A week into the restoration project, Bruce Alfred is slowly and diligently working his way around the weathered 40-foot totem pole.
Carving, repairing holes, mending places with rotten wood. Alongside him, artists Cole Speck and Nikki Wells are doing the same—each more than 3,500 kilometers from their homes in British Columbia.
After that they strip the paint from the 50+ year old mast, reseal it, whitewash the wood (probably many times) and add back its original colors of black, red and green.
That’s the plan for the next two and a half weeks as they bring artist Doug Cranmer’s work back to life.
For Alfred, a Kwakwaka’wakw artist of the ‘Namgis tribe, “it’s just something we do”.
“I’m not saying there’s no pride – there’s a lot of pride,” said Alfred, a veteran restorer who studied under Cranmer. “This is my mentor’s piece. We’re going to bring it out and make it look like the original.”
Cranmer, a Kwakwaka’wakw artist from Alert Bay, BC, played a significant role in the Northwest Coast art movement, with his craftsmanship exhibited nationally and internationally. The ‘Namgis Chief was commissioned by the City of St Catharines in 1966 to create a totem pole – representing lineage, history, peoples or events. The totem pole monuments are created by the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest and are often made of red cedar to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Confederation.
Originally erected in the Centennial Gardens, the wooden stake has deteriorated over the years due to weather and other natural elements. In 2018, Alfred – who was asked by Cranmer’s family to restore the pylon – came to Niagara to consult with the city on its restoration.
Lori Mambella, manager of programs and cultural services at St. Catharines, said the totem pole was removed in 2019 and was to be stored in an air-conditioned facility for six months to dry, be restored and reinstalled in the park (recently at Richard Pierpoint renamed). Park).
But COVID-19 had other plans – and the uncertainty of lockdowns, facility closures and travel bans put the project on hold for two years.
“There was some concern that a full recovery might not be feasible,” Mambella said in an email. “However, the artists have already made great progress. Their traditional restoration methods are meticulous and we are grateful for all the knowledge and expertise they bring to this important cultural project.”
The mast, which has endured 50 years of standing water, UV rays and snow, has “taken a hit” but Alfred confirmed with colleagues that the mast is “very, very strong” and can be successfully repaired.
“It takes a long time. I mean, it’s a shame, if you let (the deterioration) go on, just go to the chopper,” Alfred said. “Our job is to bring it back and restore it…we’re going to get it back on stage as best we can.”
Along with natural elements – and squirrels and bees making the stake their home – Alfred said there are ax marks and remains of a fire, so the group is cautious as they proceed with their process.
The plan is to fix what they see and move on to the next point based on Cranmer’s original design. It can be tempting to try something different, but Alfred said they’re trying to perfect the “traditional way.”
Totem poles have different carvings depending on their size. Cranmer originally placed a Thunderbird from top to bottom – Alfred said the Thunderbird has “quite a lot of rot” and will take a few days to fix – a bear holding copper, a cedar man, Sisiutl and a raven.
Each character represents elements of the creator’s origins and history – “everyone does it differently,” he said.
The three artists all come to St. Catharines with different skills and levels of experience. Alfred, who grew up in Alert Bay and learned the elements of design and engraving from Cranmer, has been part of a number of projects including helping establish the Haida Village at the University of British Columbia with Cranmer and Bill Reid, who have taken him all over the world.
“It is first and foremost an honor to have the ability. My late mentor was a great teacher,” he said.
Wells, from northern BC, is “a good painter”, and Speck, who was also raised in Alert Bay and grew up on the ‘Namgis Reservation, is a “fairly accomplished carver”.
“We are artists,” said Alfred.
Speck grew up around artists, watching carvers at work, and being surrounded “by such beautiful art.” He said he knew the importance of continuing to learn and grow as an artist, and that’s what he’s doing now – being alongside Alfred and better understanding Cranmer’s influence had been “nice,” said he.
“It was great working with Bruce. I’m quite grateful that he brought us here to help him with that. It’s a different learning experience,” Speck said. “Of course there is still a lot to do. It’s pretty exciting… almost like a rebirth. Hopefully we bring it back as close as possible to its former glory.”