A piece of native art that Garett Ollander inherited from his uncle is destined for a new home. Where the valuable piece will be displayed is still unknown, but it will surely benefit students, historians and lovers of West Coast art.
Born in Port Alberni in 1936, Garett is a retired RCMP Marine Division officer, who worked in the furthermost points of Vancouver Island and as a coast guard officer in the Arctic (see “Life at Sea” in Senior Living, March 2009, online). He was later a marine consultant to a major corporation, which took him to Australia, China, Norway, England and Holland. He was even skipper of the famous M.V. *Lady Rose* for a while. Not bad for someone who was a self-described “vagabond” as a youngster.
This venture, however, has nothing to do with the sea, but is a coming home of a priceless piece of native art. Garett acquired a model totem pole when his Uncle Bud died in 1981. It had been in his uncle’s possession since 1969, when John Jacobson, a Master Carver of the Nuu-chah-nulth nation of Ahousaht, B.C., presented it to him.
Marvin (Bud) Smith was a barber in Port Alberni and served overseas in the Second World War. Towards the end of the war, Bud was in Holland fighting alongside John Jacobson, although the two did not know each other well. When the Germans were being pushed out of Holland in 1944, Bud was seriously wounded. John Jacobson quickly came to his rescue, making sure Bud was protected from further fire whilst conveying him to the medical post. John saved Bud’s life, and the two men formed a long-lasting friendship when they returned to B.C.
As a tribute to their friendship, the Master Carver presented Bud with a signed 26.5’ (8.1 m) totem pole on November 11, 1969 to commemorate Remembrance Day and the fact that they had both served in the Canadian Army. Although Jacobson was a highly recognized carver in the Nuu-chah-nulth nation, apparently he was not in the habit of signing his work. Little was thought of, at the time, that this particular piece of work was signed.
Some years after it came into his possession, Garett decided he should get an appraisal of this model totem pole. Kerry Mason, an appraiser in Victoria specializing in Canadian and Northwest Coast art, was thrilled to see this signed totem pole, which was stylistically similar to an unsigned eight-foot (2.4-metre) totem in Government House, Victoria. She deduced that this and other anonymous poles in the collection of the Royal B.C. Museum appeared to be John Jacobson's. These works were previously unidentified as belonging to any one artist.
The totem, titled “Eagle, Serpent and Killer Whale,” is carved in red cedar and remains in excellent condition. In her appraisal, Kerry Mason said, “The aesthetic value of the pole is huge. The form is exceptionally fine and the details both subtle and sensitively rendered, the artist using the grain of the cedar to emphasize and enhance the form of the components.”
The iconography of the pole is distinctive to the Nuu-chah-nulth cultural group. The creatures of the sea, land and air depicted in this case by the Killer Whale, Serpent and Eagle are believed to be spiritually connected.
“Through transformation, the spirit of the Eagle takes the form of Serpent on land and Killer Whale in the sea,” says Mason. “The belief in the interconnectedness of all aspects of nature is strong in Northwest Coast cultures. Additionally, the Eagle, Serpent and Killer Whale are important crests in Nuu-chah-nulth society.”
The pole provides an important historic record of the artwork of John Jacobson, the Nuu-chah-nulth culture, in general, and the carvings of the mid-20th century on the west coast of British Columbia.
“Should this pole be donated to either a university or museum, it would prove invaluable to scholars investigating the techniques, iconography and cultural context of a wide variety of artists and artwork,” says Mason.
After the discovery that his model totem pole had led to the authenticity of other artwork in the Royal B.C. Museum, Garett realized how unique this item was and that it should occupy a special place. Friends suggested he sell it for a tidy sum, but Garett is not interested in cashing in on the historical piece.
A chance encounter on a B.C. ferry with Woody Hayes, at that time chair of the board of Vancouver Island University, helped Garett out in his dilemma. Woody suggested Garett meet with Shawn Atleo, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa, who was chancellor of every campus of Vancouver Island University. As he is also a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth, the Grand Chief would have prime interest in the totem and its destiny. Instead, Garett met with Chief Cliff Atleo of Ahousaht, B.C., who had conferred with his nephew, Grand Chief Shawn Atleo. For a time, it was thought the totem should be presented to Vancouver Island University to benefit First Nations students. Ultimately, however, they both felt the totem belonged in a museum in Ottawa.
At the same time, Legion officials in British Columbia and Ottawa have shown an interest in the pole and they believe this totem belongs in one of their museums. It is not widely known that many First Nations served in the war. The Legion feels the pole is unique as it was created as a war memorial and presented by a First Nations carver to his friend, a white man.
Because Garett will eventually release the pole once the rightful quarter is determined, he commissioned B.C. artist Bill Maximick to paint the totem in detail. This impressive painting depicts a Master Carver at work, who bears a resemblance to the late John Jacobson, as well as another Ahousaht artist. It will be a permanent reminder of the skill of the carver and the actions that precipitated the piece: war and friendship.
Whether the pole remains in B.C. or goes to Ottawa, art enthusiasts and historians alike will long remember Garett’s generosity.
Although officially retired, Garett’s latest project is a course offered at North Island College: Seniors’ Quest for Knowledge. For more information, visit www.nic.bc.ca/eldercollege
DECEMBER 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND