Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ted’s Totem Pole Finds a Home at the Coe Foundation

A large totem pole is a rare sight in Santa Fe yet one 14 ½ feet tall has just been installed at the Ralph T. Coe Foundation.  I have written before about the Foundation and Ted Coe (1929-2010), its founder.  Aside from being a great scholar in several different fields he was also a voracious collector.  His main personal interest was in tribal art and in particular that of the Native Americans.  In his early days of collecting as a young man he could collect in this field with very little money earned in scholarly or advisory roles.  Early on he was able to buy well and make discoveries where others may have missed an opportunity. 

Ted’s parents were great collectors of art as well including tribal arts and Impressionists that they had bought at the beginning of the last century.  Unfortunately, through the vicissitudes of the Depression and later on age and health issues many of these paintings had to be sold.  Ted, however, was able to preserve a few pieces and in particular a great painting by Claude Monet of “Monet’s Garden at Giverny”.  As he got older and published and advised less he began to sell shares in the latter and eventually sold the picture at auction.  This gave him more serious funds near the end of his life and he was able to buy works of art that had become more expensive and that he could not afford before.

The totem pole known as a Hams’pek Pole, was carved by Calvin Hunt of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe (Kwakiutl) in British Columbia.  On a visit to Portland, Oregon in 2007, Ted saw the pole lying on the floor of the Quintana Gallery.  According to Cecily Quintana, the gallery had to cut through a beam in order to set it upright in their space, but Ted had decided on the spot that he had to have it.   By January of 2008 it was fully paid for.  It took a while to ship the pole and decide when and how it would be possible to put it up in his small back yard.  He wanted to make sure that there would be a proper welcoming ceremony that he could invite his friends and family to.  Here is an image of the artist with Ted.

Photo Credit: Antonio Ferretti

At the end of August 2008 Calvin Hunt, the carver came with his wife Marie and other members of his family to raise the pole and do a Pole Blessing.  When the pole was erected it stood almost as high as Ted’s house and way over the adjoining fence.  Friends and family had been invited, including his sister and brother-in-law, Nancy and Bill Wixom, from New York.  Penelope and I were lucky enough to be included.  The artist and his family, a troupe called the Copper Maker Dances said the blessing and did a ceremonial dance where others including Ted joined in.

Photo Credit: Antonio Ferretti

The Hams’pek pole plays a role in the initiation to the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe’s most secret society of the Hamatsa.   An initiate is usually the oldest son in an important family.  When the dances are over there is much feasting and many gifts are given so the family must also be well to do.  The Hamatsa is a Cannibal ritual based on legends of bird monsters that ate human flesh.  There are 4 dance cycles of 3 years each and with each cycle the initiate rises in cultural stature.  At the end the initiate is taken to a forest where he is taught the secrets of the society and when he returns there are four  days of feasting and gift giving.  The entire ceremony is far more complicated and here is a link to one of the better descriptions: CLICK HERE.

After Ted died, his niece, Rachel Wixom, came to Santa Fe as President of his Foundation. She wanted to put the pole in an appropriate place and since the Foundation had no permanent home at the time she gave it on loan to the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) where so many Native artists have studied.  There it stood on the plaza with a great Santa Fe Landscape behind it for almost three years.  At the welcoming ceremony a student now, graduated, Crystal Worl of the Tlingit Nation in Alaska did the blessing.

Unfortunately, the weather got the better of the pole and when a conservator for the Smithsonian and the Santa Fe State Museums, Landis Smith, recommended it be taken away from the elements Rachel had just the place for it in the new home of the Foundation at 1590 B Pacheco Street. 

Before this could be done, however, there was a small farewell ceremony at IAIA. Steve Fadden of the Mohawk tribe said a few words and sang, with board members from the Coe and Native students in attendance as well as the director of the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Patsy Phillips and the President of IAIA, Robert Martin.   

After transport to the Coe Foundation building the pole was literally laid to rest with blankets around it just inside the loading dock for about 4 months to give it as slow as possible chance to acclimatize to its new home.

Then a couple of weeks ago it was resurrected on a newly constructed base in the center of the Coe’s exhibition space.

Last week a ceremony was held at the Foundation with about 30 in attendance to welcome the Pole Rachel Wixom did welcomed everyone and Alvin Sandoval, from the Navajo Nation (Diné), who works at IAIA explained what the pole was about and gave a short blessing.  From the few English words that he used and I could understand he included the foundation and its staff in his blessing.


All these ceremonies were deeply moving and personal in different ways.  I think that the fact that Native Peoples from different Indian Nations have added their blessings give the Hams’pek Pole an additional aura fitting for the Foundation as a nexus, a study center and a place for those interested in tribal art to meet.

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