He is an accomplished stone carver, as evidenced by the impressive collection of works in his Snee-Oosh Road gallery and at public places including the Tommy Thompson Trail and Anacortes United Methodist Church.
But it was a wood carving almost 30 years ago that forever changed the way Tracy Powell would look at his art.
It was 1981 when Powell, who had been carving small wooden pieces such as canoe paddles and masks, was introduced to the Maiden of Deception Pass.
“I had just started to make a go of it,” Powell recalled, when he and wife Maralyne moved back to Fidalgo Island. “I worked with my brother Kenny, a shipwright and a phenomenal woodworker.”
Among the 1963 Anacortes High School graduate’s initial interests was Native art. That interest was soon to become a consuming passion.
About the time Powell started pursuing his art in earnest, Anacortes muralist Bill Mitchell, having heard a Samish Indian tale about the Maiden of Deception Pass, conceived the idea of a totem.
“Bill wanted public art work all over the place,” Powell recalls. “He dreamed up the idea for the Maiden project. Then he introduced me to Ken Hansen (chairman of the Samish Tribe). I jumped into that monster project – I don’t know what possessed me.”
Then he laughs, and says: “She did.”
“She” was “Ko-kwal-alwoot,” the maiden of the Samish story. According to tribal tradition, the maiden saved her tribe from starvation by agreeing to marry a man of the sea who had fallen in love with her as she gathered sea food.
Using Mitchell’s ideas as a starting point, Powell and Hansen and tribal elders including “Grandma Laura” Edwards began to collaborate.
“The design Bill had was what we started with, but it changed pretty dramatically,” Powell recalls. What started out as a totem estimated at about 12 feet soon doubled in size when it was discovered that the U.S. Forest Service would donate a cedar from a recent Baker Lake cut. Powell and Hansen made a visit to the site of the timber harvest and selected their tree.
“The loggers agreed to haul it to my Reservation Road shop for the cost of labor and material,” Powell said. “That amounted to about $250.”
The tree donation, coupled with efforts by local historian Dick Fallis to talk the county into investing some money in the project, as part of the Skagit County Centennial celebration, helped the Maiden project “snowball.” Before long, Washington State Parks officials had agreed to allow the tribe to place the story pole at Rosario Beach, one-time location of one the Samish Tribe’s biggest settlements.
Powell’s selection as totem carver was not without controversy among tribe members, but given that no one knew of a member with carving skills, the decision stood. Powell began “training and testing” under Hansen and Edwards, whose father-in-law Charlie had carved a totem that included the Maiden (in the 1930s).
“Grandma Laura’s father-in-law was famous around the Puget Sound, mostly for his canoes,” said Powell. “She passed on to me a lot of things she learned from him. Under Ken and Grandma Laura I was tested and trained, tested some more, trained some more …”
In regard to objections that a non-tribal member was selected as carver, Powell said: “Ken and I came to an understanding that I would follow tribal instructions, images and techniques. For me to do other things on my own, such as miniature totem poles – that would be wrong.”
Once the Baker Lake cedar was delivered, Powell began the carving that would consume him for a year.
“Coast Salish art is quite different from what I’d been studying,” said Powell. “Coast Salish art is more naturalistic, more about telling stories than boasting about one person’s achievement.”
One “concession” in the design, said Powell, was a “tail” on the Maiden that would help non-natives better understand the tribal story.
“The original story does not talk about Ko-kwal-alwoot becoming part fish,” said Powell. “The four years she comes back to visit her family, she walks out of the water. The tail on one side of the story pole wraps things up in a way people from a European culture could understand.”
Elements of the project that posed special challenges: there would be no paint, and the wood was not to be sanded, but it would be okay to treat with oil in order to avoid splitting as the green cedar began to dry.
“I slathered linseed oil and turpentine on as I exposed new wood,” said Powell, “to keep it as moist as possible.”
The Maiden was completed in a painstaking carving process that took about a year. A dramatic unveiling ceremony was held in 1983.
A visit to see the Maiden today at her Rosario Beach home reveals a massive carving that has “adapted quite well to its home,” said Powell. “She looks beautiful, better than the day it went in, with a silver patina like driftwood. Somehow or other, there has been no checking or falling apart.”
Powell’s “commission” for this carving remains among his most prized possessions: “Gorgeous, hand-knitted sweaters, one for me and one for Maralyne, made by the Samish ladies.”
He also helped the tribe put together a carving manual, complete with photographs of tools and examples of artifacts including house posts, canoes, eating utensils and spindle whorls. On a few occasions, he has responded to private family or tribal requests, including carvings on the face of Samish tribal headquarters.
The greater reward from the Maiden project, said Powell, was a new way of looking at his art.
“It changed my whole world, turned me upside down,” he said of the Maiden project. “It inspired me to study my own heritage, which in turn led me to be more respectful of other people’s heritage. It taught me that any art – sculpture, painting, writing – for its own sake, is just nonsense, in my humble opinion. These things must serve a purpose, such as telling the story of the Samish through the Maiden, helping them to reclaim their dignity. That’s what that project meant to me. The kind of work I like to do most now is something that tells someone’s story or honors an idea.”
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