It’s not every day you spot an actual totem pole being carved in an East Van garage. My kids and I took a detour down an alley last week on the way to school, in order to avoid a nasty dog that had chased my son. I’m so glad we did.
As we passed an open garage door, I couldn’t help but notice a beautiful, gleaming, 20-foot totem pole, lying faces up. A man was carving various parts of the totem.
Of course I had to stop and chat. I was stunned to learn the man wielding the adze — a carving tool that hasn’t changed in centuries — was none other than world renowned Haida carver Clarence Mills. He’s been carving this particular totem on and off for about five or six years.
After sizing me up for a moment, Mills kindly took me through his totem, carved from gorgeous western red cedar. He started with the first animal at the beginning of the totem, “not to be mistaken for the bottom,” as Mills explained.
“At the beginning is a beaver, and then a moon, and then a raven, and then a sun and finally an eagle.” It’s a stunning piece of art. Mills has no idea where the totem will end up once he’s done.
Originally from Skidegate, Mills’ grandfather was Hereditary Chief Skedans. An uncle first showed Mills the ways of Haida art when he was 18 years old. He has been professionally carving ever since, a career that spans more than 40 years.
When I asked how many totems he’s carved over that time, Mills guessed “maybe 30 or 40?” His art is on display around the world.
“I got to carve a totem for Expo 86 at the Folk Life Pavilion,” Mills told me. “I carved that totem on site at Expo from July to September, showing people the craft of the Haida.”
Mills was 27 years old that summer, and according to an archived article in the Courier, answered “about 5,000 questions a day” from curious onlookers.
Shortly after Expo, Mills made history when he became what is believed to be the first Canadian artist to have his art shown at the Louvre in Paris. He was commissioned to carve a totem for that most famous art gallery on the planet, which means his art is under the same roof as the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo.
“I delivered that totem to Paris, and it was a two-week long enjoyable stay,” Mills said. “I met the mayor, the president and the vice-president of France, and visited the Canadian Embassy, too.”
Another one of Mills’ totems stands in Brisbane, Australia, commissioned for Expo 88.
For the better part of 20 years, Mills demonstrate-carved on Granville Island before retiring from the public eye about three years ago. A friend offered his East Van garage as an alternative space for Mills to carve, which is where I found him on a sunny spring morning. The smell of the cedar chips was alluring.
“This will be one of the last totems I carve, I think,” said Mills as he chipped away with his adze. “It’s a long process. I’m 60 years old now, and I think I’ve carved enough. I used to be able to carve all day long, but now my hands start to shake after about two hours. It’s time for me to go home to Haida Gwaii. I’ve accomplished a head full of dreams, so it’s time to relax a bit.”
Mills creates in various mediums, from argillite — the traditional stone of the Haida — to glass, to wood — for totems, paddles, Bentwood boxes and masks — as well as gold and silver jewelry. His art can be found on men’s and women’s fashion, blankets, skis and snowboards. Kate Middleton and Prince William own a blanket with Mills’ art on it. Rocker Tom Cochrane owns a glass totem. Former premier Christy Clark has a dress and a shawl.
After all of his life’s accomplishments, Mills was quick to point out that he never considers what he does as “work.”
“I carve every day, I draw every day, I do something creative every day,” Mills explained with a smile. “It’s not work, because I love it. I don’t see what I do having anything to do with that word.”
We should all be so lucky, and so talented.
Note: This story has been updated since first published.