Solomon’s Story Pole Is Towering Artistic Achievement

“We are all one. No matter whether the color of our skin is brown, black, white, red, yellow; no matter whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist; no matter where we come from. We are all one,” said artist and former timber businessman David Syre welcoming guests to the dedication of  the 38-foot story pole he commissioned to stand on his Whatcom County farm.

Lummi carver Felix Solomon speaks to those gathered at the dedication ceremony of his most recent commissioned piece.

I was fortunate to have been among the 100 who attended that recent rainy day having been invited by a friend who was the guest of the artist, Lummi carver Felix Solomon.  I had met Solomon just the week prior at his home where he graciously took me out to his workshop where the totem lay awaiting transport to its new home.  The 35-foot cedar log had been transformed by Solomon over the past several months from a rough piece of timber into a majestic and colorful totem.  Solomon had been given little guidance by the commissioning Syre, leaving it up to the master carver to come up with the figures and design for the pole.

The various tools of carver Felix Solomon used when working on one of his projects await their master’s hand.

Solomon drew on his familiarity with the work of carver Joseph Hillaire,  in carving this pole, to carve both sides of the pole instead of just one. Hillaire (1894-1967) is regarded as one of the greatest Coast Salish artists and carvers of the 21st century.  His work was extensive but may be best remembered for his two friendship poles carved for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, one of which went to Kobe, Japan where it was placed. Hillaire and a generation of Lummi carvers ahead of him instituted what is known as ‘story poles,’ according to Seattle Art Museum curator Barbara Bretherton. The poles are tall like totem poles but they tell a story.

Topping the story pole is an eagle with its wings outstretched.

Solomon’s story pole represents “The Creation of Life Story.” At the top of the pole is the eagle, the being that flies closest to the spirit world but is still connected to the earth, according to Solomon.  The moon in its talons represent feminine energy and the reproductive cycles.

Directly below are placed the faces of five animals found on Mount Baker, the Nooksack River and in the Salish Sea–the wolf, the mountain goat, the bear, the cougar and the sea wolf or Orca.

Next comes the design which Solomon received special permission to use in this pole, the Sun Dog, which was on the door of the Lummi Nation chief when they signed the Treaty of 1855 with the United States. In that treaty, the Lummi relinquished much of their native homeland but they retained the rights to the natural resources found there, specifically the salmon, and have seen themselves as protectors of these resources ever since.  It is one reason the Lummi Nation has been a key activist in local, state and regional environmental issues.

The River Woman holds a basket of life in her hands.

Below the Sun Dog design is a concave oval that Solomon says represents the Lummi elders and ancestors.  The crescents on the side are the voices that pass down the tribe’s stories from one generation to

another.

On the back side of the pole are rain clouds that pour into the Nooksack River with the River Woman holding a basket of life in her hands.  At the bottom can be seen spirit dancers, two-legged humans who were the last to be created.

Solomon has received considerable recognition for his carvings and creations.  One of his ‘story poles’ is located in Bellingham’s International Airport; another can be found in the Silver Reef casino in Ferndale,  Wa.  The National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. honored him for his canoe carvings.  But the Creation of Life Story pole is the largest piece he’s done to date.

Carver Felix Solomon with his completed story pole in his workshop only a week before the pole was dedicated.

In order to accommodate the 39-foot cedar log from which the totem was carved, Solomon had to expand his workshop by building on an addition.  The massive totem took Solomon months to hand carve once he worked out the design.  It had to be specially engineering with hidden reinforcements from the bottom so that it would stand securely once positioned into place.  Just sliding the pole from Solomon’s workshop and hoisting it carefully onto a flat-bed truck for transport to the Syre farm was in itself an engineering feat. Solomon gratefully recognized those responsible for that part of the project during the dedication ceremony.

Originally, the ceremony had been planned to take place around the totem. But  rain forced organizers to move it to under the tent that had been erected for the grilled salmon luncheon that followed. Before the ceremonies began, Beverly Cagey brushed the pole with branches of cedar, blessing it while her husband, Jack and their grandson, Hank, accompanied with singing a chant and drumming.

Beverly Cagey brushes branches of cedar over the story pole prior to the dedication ceremony.

Guests gathered beneath the big tent, just steps away from the log cabin that stood close by the Nooksack River.  Nooksack tribal drummers led the small procession that included both the artist and the patron down the short path from the cabin to the tent where Darrell Hillaire, Lummi Nation elder, stood at the microphone waiting to introduce  the speakers and witnesses and welcome the day’s guests.

Lummi Nation member Darrell Hillaire welcome the Nooksack drummers, the host and artist in the opening processional.

