Story and photos by Mary Powell
It’s mid-morning in the somewhat nondescript carving shed tucked behind the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s administration buildings off U.S. Highway 101 in Blyn. There is the sense of creativity in the shed.
Carvers Dale Faulstich and Bud Turner carry on easy conversation over a constant chipping sound that suggests the log the two are carving eventually will become a unique and majestic totem pole.
Occasionally they stop to study the design sketches drawn by Faulstich.
The telephone rings; Kogi Naidoo, who works over at one of the administration buildings, stops by for some good-natured banter with Faulstich; apprentice Dusty Humphries has a question for Turner and it looks as though the day will be a busy one.
But, says Turner, “We are having fun here.”
Fun, of course is a relative word. For most of us, carving a totem pole that stands anywhere from 5 to 36 feet or more would be a tall order. Not so much for Faulstich, who, at 61, has been carving totem poles for as long as he can remember. Not only totem poles, but also a variety of ceremonial objects, as well.
Faulstich has been working with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe for 25 years and in fact, much of the commissioned artwork in and around the Administration Building and Tribal Center comes from the long-standing relationship between the two.
Back in the shed, Faulstich and Turner continue their work on the pole-in-the-making. While most of the artistry that comes from the carving shed is commissioned for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, the one they are carving is going to a private individual.
And speaking of the carving shed, this isn’t what most would think of when describing a shed. First, the extra high ceiling allows for the extra tall totem poles. The shed is quite spacious, its walls covered with tribal artwork, with totem poles in various sizes and stages of completion resting on work tables throughout the building.
“We get lots of visitors through here, especially in tourist season,” Faulstich says, adding the shed is open to visitors year-round.
Master carver extraordinaire Faulstich is soft spoken and has a calm demeanor, but when talk turns to the totem poles he and others have designed and carved, he is animated and shows off projects under way. For instance, on one side of the shed are two poles situated side by side. Cut from top to bottom, the 21-foot poles will be put together when erected in the near future at the Blyn fire station.
As with nearly all totem poles, the final design tells a story.
“This pole,” says Faulstich, as he walks around the recently completed fire station totem pole he designed, “tells the story of how fire came to be used by mankind.”
A non-native working in a native tradition, Faulstich is incredibly knowledgeable about the cultural traditions. He thoroughly researches tribal art, customs and folk stories before embarking on any commissioned project. According to one Jamestown employee who preferred not to be named, Faulstich takes long walks every morning and uses what he sees in nature as part of his artistry. Consequently, he enjoys a unique relationship with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe of Blyn.
Faulstich grew up in Missouri, but began calling the Pacific Northwest his home in 1972. In 1973, he moved to Sequim where he opened an art gallery in Dungeness.
Prior to his full-time carving days, Faulstich earned his living as a commercial artist. When asked how it was he became interested in carving traditional objects, and in particular, totem poles, he says it “just kind of happened.”
It began as hobby, he contends. “I started going to museums, looking at old stuff and trying it.” He goes on to say he spent “thousands of hours” experimenting and many of his efforts ended up in the fireplace. Fortunately, along the way he became very good at what he does.
While the totem poles along Highway 101 at the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Center and the 7 Cedars Casino are the most visible to visitors, Faulstich is an extraordinary artist using a variety of mediums. He has created masks, steamed bentwood boxes, rattles, drums, wall panels and other ceremonial objects. He shows and sells his creations at several galleries, including the high-end Stonington Gallery at Pioneer Square in Seattle.
Faulstich and his wife, Heather, live in Sequim, not far from the Jamestown Tribal Center. They have two children, a son who manages a resort in Tasmania and a daughter who is a graduate student at the University of Arizona.
In the beginning
All wood products have one thing in common — trees. In the case of the Jamestown S’Klallam totem poles, they were once western red cedar found in the Hoh Rain Forest on the western side of the Olympic Peninsula. The harvested logs range in age from 500 to 900 years.
After the trees are logged, the mill owners contact Faulstich, who then goes to the site to inspect the logs and buy what is available. He looks for the older trees, with as few knots as possible, as these are the easiest to carve. Logs not used immediately are kept at a logging shed in Port Orchard. However, a log that will become a totem pole is carved as soon after it’s cut as possible. “The greener the wood, the easier it is to carve,” Turner explains.
The height of the tree and the subsequent log is the deciding factor when selecting for an individual pole, since a totem pole is carved from a single log.
A totem pole is born
Each totem pole tells a story. Or, as Ron Allen, Jamestown S’Klallam tribal chairman, writes in the book “Totem Poles of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe: The Art of Dale Faulstich,” “Our Salish culture has a long history of using totem poles for many reasons, including commemorating family and community history, and the folklore of our religious, cultural and traditional beliefs.”
Indeed, totem poles are an ancient tradition of the Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest Coast. The meanings of the designs on totem poles are as varied as the cultures that make them. In turn, each culture has rules and customs regarding the designs represented on the poles.
Before Faulstich begins carving a totem pole for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, he submits concept drawings to the tribal council. Upon approval, Faulstich and other carvers begin their work.
Depending on the size of the project, a finished totem pole can take from six weeks to six months. The price tag? Between $2,500 and $5,000 per linear foot, again depending on the size and complexity of the design. That might explain why most of us don’t have a totem pole as part of our landscape design.
However, for those who do want a totem pole without the prohibitive price tag, Faulstich has crafted a 4½-foot pole cast in concrete. Unpainted, they are available for $275. “You can put these in your backyard since the big ones are pricey,” Faulstich says.
Back to the big poles. Once a log arrives at the carving shed, work begins. The log is measured and the design sketches are adjusted to match the configuration of the log. Adzes are used to carve the log.
These are handmade tools fashioned after an ancient design and are similar to early tribal carvers’ tools.
“Home Depot doesn’t sell these,” Faulstich says, holding up an adze with a steel blade.
For the detail work, the carvers use a variety of chisels and carving knives. Finally, the pole is painted in traditional colors.
“You never know if you did it right until you stand it up,” Faulstich admits. “And if you didn’t do it right, you don’t tell anyone.”
All in all, totem pole carving is intricate, delicate, time-consuming work, but the end result is stunning — a gift to all who spend time perusing the brilliant artistry Faulstich has created.
Once the pole is hoisted into its permanent setting, there is a dedication ceremony that may include dancing, singing and a blessing by tribal members.
It’s not everyday a budding artist decides to carve totem poles. It wasn’t a clear decision for Faulstich, either. As he explained, it just happened. But, his gift for understanding tribal art, customs and folks stories made it a natural decision to design and carve the outstanding totem poles at the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Center.
And aren’t we glad he did.
Some material for this story is taken from the book, “Totem Poles of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe: The Art of Dale Faulstich.”