In 1985, photographer and writer Vickie Jensen spent three months with Nisga’a artist Norman Tait and his crew of young carvers as they transformed a raw cedar log into a forty-two-foot totem pole for the BC Native Education Centre. Having spent years recovering the traditional knowledge that informed his carving, Tait taught his crew to make their own tools, carve, and design regalia, and together they practiced traditional stories and songs for the pole-raising ceremony.
Totem Pole Carving shares two equally rich stories: the step-by-step work of carving and the triumph of Tait teaching his crew the skills and traditions necessary to create a massive cultural artifact. Jensen captures the atmosphere of the carving shed — the conversations and problem-solving, the smell of fresh cedar chips, the adzes and chainsaws, the blistered hands, the tension-relieving humor, the ever-present awareness of tradition, and the joy of creation. Generously illustrated with more than 130 striking photographs, and originally published as Where the People Gather, this second edition features a new preface from Jensen and an updated, lifetime-spanning survey of Tait’s major works.
Published in 2020
This catalogue was published by Nisga’a Museum in conjunction with the exhibition Finding A Voice: The Art of Norman Tait held at Nisga’a Museum from May 30 to August 29, 2015 and at the West Vancouver Museum from October 14 to December 5, 2015.
Norman Tait (b. 1941) has been devoted to art since childhood. Imbued with a deep connection to his Nisga’a heritage and family, Tait has utilized his artistic gifts and transcended the quotidian to create the extraordinary. Self-taught, this self-critical and highly engaged artist has, over the past five decades, researched and explored his Nation’s rich cultural heritage and forged a voice for himself that speaks through his myriad of sculptural and two dimensional works. This voice is driven by a passion to reinvent traditional narratives within a contemporary context and provide ways in which to connect his ancestral heritage to today’s fast paced and changing world.
Karen Duffek is the Curator of Contemporary Visual Arts & Pacific Northwest at the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA). Her research focus lies both in the history of Northwest Coast Aboriginal collectionsâ€•including connecting and documenting historical objects, particularly those made and used during the period of potlatch prohibition, with descendants and originating community membersâ€•and in the relationship of contemporary art to cultural practice. Among her many exhibitions are Projections: The Painted Art of Henry Speck, Udzi’stalis (co-curated with Marcia Crosby, 2012) and a collaboration with artist Peter Morin in Peter Morin’s Museum (2011), both at MOA’s Satellite Gallery; Border Zones: New Art across Cultures (MOA, 2010); Robert Davidson: The Abstract Edge (MOA, with tour to the National Gallery of Canada, 2044-2007); and with Tom Hill, the now historical Beyond History (Vancouver Art Gallery, 1989). Her publications include the webzine borderzones.ca (2010) and the books Bill Reid and Beyond: Expanding on Modern Native Art (co-edited with Charlotte Townsent-Gault, 2004), Robert Davidson: The Abstract Edge (2004), and the Transforming Image: Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First Nations (co-authored with Bill McLennan, 2000).
Vickie Jensen is a Vancouver-based photographer and author who began photographing Norman Tait’s work in the mid 1980s. She wrote her first book, Where the People Gather: Bringing a Log to Life, (reprinted in paperback as Totem Pole Carving), based on three months of intense collaboration as Tait and his crew carved a 42-foot doorway pole. “We talked, discussed the photos I was taking, shared the meals I cookedâ€•it was a transforming experience in my life. And getting to know Norman’s family was an unexpected bonus. “ Jensen also wrote about this pole in the children’s book Carving a Totem Pole and has featured Tait’s work in a third book, The Totem Poles of Stanley Park, expanded and re-titled in 2015 as Totem Poles and the Lure of Stanley Park. As of 2005 her extensive text and photo documentation of Norman Tait’s career is part of the Jensen-Powell Fonds housed in the Museum of Anthropology Archives.
Darrin Martens is currently the Chief Curator of the Audain Art Museum. Prior to this position he served as the Director of the Nisga’a Museum and Director/curator of Burnaby Art Gallery. Martens has a Master’s degree in Art History from the University of British Columbia with a focus on Critical Curatorial Studies. He is also a fellow of Claremont Graduate University’s J. Paul Getty Foundation’s Museum Leadership Institute. Prior to his studies at UBC he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Regina. Marten’s passion lies in exploring Canadian art history and in particular artists of First Nations heritage. He has curated over 50 exhibitions and contributed to over 30 publications.
Shirley Morven, whose Nisga’a name is Angaye’e, was born in Gitlaxt’aamiks, British Columbia. She is one of the members of the Gitwilnnaak’il’ Wolf clans from that ancient community. She is currently the Chairperson for Nisga’a Lisims Government’s Council of Elders and where she is one of the four national officers. She is also charged with the oversight of Collections and Exhibitions on the Nisga’a Museum Advisory Committee. She has served in several other capacities over her lifetime, always with a focus on formal and traditional Nisga’a practices. She has functioned as District Principal for Nisga’a Language and Culture for School District # 92. In addition she was chairperson for the Nisga’a Valley Health Board for 1 ½ terms just at the turn of the century, and on the New Aiyansh Band Council for two terms prior to the Nisga’a attaining their autonomy.
Published in 2015
The totem pole is a distinctive and widely admired form of traditional Northwest Coast Native art. Once nearly lost, this art form is alive and thriving today. In this beautifully photographed book, Vickie Jensen collaborates with Norman Tait, a renowned Nisga’a artist, and his crew of young carvers to document the process of transforming a log into a totem pole.
Throughout the carving process, Tait requires the apprentices to make their own tools, design their regalia and practice traditional drumming, songs and dances. He teaches the young carvers that carving a pole requires more than time and labour, more than a firm understanding of the tools and techniques and more than artistic and emotional commitment. The process involves respecting and following tradition and becoming involved in their cultural background.
Published in 2003