Capturing art in plastic

Local Native family finds a niche mass-producing totem poles

Posted: Thursday, July 20, 2000

Scores of plastic totem poles fill the shelves in the Mt. Juneau Trading Post. They look similar, but to artist Doug Chilton, there's a world of difference between them, because many are made in his Auke Bay studio.

Chilton, an Alaska Native carver, began mass-producing the plastic totem poles in 1997. He said he feels good about the souvenirs because every aspect of production is in the hands of Native people. The original carving, making the rubber mold, casting the plastic and painting the reproduction are all done by Natives, mostly members of his family.

``I wanted to put something out that's done by Alaska Native artists. That we could do it all from start to finish made it even better,'' he said. ``The whole family comes in to help.''

William Andrews, who works at the Mt. Juneau Trading Post, said it makes a big difference to his customers that some totem poles are locally made.

``The first question they ask is `Are they made in China?''' said Andrews, who also happens to be Chilton's nephew.

Chilton has carved totems as large as 12-feet high and as small as 12 inches. He's also known for his carved silver bracelets and earrings. He's currently working on four large poles, 12-, 10-, 6- and 5-feet high.

He's carving a 10-foot, 6-inch pole that is a large version of a 12-inch pole he carved years ago, the first pole he cast and mass-produced. He's working on the pole three days a week at the Raven Eagle gift shop atop the Mount Roberts Tramway. It gives him a chance to meet his potential customers, and see their reactions to his reproductions.

``They see they're plastic and say, `I don't think so.' Then they meet us and talk with us and they realize they're made locally by a Native family. It changes things,'' he said.


Display of plastic totems on table


Jim Duncan, Jr., the manager of the shop, said the retail price of the poles ranges from $9 to $70 or $80, comparable to the prices downtown. A similar hand carved 12-inch or 18-inch pole costs between $400 and $500.

``Most people can't afford a hand-carved one, and these are more affordable. They're good sellers for us,'' said Duncan. ``People appreciate that they're made and painted here in Juneau. A lot of people who come to Alaska want something made in Alaska.''

Chilton said in some ways, it's harder to carve a 12-inch pole than a 12-foot pole. He spent nearly two weeks working full-time to create one 12-inch pole.

``They're detailed, and harder. You use little tiny micro tools,'' he said. ``You don't get to use the big ones you swing with two hands.''

He said then he has to ask a high price to make the carving worth his time.

``I can't charge enough for a (hand-carved) 12-inch totem pole to make even minimum wage,'' he said. ``That's why I started looking at the reproductions.''

Chilton began looking into mass-production in 1993. He experimented with different plastic resins. Some kinds were cheaper, but smelly and toxic, he said. Others were too light and didn't feel like wood. He finally found a non-hazardous and non-flammable resin that's mixed like epoxy.

Chilton started with three different models the first year. He hand carved the originals and created molds out of a brush-on rubber compound that holds the details of the wood grain and cutting tools. He now produces 20 different models.

``I did some (of the originals), my brother did some and I purchased some from Ray Peck. He's one of the people that taught me,'' he said.

He said he couldn't even guess how many they've produced over the past few years. The models are not limited editions and Chilton said he wouldn't want to deprive his children of the ability to carry on manufacturing them in future.

Brian Chilton, Doug's brother, works with him and oversees much of the casting these days. He works with 20 or 30 molds and, once the resin is mixed and poured, it hardens in about 15 minutes. He makes 175 to 200 in a session.

They supply four local shops and would like to sell their work out of town.

``We should be on the road, taking the ferry with a bunch of done product and presenting it. But it's almost impossible in the summer because we're here doing our artwork,'' he said.

Brian said he's impressed with how far they have come and he's happy with how it's worked out.

``We're sharing our culture so anybody can afford it,'' he said.

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