Syre spoke and told how he viewed this story pole as one of unification.  Solomon thanked him for the opportunity, gave a brief description of his work on the pole and recognized those on his team who had assisted during the process. Then, as is tradition, Solomon presented the four ‘witnesses’ he had designated for that day with ceremonial blankets which each of them draped over one shoulder for their turn to speak about what they had ‘witnessed’ that day.  Among them was a childhood friend of the host, a Nooksack tribal member, who remembered the times the two had together playing along the river and in the woods on the farms where they grew up.  They had not seen each other in nearly 50 years and had, as

Jack Cagey, foreground, awaits his turn to speak as a witness as host David Syre welcomes the guests.

the friend put it, “a lot of catching up to do.”

Jack Cagey, a Lummi Nation elder, stood from his place at the table where I was sitting and spoke of the need for greater communication between generations, for the need to talk face-to-face and not just through electronic devices.  Another of the witnesses, Candy Wilson, read a poem that I found particularly moving, the name of which I unfortunately missed in her introduction. Their words were eloquent, appropriate and heartfelt. Clearly they were speaking about more than just the pole; they were making a case of for humanity and the practice of it towards one another.

The dedication ceremony program with a description of the story pole, an art piece by Syre along with cedar and feather were set at each place.

Ninety-minutes later, the ceremony drew to a close and everyone was invited, elders first, to share in the grilled salmon luncheon that had been prepared especially for the day. The meal is as much a part of these ceremonies as the ceremony itself because it gives time for those who gathered that day to share not only food with one another with stories across the table.

Solomon’s story pole towers over those who came to the dedication ceremony on a rainy Pacific Northwest Day.

By the end, the rain that had steadily fallen had stopped so that people could walk across the field to where the story pole towered and admire Solomon’s finished work.  Indeed, it is a commanding and colorful piece. It is one of Solomon’s finest accomplishments to date. The public isn’t likely to see this fine story pole unless they catch a glimpse of the eagle’s upward extended wings from the country road that passes close by the pole’s location., ut it’s sure to stand for a very long time on this private property as a powerful reminder that, in the words of Syre: “We are all one.”

 

 

 

Tour de Whatcom is Tour de Force

Bellingham is a town that loves its bicycles but even more of them than usual could be found all over the surrounding streets and roads this last Saturday when hundreds of cyclists pedaled between 22 to 100 miles in the Tour de Whatcom.  The popular charity biking event is in its 13th year and this year benefited the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition.

The back of a cyclists racing jersey says it all.

It’s a colorful display of bicycles and cyclists as they whip across county roads, past lakes, through farm country, by rivers and along beaches with views of snow-capped Mount Baker rising in the distance all the way. The tour started and ended at the award-winning Boundary Bay Brewery in downtown Bellingham located directly across from the Bellingham Farmers’ Market which was also in full swing yesterday.  In fact, that’s why I was there. I spent two hours yesterday distributing postcards to people to promote the upcoming July 26th outdoor adventure film evening–Sports Shorts–being presented by CASCADIA International Women’s Film Festival at Fairhaven’s Village Green.

The aluminum arch of the Tour de Whatcom’s finish line spanned across the street from the Farmers’ Market Railroad Depot buildings.

Afterwards, I wandered over the market and Boundary Bay for a closer look at the activity.  Boundary Bay’s beer garden was filling up with cyclists who had just come in and were thirsty and hungry.  Outside, a long line of cyclists strung down the street as they checked in their bikes into the secured bike parking lot set up in the street. Other muscle-weary cyclists were receiving  rubdowns under the purple canopy of the Massage Envy tent.  And some, as did my friend Audrey who rode the 22-mile route in the tour, mingled with the marketgoers to have a bite of lunch there.

Following a long ride, the massage tent was a popular place.

The entire place was bubbling with bikers, beer and booths full of farm fresh food and crafts.  It brought back memories for me of the summer my family and I spent a month in Bellingham prior to deciding to move here permanently.

We had rented a house from friends (long before VRBO or Air BnB existed) for the month of August. It gave us a chance to explore the area and experience it as if we lived here.  One Saturday, we strolled down to the historic Fairhaven area where we discovered a road bike race was about to get underway.  At that time, the race–the Old Fairhaven Bicycle Race–began on Fairhaven’s main street and the course tracked up and down the hilly Fairhaven area to eventually finish a little further down the street from where it started.

Cyclists line up in the Fairhaven Bicycle Race.

We nabbed a ringside seat with two of our sons at an outdoor table in front of the Colophon Cafe. The Colophon was favorite spot with my sons because of its ice cream counter where big scoops of the cold dairy delight were heaped on top of waffle cones for a dollar or so. The boys ordered peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, my husband and I had bowls of clam chowder.  We ate and watched as the nearly 20 riders whizzed around the corners.  Other race watchers stood behind or sat upon the hay bales that had been places along the street for the purpose of blocking off the streets and marking the course.  It was truly a fun afternoon and one that I’ve long remembered.  The photos I took that day preserve the day not only for me but for my sons who have long since grown up.

