From a commissioned UNESCO piece to a community project

Port Alberni, BC

As he continues to chip away at an 800-year-old cedar log lying by Port Alberni’s waterfront, Hesquiaht carver Tim Paul has had to draw upon the teachings he received as an artist.

“My discipline and my upbringing is that I go the distance; I complete and I finish,” said Paul as he stands over the developing totem pole.

With a legacy of carving projects that are displayed around the world, Paul admits this one hasn’t been easy. Work began years ago when a windfallen Western red cedar was selected from the forest floor near Bamfield. A gift from the Huu-ay-aht First Nations at an estimated 60,000 pounds, the log was transported to Port Alberni’s Harbour Quay area in March 2019.

That was when plans still had the pole being erected at the University of Victoria in late 2019, marking the United Nations Year of Indigenous Languages. The project was commissioned by the First Nations Education Foundation, but by summer 2019 funds had dried up, leaving the master caver and his crew to continue without pay.

Then in the fall of that year Paul had to step away from the project. He lost his wife Monica in October, followed by the passing of his mother less than three weeks later. Others were left to execute Paul’s vision, and by late 2019 most of the pole was painted. By then it was determined that the monument would not be raised at UVic but remain in Port Alberni, the community that saw the log’s transformation.

Paul returned to the project last year, and currently has found a boost of support from Nuu-chah-nulth carvers contributing to the project. But as he took back control of the piece it became apparent major adjustments were needed. The paint has been removed for the 11 relatives of nature in the pole to be re-carved, mainly due to the lack of a proper alignment of the figures and cracks in the ancient log.

“We had to realign the whole centre line, take the head off the Bear and reattach it. The fracture went right through it,” explained Paul. “The Sky Chief, the Moon and the Sun are in the back of the pole now.”

Carver Moy Sutherland Jr. recently inquired about the project while he was buying lumber from a nearby Port Alberni mill. After seeing the pole, he returned the next day with his chainsaw and tools to help.

“Just because it’s got paint on it doesn’t mean it’s finished,” he said. “There’s no way to gauge whether or not this is symmetrical. One of the first things that I did is I put the centre line back on this thing, and now we’re roughing off everything and making it as symmetrical as we can.”

Sutherland said he can help the elder Paul with the chainsaw work and other heavy lifting.

“My process with whoever I’m working with is they draw the lines, I’ll run the saw on it,” he said. “This is like community-based work at this point, because there’s no purchaser, there’s no funder.”

“It’s all there, it’s just rearranged,” added Paul of the pole’s contents. “We just had to redo to make sure that it’s finished properly in Nuu-chah-nulth design and style.”

Paul now plans to incorporate an aluminum design onto a flat section of the pole, a technique he has employed in other projects. His vision is for the pole to encompass the whole of nature, drawing upon experiences throughout his life.

“What it addresses is the mountains and the Thunderbird, the skies, the rivers and the lakes. The clearcutting, the mining, the ocean, it just takes on everything and looks at the extraction of resources,” described the master carver. “Nature is here and gives us everything we want. Should we really be overtaking? I think in the end we pay dearly.”

Since it was removed from the forest floor, the pole’s development has been documented by filmmaker Dale Devost, a long-time collaborator of Paul’s. He expects to have a finished film for distribution whenever the project is completed.

“This particular pole has been a rough journey for Tim,” admitted Devost. “There’s no funding, so anyone who comes here to work on this, they’re doing it because they want to be here.”

“I know that everything that has happened, has happened for a good reason,” he added.

A permanent location for the pole has yet to be determined, but plans are underway for songs to be composed to mark its raising. This is thanks to Ahousaht singer Guy Louie Jr., who has been travelling from Victoria to help carve the pole. Louie currently works as an apprentice under Moy Sutherland.

“His vision is quite clear on holding up the women,” said Louie of Paul’s direction for the project. “Singing, he believes, kept us alive, as far as people and as far as our tradition.”

Paul admits that the cedar log, which might have lain on the forest floor for a century, has been a challenge to work with. His original designs have required adapting due to a significant rot along the centre of the original log. But the project is also a personal dedication to the women who have influenced the Hesquiaht carver over his life, inspiration that fuels Paul as he leads his volunteer crew through the pole’s execution.

“This whole project is a real tribute to grandmothers, aunts and uncles and moms,” he said. “We were given a pig’s ear, but for the ladies, we’re going to turn it into a silver purse.”

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