A large model of Chief Johnson's totem pole by Casper Mather (1876 - 1972). Historic and published. 73"H x 22"W protrudes 16". Casper Mather was born in Metlakatla, British Columbia, in 1876. He was eleven years old in 1887, the Tsimshian people left their traditional territory behind and followed the Anglican lay minister, William Duncan, to Annette Island in Southeast Alaska to establish New Metlakatla. Growing up in New Metlakatla, Mather was not exposed to the rich material culture of his Tsimshian ancestors, but he had an innate talent for carving and an abiding interest in making art. As an adult, Mather lived in the neighbouring community of Ketchikan where he was frequently photographed and a bit of a local celebrity for his wooden creations and charming charisma. By the 1930s, Mather was a prolific artist producing large numbers of small model totem poles, masks, bookends, pipes, shaman figurines, and carved lamps. He also carved several larger totem poles, such as this one, and was often touted as the “last of the old totem carvers”. While Mather wasn’t the last, he certainly was one of just a few carvers in Alaska during this period that kept the tradition of Tsimshian carving alive. Mather continued carving up until his passing in 1972, at the age of 96, although his pieces from the 1930s and 1940s era are arguably the most well-executed. This large model pole by Casper Mather depicts the iconic Chief Johnson Totem Pole of Ketchikan, Alaska (see Figure 2). Mather was a long-time resident of Ketchikan and local monumental poles were a frequent source of inspiration for him. Chief Johnson’s Totem seems to have been a favorite motif of Mather’s and was a design he explored several times in larger scale. The Chief Johnson Totem, as the name suggests, was owned by the powerful Tongass Tlingit chief, George Johnson, and was raised in Ketchikan in 1901. As a member of the Raven moiety, Chief Johnson’s Totem depicts Raven and Fog Woman, and tells the story of how salmon came to return to the rivers and creeks of Southeast Alaska every year. The bottom of the pole is a composite image and depicts Raven, the trickster and Creator, with Fog Woman in his chest. She is holding a pair of salmon and her breasts are depicted as human faces. Above Raven and Fog Woman are Raven’s assistants (or slaves), and at the top of the blank shaft is Kadjuuk, a legendary bird that is similar to a golden eagle.
Mather’s large model of Chief Johnson’s Totem is a loyal iteration of the original pole and contains several little details that make it a standout example of Mather’s carving. Apart from the frog base and a truncated shaft leading up to the Kadjuuk, this pole does not significantly deviate from the original, monumental pole. Whereas most model poles abbreviate or omit features in consideration of scale, space, and time invested, here Mather has captured every small detail of the original. Of particular note are the finely sculpted faces on the chest of Fog Woman, the carefully crafted labret in Fog Woman’s lip (a sign of high status), Raven’s slaves carved in relief, and the highly sculptural and detailed rendering of the Kadjuuk finial on
the top. The rich red and black designs on the wings of the main Raven figure exemplify the best of Mather’s work and the colours, still bright despite their age, pop on the dark red cedar. The wood surface on this pole is also particularly nice, with an oxidized patina that likely comes from the totem having spent some time outside, although not so long as to damage the painting or the integrity of the wood. The carved, figural frog base is well executed and enhances the visual impact of the pole. Additional documentation available.
PERIOD: Mid 20th Century
ORIGIN: Northwest - Alaskan, Native American
SIZE: 73"H x 22"W protrudes 16"