Racers round the corner while competing in the Old Fairhaven Bicycle Race.
Sporting his new helmet, my son readies to take off on his own bike ride. Notice the training wheels on the rear.

That was the same summer too, that my oldest son, Matthew, learned to ride a bike.  Neither I nor my husband recall now where we got the bike, but unlike in Los Angeles where we lived, the sidewalks of Bellingham’s South Hill proved a great place for him to hop on and take off.  He wasn’t a particularly coordinated kid when it came to physical activities but once he figured out how the chain drive of the bike worked, riding it was no problem.  He returned to L.A. ready to ride with his friends and we returned to L.A. convinced, in part by community events like the bike race, that we wanted to make Bellingham our new home.

The Sounds of Silver

Summer is a reason in itself to celebrate in the Pacific Northwest but this summer, there’s one more thing to celebrate and that’s the silver anniversary of the Bellingham Festival of Music.

I’ve written before here about the festival which happens every July since I moved from Los Angeles to Bellingham.  In fact, the festival is one of the reasons that brought me and my family to Bellingham.  Although I didn’t realize, the festival at the time we first began to consider and explore this area was only three years old.  As the three visits we made before deciding to relocate here were all in August, we missed the festival but became aware of it.

Maestro Michael Palmer greets orchestra concertmaster Richard Roberts at the opening concert of the festival’s 25th season.

Soon after settling in, we began to buy tickets to attend some of the concerts and we’ve been faithful festivalgoers ever since.  Through the years, we’ve heard some amazing music performed by an orchestra with top-notch players from major orchestras around the country, including the N.Y. Philharmonic, the L.A. Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony and the Montreal Symphony.  And the guest artists who have soloed with them are world-class.  Sometimes it’s hard to believe that I’m sitting here in my small community listening to the kind of classical concerts that you usually only find in large, metropolitan cities.

A map marking all the cities from where come the musicians that make-up the festival orchestra.

For any music festival to have survived 25 years is an accomplishment, let alone one that thrives in a community of 100,000 (and less when it first began) and now runs on all volunteer help.  Much credit must be given to the festival’s hard-working boards who  put in hours and hours of time all year to bring the festival together.

A salute must also be given to the man who’s been the artistic director and conductor since the beginning, Michael Palmer.  Palmer, who I’ve come to know in recent years, has a gift for pulling together musicians, most of whom only play together once a year, to present tight, strong performances of classical favorites as well as contemporary new pieces.  It’s a strenuous and demanding job in the three short weeks of the festival’s duration.

Artistic director Michael Palmer, left, confers with composer Aaron Jay Kernis whose “Symphony No. 4, ‘Chromelodeon'” was given it’s West Coast premiere at this year’s festival.

Of course without such talented and professional musicians, the festival would not nearly be the quality it is.  Sitting among the ranks of players are the first oboist for the Boston Symphony, the first violist of the Cincinnati Symphony, the first clarinet and flutist from Atlanta’s Symphony and the first bassist from Seattle’s Symphony, to mention but a few.

This year, much to my delight, also joining the violin section is a young woman named Rachel Frankenfeld Charbel who grew up in Bellingham, played in the Sehome High School orchestra before going off to college at the University of Texas in Austin to study music.  She was among one of my sons’ closest friends as a kid and now plays with the Cincinnati Symphony.  It makes the festival’s 25th anniversary particularly special to those of who have watched her mature into the fine musician she now is.

Violinist Rachel Frankenfeld Charbel grew up playing in Bellingham and is now a member of the festival orchestra.

Also special to Bellinghamsters is the Calidore String Quartet that has become recurring guest artists at the festival.  This young, gifted ensemble has emerged as a major chamber group winning awards, prizes and recognition throughout the world.  To have them return every year for the festival is a special treat for all of us.  The violist also happens to also be a Bellingham native and coincidentally, a classmate of Charbel’s.

Music Festival chair Karen Berry, right, with two members of the Calidore String Quartet, cellist Estelle Choi and violinist Jeffrey Myers.

Only three concerts remain in this year’s 25th anniversary season; one this evening with guest violinist Simone Porter playing Prokofiev’s “Violin Concert No. 1 in D Major;” a free chamber concert on July 18 at the Whatcom Museum of History and Art and the final closing concert on July 20 featuring the festival chorus singing Poulenc’s “Gloria” with the orchestra.  If you’re in close range, I encourage you to attend one of these and if not this year, plan to go next year and celebrate yet another season with the Bellingham Festival of Music.