Even the wood chips in Wayne Price’s ongoing project have meaning.
The master Tlingit carver and University of Alaska Southeast faculty member is deep into the process of creating a healing totem pole for Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies, Juneau’s gender-inclusive shelter for survivors of gender-based violence. The finished totem will tell a story created by Price’s wife, Cherri, but the cedar chips carved off the main log are symbolic, too.
“This came about when I had a vision in a sweat lodge, which led to my own personal recovery,” Price told the Capital City Weekly after putting some painting on pause in his UAS workshop. “In that sweat, I was granted a vision and told I had to create a healing totem or dugout, and I asked, ‘How does it become a healing totem or dugout?’ I was told by my creator, that keeps me sober, that each chip that comes off this totem represents a life that’s been affected by domestic violence or sexual assault. Of all the chips that come off this totem, there won’t be enough. That helps to bring awareness through my art to a pretty serious situation.”
Since his vision 15 years ago, Price has made four healing totems and five healing dugouts that have raised awareness for causes including boarding school atrocities against Alaska Natives, and misuse of alcohol and drugs.
“Every healing totem and healing canoe that I’ve been involved with has led to the creation of another one,” Price said. “I’ve gone from one healing project right into another one soon after, which tells me we’re involved in a great time of healing, that we in the human race want to deal with a great healing in our lives.”
He said the work for AWARE feels particularly necessary.
“If there’s ever been a healing totem that’s been needed, it’s really been this one,” Price said. “One in three women are involved or know someone involved in this crime.”
Mandy Cole, deputy director for AWARE, said Price’s history with recovery also adds an element that may make the work extra relatable for survivors who sometimes turn to substance use to cope with traumatic events before starting their healing journey.
“I think working with the dimension of survivorship and recovery tells a fuller story that I think will make a lot of sense to the people we’re serving,” Cole said.
Cole also said she’s been pleased by the collaboration between AWARE and Price, and impressed with the artist’s work.
“Wayne is an incredibly special person, and we found each other in a way that’s kind of larger than maybe any of us understood,” Cole said. “One of the things I’m learning from him is healing is a journey, and you can’t necessarily predict what it’s going to look like. I think we’re learning from Wayne, and he’s learning from us, and that process is incredibly meaningful. Having someone who’s a master ask you what you think or feel about things is incredibly validating, and you don’t get that all the time. I think we’re so lucky to have found him.”
Logging long hours
The 22-foot totem pole has been a work in progress for more than a year.
Price was first approached by AWARE about the possibility of creating a healing totem when he was working in Haines, and the project soon ran into a complication.
“First, the log we selected that came from the shelter site proved to be rotten, and we had to secure another log, and we did,” Price said. “We secured a log from Thorne Bay, and brought it up to Haines, and that was not this last August, but it was the August before.”
Price worked on the totem until winter chased him inside, and he resumed work in spring, and then continued to work through summer in Haines.
“Then we got involved with being a professor here at UAS, we brought the Jibba dugout as well as the healing totem to the Egan Library site, where I’ve been working on it off and on as I learn the ropes for teaching my classes here,” Price said.
In the next few weeks, Price said he expects to finish the totem, and it will be erected in the spring.
The location of the totem remains undecided as does the exact date that it will be put up.
“We’re trying to get the people invited who we wanted to honor as well, so right now, it’s kind of an amazing complicated logistical progress in work,” Cole said. “The reason it’s not set in stone is that it’s really about the people who care. We’re trying to really make it meaningful for the community.”
The design and the story
Cherri Price came up with the concept of the totem’s design, which contains a lot of AWARE-specific symbolism.
The pole is named “Kaasei,” which is a Tlingit word that means higher voice, and is also the name of an AWARE transitional housing building.The story told by “Kaasei’s” design deals in themes connected to domestic violence and sexual assault.
Cherri Price shared the story told by the pole with the Capital City Weekly.
“A strong calm Tlingit woman wearing a traditional fringed dress and wooden hat bearing her name ‘Kaasei,’ is the prominent figure. In her right arm she holds a happy baby boy. Next to her heart she holds a feather, the symbol of her voice and empowerment.
“A young girl lovingly hugs the woman, feeling safe at Kaasei’s side and secure under her arm.
“Kaasei stands on the top of a tear box. The tear box sits above oppressive paths of violence and abuse littered with pain, wounds, brokenness, sadness, torment and fear. They spiral down to empty darkness and despair.
“Above Kaasei’s head are healing paths of peace and safety, bright with hope, happy faces, songs of peace, words of kindness, gentle healing hands and symbols of traditional values. The AWARE logo is on the higher path. A large dove, the symbol of peace, sits on top of the totem.”
Wayne Price said the various healing projects have a positive effect, and he hopes bringing awareness to this particular cause can help stop domestic and sexual abuse.
“I do believe in the long run it does help,” Wayne Price said. “A lot of times we as humans don’t really know how to take the first step in a healing process. We’re very capable of doing it, we just don’t know how. What I do as an artist, is I provide a monument that does just that. It provides a step in that direction. It’s wonderful to be involved in such a project.”
If someone needs to take a step, Cole said anyone struggling with gender-based violence, they can call AWARE at (907)586-1090.
• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.