Totem Recall

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An early 1900s Seattle pioneering photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis had a big idea: to capture on film the last remaining American-Indian tribes before they disappeared completely. Backed by President Theodore Roosevelt and funded by financier JP Morgan, the charismatic Curtis – who is compared to Indiana Jones – spent the next three decades circumnavigating the United States documenting the customs of more than 80 tribes.

 

His Indian obsession began with a sad, dignified 1896 portrait of the aged Princess Angeline, the last surviving daughter of Chief Sealth (Siahl) – for whom Seattle was named – was one of his first Native American models. This avocation soon admitted Curtis into the fraternity of American explorers, naturalists and ethnographers that ultimately led to the publication of his iconic, 20-volume set The North American Indian. In the process, he took more than 40,000 photographs, preserved 10,000 audio recordings and is credited with making the world’s first documentary film.

 

But there was a toll to be paid for this passion. Ultimately, Curtis’ obsession destroyed his marriage, his health and his finances that left him penniless. You can read more on his odyssey in Timothy Egan’s excellent 2012 book Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. And there’s also a good documentary on Curtis, Coming to Light, currently streaming on Netflix (but be quick, it ends on 15 January).

 

Curtis’ work also brought Indian culture to the masses for the first time. And there’s a popular totem pole situated in Pioneer Square Park with a backstory to it. Some wayward Seattleites, it’s said, stole the original totem pole from the Tlingit natives in southeastern Alaska in 1890. An arsonist then set the stolen pole on fire in 1938, burning it to the ground. When asked by City Hall if they could carve a replacement pole, the ever-obliging Tlingit – recalling that the original had been stolen from them – took the money offered, thanking the city for payment of the first totem, and then said it would cost $5000 to carve another one.

 

The city duly – and rightly – coughed up the cash and the Tlingit obliged with the oft-photographed totem pole that fittingly stands not more than a good tomahawk’s throw from Curtis’ downtown Seattle photography studio.

 

 

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, as someone or other once famously wrote. Forty years ago, with Merry Xmas Everybody and Everyday, Slade (Jim Lea, Don Powell, Noddy Holder, Dave Hill), a true working-class English rock band from Wolverhampton, enriched our drab, miserable lives in the UK – during an almost State of Emergency austerity period filled with strikes, the three-day work week, regular power cuts and television ending each night at 10pm – with pop singles as good as any made during the 1970s.

 

Messrs Holder and Lea crafted some memorable tunes and welded them singable yet observant lyrics – and one of their best, arguably being the follow-up to those two aforementioned hits, The Bangin’ Man. It was Slade’s homage to the pop star lifestyle on the road – Noddy sets the scene of a man in a hotel, unable to recall much of what happened the night before, and the lady beside him locks herself in the bathroom, and enters the banging man, hammering away on the door.

 

And the song invariably wanders – nay, smashes – into my mind every time I pass by Jonathan Borofsky’s Hammering Man located outside the Seattle Art Museum, as he constantly bangs away with his hammer. There are many Borofsky Hammering Man sculptures (of various sizes) around the globe, and each has its own unique number, this one being 3277164. The sculpture is a symbol of the working man’s struggle – and the one in Seattle kinetically hammers away 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 364 days of the year. The one day off it gets being, fittingly, on Labor Day!

 

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Here’s a tip for those squiring out-of-town guests: Forget about the Space Needle and take them instead to the top of another Seattle icon – the 42-story, 462 feet Smith Tower, which this year celebrates its centennial anniversary. You may not get as high, but the view from the tower’s wrap-around deck is still marvellous—and a lot cheaper – and you get a quirkier, more historic experience.

 

The skyline landmark, at 506 Second Avenue, opened on July 4, 1914, as the fourth-tallest building in the world and Seattle’s first skyscraper. The observation deck lies off the so-called “Chinese Room,” which features a carved wood-and-porcelain ceiling. To get there, you take an old-fashioned elevator with a clanging metal door, slid back and forth by surely some of the last elevator operators anywhere in the world who double as tour guides, providing a quick history lesson on the way up. You’ll learn that the iconic tower was built by a quintessential Northwest dreamer, shotgun and typewriter magnate Lyman Cornelius Smith, striving to compete with New York.

 

Smith’s plans for a basement restaurant that could seat more than 600 and a second tower never became a reality. But Smith Tower is still around, although it has acquired 16 taller neighbours over the years, according to the building information website Emporis. Most of the building’s office space has sat vacant in recent years, and a plan to convert the upper part into condominiums foundered after the real estate crash. In 2012, Smith Tower attracted no bidders in a foreclosure auction and reverted to lender CBRE Capital Partners. Since then, it has started attracting new tenants.

 

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A New Year comes with people making resolutions to better themselves into the future; the main one invariably being  to exercise more.  And for many, this usually sees a short-lived jogging epidemic that lasts about as long as an unopened bottle of champagne on the chimes of midnight going into 1st January. My resolution is each morning to do 100 lift-ups. And two days into 2014, my morning regime is working out very well – first 50 lift-ups with the left eyelid, followed by 50 with the right eyelid.

 

In downtown Seattle, many joggers frequent Myrtle Edwards Park that weaves scenically along Eliott Bay. And this is appropriate, because, just beside the Olympic Sculpture Park, they can get invigorated by the sight of artist David Govedare’s 1986 aluminium life-size sculpture Ten Feet into the Future that I photographed on my very bright but chilly Christmas Day walk (see, I do exercise). With the omnipresent Space Needle in the background, it shows five joggers; a more careful look reveals that the ten feet belongs to five different ethnic backgrounds are represented. The lead runner is an American Indian, symbolising that American Indians were here before all other peoples and the artist’s view that “in a spiritual sense” the Native American is leading the others onwards into the future.

 

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Words can be such particular things. Internationally recognised conceptual artist Ann Hamilton designed and fabricated 7,200 square feet of hardwood floor for the Seattle Public Library. The floor includes 556 lines of text, in reverse, in 11 languages and alphabets – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese – and consists of the first sentences of books found in the collection.

 

What makes the flooring particularly engaging is that Hamilton inverted both the characters and sentences, serving two functions: First, the floor references the history of book printing and moveable type. Second, with the backward sentences shown in relief, Hamilton provides a surface that invites people to crouch down in order to investigate and touch. “It refers to the history of print production, and it’s tactile underfoot,” Hamilton says. The idea of creating a similar floor using metal was floated during the project’s early stages, but Hamilton instead chose wood (maple), a more significant material in the history of printing.

 

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