Beaver Totem With Moss, 2014
18” x 48” x 1.5”
The reference image identified this pole as being at the UBC Museum of
Anthropology but the one currently standing in the outdoor exhibit is a
newer one. Unsure as to where this older totem has been moved to.
This is a subject that has been on my mind since the beginning, even before the series. The First Nations tradition for the totems is that, they too follow their natural life cycle, which includes the last years of decay and returning to the earth. Museums have posed a white man’s notion of preservation with the totems and carvings, which were acquired through time, much taken from First Nations around the world, without any permission. There have been great efforts in recent years to try and repatriate these cultural artifacts and family treasures.
I suppose that with my interest in how the wood and carving ages through time, I am naturally drawn to a totem entering it final stages. I’ve seen photos of totems already fallen and being reclaimed by nature, and I also know how First Nations communities prefer keeping their final resting places private so that they can remain undisturbed. So, at this time, I don’t feel comfortable in trying a painting of this phase where the totem reaches its end and its life is absorbed by nature again, and the cycle continues.
But I came across an older picture of the Beaver Totem (Memorial Pole) that use to be at UBC MOA, before it was finally repatriated to an undisclosed area, and a copy was carved to take its place. I was deeply moved in seeing this image of the totem where the wood is gradually being overtaken by mosses and dry rot. And yet, there is still such nobility to this totem. I came back to this picture every time that was I was looking for the next subject for a painting, but I didn’t feel I was ready or that it was the right time.
But this time around, having completed the Child/Cub With Human Mother painting, the Beaver Totem was not to be left on hold any longer. I tried seeing if I could crop the image to fit the standard canvas sizes, but that would have required cutting off a section (top or bottom) that was pivotal to the whole. I needed to maintain as much of the image of the Beaver Totem as it held different stages of decay, different layers of mosses gradually growing over the carved image. So that left me with the expense of having a special 18” x 48” canvas prepared for me. It was the first size that allowed me to present a totem in its natural taller silhouette.
Once base coated and drafted onto the canvas, I gradually built up some of the main colours within each section:
Many hours and days went by. But as with the other paintings and my work in iconography, I’ve learned to listen to the that small voice when it starts saying that the time is coming to set the brush down. Otherwise, I could continue on and on and risk overworking a painting. I guess it is especially problematic when you are doing a more realistic style. The quest for the details can take over. But this isn’t meant to be a photograph. An important lessen learned and to be understood from the ancient traditions in iconography is that perfection hasn’t been reached, and realistically, is not attainable, but that your past works, the current work in progress, and future works, are all part of that journey. The same applies in the iconographic nature of my totem studies. I trust each totem to inform me whether its essence has been captured for viewers to see and experience. This totem in particular, no longer being within public view, is completing (or has completed) its journey back to the earth. I felt the urgency of recording this special image, as there were no others of this wonderful totem in its elder years. The paintings of this series are time capsules. The totems keep moving along on their journeys and never look like this again. This awe inspiring Beaver Totem has completed its course and I hope that this painting will be added as an ongoing memory of it.
‘Beaver Totem With Moss’ is owned by John Stefaniuk, partner with the firm Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP, Winnipeg Manitoba