"VIP Presentation Pole"
Henry Hunt, "VIP Presentation Pole," yellow cedar, 1967. Pegasus Gallery, Salt Spring Island, B.C.
Henry Hunt (1923 – 1985)
In 1941, the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria opened Thunderbird Park on a small piece of land adjacent to the museum. Centred around the historic Helmcken House on the same site, it was a small but growing collection of authentic examples of northwest coast art — poles, grave markers, and other ceremonial carvings by the Haida, Songhees, Nuu-cha-nulth, and Kwakwaka’wakw people.
By the early 1950s, the carvings had started to decay, and the museum hired a carver to replicate the existing poles, and create new carvings based on original works from sites along the west coast. Kwakwaka’wakw chief Mungo Martin was hired as head carver, and he brought in his stepson, Henry Hunt, to assist him.
Based on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, the Kwakwaka’wakw carvers are known for poles and masks carved with traditional hand tools, faces and figures with theatrical expressions, and bright painting outlined in sharp contrast. Martin learned the art from his own stepfather, Charlie James, and would go on to design and build the spectacularly painted house at Thunderbird Park, known as Wawadit’la.
Descended from the Tlingit ethnologist and interpreter George Hunt, Henry had been a fisherman and logger in Fort Rupert before traveling to Victoria to assist his stepfather as a carver. When Martin died in 1962, Henry Hunt succeeded him as chief carver, passing on the skills and techniques to his own sons, Richard, Tony, and Stanley, who would become master carvers and acclaimed artists. For 20 years, Henry oversaw the work at Thunderbird Park.
During that time, the Government of British Columbia would commis- sion Henry and Tony to create smaller, authentically carved presentation poles to give to visiting VIPs and dignitaries. Carved from sturdy yellow cedar and usually about 18 inches tall, they were taller and heavier than the standard “tourist” carvings popularizing west coast Aboriginal art. Over the years they were associated with the museum, the Hunts carved dozens of these presentation pieces, about 80 per cent of them for visiting heads of state and other VIPs. They were given to Lester Pearson, Lyndon Johnson, Queen Elizabeth II, and many others.
Because these carvings were given as state gifts, it’s rare that one will reappear on the market. Ian Sigvaldason of Pegasus Gallery on Salt Spring Island was contacted a few months ago by a family in Germany interested in selling this piece, which had been presented in 1967 (most likely to West German Vice Chancellor Willy Brandt). Sigvaldason had represented works by Henry Hunt, mostly masks, so knew the artist’s work well. “The masks don’t come up for sale very often,” he says “and this presentation pole was a great coup to get back to Canada.” This line of carvers, from Charlie James through Mungo Martin, to Henry Hunt and his sons, and the family of artists who surrounded them, had a monumental impact on the preservation of techniques, motifs, and stories that have kept the Kwakwaka’wakw culture present throughout their traditional territory, and their work, historical and contemporary, has promoted that culture around the world.