Totem goes Dutch

Victoria-based carver's work part of First Nations exhibit in the Netherlands

Victoria-based carver Rande Cook, a member of the Kwakwaka'wakw nation, has created a totem pole that will be part of a major exhibition in the Netherlands.

The eight-metre pole, commissioned by the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, will go on display Oct. 5 as part of a large exhibition dedicated to First Nations art from the Pacific Northwest.

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"It's a massive exhibition and there are collections coming from everywhere," Cook said, including the Museum of Anthropology, as well as public and private collections from all over Europe. The opening will be led by Princess Margriet of the Netherlands.

"In Europe they still think Indians live in teepees," said the 35-yearold artist and chief. "So it's really about the educational side of it."

Cook was selected for the Dutch exhibition from an open call made in partnership with Alert Bay's U'mista Cultural Centre to artists from tribes and bands across the Pacific Northwest, from the Coast Salish north of California up into Alaska.

The totem pole is more than one metre in diameter, weighs more than 680 kilograms and carved from a 1,000-year-old red cedar. Cook sculpted it with the help of Calvin Hunt, John Livingston, Thomas Bruce and Cole Speck.

"The totem pole is showing the new with the old," he said. "[It's showing] that the art is still carrying on and that Indians aren't extinct, as some people think."

He drew from his family origin story for inspiration. A man sits at the centre of the pole above a killer whale, which comes from his mother's side. Below, a thunderbird with majestically spread wings at the top represents the first man who built a house after a great flood, according to one origin story. He prayed to the creator and was answered with a thunderbird.

"He started lifting the beams and started to build the first house after the flood had receded and that's the story on my father's side, of the thunderbird," he said.

But the totem isn't strictly personal for Cook.

"I'm not saying this is mine, this is my story. I want to create a story for everybody that's about unity," he said.

He intended to make it accessible by incorporating all four elements: fire and air through the thunderbird, Earth through the man and water through the killer whale.

"No matter what culture you're from, you can still connect and take something from it," he said.

Following the exhibition's close in April, the totem pole will move to the museum's garden, where it will remain permanently.

Cook grew up in the fishing village of Alert Bay and says he was always passionate about drawing and creative projects, especially watching his grandfather - also a carver - at work.

"I always had that keen interest that one day, when I grew up, it was something I'd want to do," he said.

He moved to Victoria in high school and began studying at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, but found they weren't teaching the kind of carving he was interested in.

"I was kind of conflicted, because you can't learn any of this in any school in the world, this carving. You have to go and apprentice from a master carver, so I dropped out of school and did a six-month apprenticeship with a master carver, John Livingston," he said.

Though he knew it would put him at a disadvantage in some ways - First Nations artists commonly face challenges in the job market because they don't graduate with an official degree, despite rigorous training - he saw it as the best educational opportunity.

He has also worked with metal worker Robert Davidson and craftsman Calvin Hunt, as well as travelling to Italy and New York to work with repousée and chasing master Valentin Yotkov.

Now a well-respected artist in his own right, his work is shown across Canada and the United States. He is represented locally by Alcheringa Gallery.

Cook's art often mixes older methods and stories with contemporary style and vice versa - a wall carving in his studio shows a scene of ballroom dancers cast in a historied carving esthetic and a painting in pink pastels shows a man with a rosary touching a woman's breast.

Kwakwaka'wakw history - from the mass loss of art during the potlatch ban in the 1880s through persistent poverty on reserves - is all connected in his art. But at the same time, Cook is conscientious of defining his own voice and moving across traditional boundaries that have separated First Nations art from others.

"I push myself, not only to create my own distinctive style, but to continue to tell stories - stories of today," he said. "I want to connect with the rest of the world."

asmart@timescolonist.com

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