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SE carver combines influences to inspire elementary students

Combination of Native American, Japanese Manga styles at first raised some eyebrows

Posted: Monday, October 31, 2005

ANCHORAGE - Two totem poles carved in a blend of styles - traditional Native American and Japanese Manga - will soon be erected in front of a remodeled Ptarmigan Elementary School.

The One Percent for Art project by Ketchikan carver Donald "Donnie" Varnell caused a bit of a stir two years ago when Varnell won the $40,000 commission.

Anchorage School Board member Mary Marks, who's Tlingit, remarked at the time that the images Varnell had proposed - a boy and a girl each interacting with a wolf in an almost cartoonish rendering - were untraditional and "caused the hairs on my neck to go up."

But Marks has come to accept Varnell's vision and its potential for inspiring youngsters while still wishing that the look of the eight-foot poles was more faithful to the indigenous peoples of the Northwest.

"Everyone has a right to their own art work," Marks said Sunday evening. "I still hold to my traditional values."

A traditional pole raising was held Monday at the school, but afterward the artist took them down again for some last minute finishing. Both poles are scheduled to be in place permanently in a week, said school principal Phyllis Hubbard.

Varnell, 32, has been carving poles for about seven years, is part Haida, he said. He has studied and worked with Native American master pole-carvers Reggie Davidson and Nathan Jackson.

He knew he wanted each pole's image to include a timber wolf, the school's mascot, carved in a resemblance to traditional style. But Varnell, who also draws, is fond of the widely imitated Manga forms, whose cartoon characters have influenced advertising, television programs and the Walt Disney studios, he said.

Varnell's grandmother, Delores Churchill of Ketchikan, is an award-winning weaver. His mother, April Churchill of the Queen Charlotte Islands in Canada, is an officer of the Council of Haida Nations, an advocacy group.

His is a "huge political family," Varnell said. Even before submitting his proposals, he knew he did not want controversy and had tried to avoid references to specific Haida or Tlingit stories.

"This is not traditional stories, just Northwest art applied to another art, basically pop culture," he said.

Varnell also listened to what Marks had to say when they discussed his proposals in 2003, and as a result, he made some modifications to his original designs, he said.

He softened the overall Manga style, for example, and changed a bee that, as originally planned, was to sit menacingly between the ears of the wolf who's with the girl into a two-dimensional design.

For the other pole, in which the boy is on the wolf's shoulders, he made the youth's hair more dynamic and eliminated a few of the ptarmigan that had been planned for it.

But the heart of his images remains the same.

"I wanted to stay true to both art forms," Varnell said.

The poles were carved from red cedar. One, donated by Cape Fox Corp., came from Revillagigedo Island; the other, donated by the U.S. Forest Service, came from Thorne Bay on Prince of Wales Island.

Varnell has worked on them for 11 months, he said, although he also did other projects during that time.

The poles depict different seasons and are named for the children of friends Darren and Robin Lovelace-Smith. Robin Lovelace-Smith is Tlingit and also a carver. The poles were shipped from Ketchikan to the Lovelace-Smith garage in South Anchorage on Sept. 15, 70 percent complete. The garage became his Anchorage studio.

Varnell said he chose the children's names, Tasia and Taku, because they, like him, are of mixed blood.

Tasia, the feminine pole, is spring and summer. Its lines are a bit softer than Taku's - the sculpture is slightly bulgier and its surfaces more rounded, a style that shows Tlingit influences, according to Varnell.

Taku depicts fall and winter. Its influence is more Haida, with lines that are more angular, and it includes the birds.

The poles are the fourth and fifth Varnell has carved working solo. Others include a seven-foot pole done for a nightclub in New York State and a 26-foot pole commissioned by the Ketchikan Indian Community and completed last year, he said.

Totem-pole images are essentially an abstract art form that has developed over thousands of years in the Northwest rain forests, according to Varnell. What most people mean when they refer to the look of totem poles is the classical forms, but classical is only one of several stages in the growth of the art, he said.

The Haida and Tlingit influences on his Ptarmigan poles, said Varnell, are primarily from the classical traditions.

Although he toned down his original images to some degree, Varnell still believes the poles will excite Ptarmigan's youngsters.

"I hope it doesn't scare them," he said.



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