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Brooklyn's totem poles are telling stories

RITA A. LEONARD - You may spy this mini glass fairy totem pole in a garden on S.E. Rhine Street.  Totem poles are a Native American art form specific to the Pacific Northwest. These figures stacked atop one another symbolize historic events or clan figures of significance. Historically, totem poles represent myths or family heritage, and are usually carved on a western red cedar trunk. Modern totem poles vary with intent, but each tells its own story.

The Brooklyn neighborhood displays totem poles of various sizes, from about six feet tall to less than a foot high. And most bypass the western red cedar: These are made of kiln-fired clay, mosaic, glass, and even knitted yarn. While some appear mostly decorative, others show a distinct style that symbolizes place and meaning.

A stack of mosaic flattened spheres topped with an inquisitive peering face can be seen near S.E. 9th and Bush Street. Further north, a simple stack of muted blue and green balls is a counterpoint to the nearby garden. A dry-fired totem pole on S.E. 10th Avenue near Bush Street consists of layered fish and faces, topped by a simple clay house. This totem, made by potter Shane Blitch, depicts a connection with earth, fire and water.

“It represents a calming period during a hectic time of my life,” he explains. “The faces are a connection to Nature and the river, where I love to fish. The house on top represents the comforts of home. I like to watch other people's reaction to it.” Blitch makes and sells plates, but “The figurative stuff is just for me,” he says with a grin, pointing out dozens of brown clay birds he’s also made and hidden among the branches of nearby trees.

In December, two knitted “totem poles” attached to fence posts appeared near S.E. 12th and Boise Street, one topped with a small Santa hat and scarf. The rest of the pole is mostly stripes and bands of color. The wider, rectangular pole, has sections bordered in navy blue, with stars, a flag, zigzag patterns, and quilt squares – a warm symbol in the chill of winter. A miniature totem of multicolored glass beads with a metal finial stands in a garden near S.E. 9th and Rhine Street – possibly a fairy totem.

Three kiln-fired totem poles are installed in Winterhaven School’s native plant garden. Each features faces and various forms of wildlife, with references to Oaks Bottom. Turtles, fish, birds, caterpillars, frogs, butterflies, a bear, other animals, and wild plants decorate the poles, enhancing the natural garden space.

This work, generated by many student artists, celebrates the local Wildlife Refuge, honoring Nature with a variety of native images. A clock at the base of one pole indicates the time of our lives – encouraging us to enjoy the moment.

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