check list by Christopher W. Smith of 150 model totem carvers giving their name(s), cultural group, “production locale,” birth and death dates, and comments.

The book’s purpose is to redress the dismissal of model totem poles as objects made for sale to tourists and with little cultural or aesthetic value. For example at the Royal BC Museum, only one model pole is included in an exhibit case devoted to presenting a particular Northwest Coast art style; the rest, a total of forty-nine, appear in displays devoted to tourist art. However, model poles have been included in mainstream exhibitions and publications going back to Franz Boas’ 1897 essay “The Decorative Art of the Indians of the North Pacific Coast” which included nine line drawings based on wood and argillite Haida model totem poles. The 1967 Arts of the Raven exhibit included three model poles, two by Henry Hunt and one by Tony Hunt. In both instances, model poles were included because they illustrated the continuation of art styles that can be traced back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Hall and Glascock make available the work of many less well-known and often less-accomplished artists, giving the reader a more complete exposure to an important Northwest Coast artifact type. Robert Davidson, while recognizing that the quality of work of many Haida artists in the early and mid-twentieth century was for the most part “a shadow of what Haida art was,” also observes that “their work was very important because it documents that time” (31). Similarly, Glass and Jonaitis refer to model poles as “significant documents of the colonial encounter” (12).

This book must be seen within the context of a significant body of work – most notably Steven C. Brown’s Native Visions (1998) — that has in varying degrees discussed model totem poles by artists other than those who have been celebrated in the literature as carriers of “traditional” Northwest Coast art styles. Carvings and Commerce is a compendium of the full range of model poles, with excellent photographs and available documentation. It is a useful reference book for collectors and museum curators and a companion to the comprehensive tome by Aldona Jonaitis and Aaron Glass, The Totem Pole: An Intercultural History (2010).

Carvings and Commerce: Model Totem Poles, 1880-2010
Michael D. Hall and Pat Glascock, with contributions from Robert Davidson, Kate Duncan, Aaron Glass, Aldona Jonaitis, Christopher W. Smith, and Charlotte Townsend-Gault
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Mendel Art Gallery; Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2011, hc. $60.00