In 1961 when I was seventeen years old, I moved to Seattle with my family, where my Dad had accepted a transfer. By then, I was taking wood carving pretty seriously and was quite taken with the North Coast Indian art of the area. The very first monumental sculptures that I witnessed were the totem poles at Northgate Shopping Center, carved in 1952. I found them to be an amazing piece of art. The carver was an artist named Dudley Carter. Carter had carved these poles single handedly and they were “huge” in comparison to any woodcarving that I had ever seen before. Most large poles carved these days are carved by teams of carvers. Carter is actually not considered by many purists to be a true North Coast carver. Indeed, I believe Carter was an exceptional North Coast Carver and one with a definite flair of originality.
Dudley Carter, an American Wood Carver (1891-1991)
Dudley Carter was a long time resident of Redmond, Washington, moving there in 1947. Prior to Redmond, he had moved to Seattle in the 30′s from British Columbia, Canada. His work can now be found all over the Greater Seattle area.
Carter’s career as a wood sculptor was firmly established in 1939 at the San Francisco Worlds Fair. At the Fair, Carter created 30 ton redwood sculpture that he named Goddess of the Forest. In fact, with his masterful stokes with an ax on this piece he quickly became known for his monumental sculpture pieces and was largely responsible for the term “monumental sculpture” used today. Carter hit the Seattle Eastside with a bang when Bellevue Square developer Kemper Freeman invited Carter to demonstrate his axe wielding talents at the first (1947) Bellevue Arts and Crafts Fair. At this first Bellevue Fair, Carter created the Forest Deity which currently stands on the east side of the remodeled Bellevue Square shopping complex. The photo below is from the 1970′s and was at the prior entrance to Bellevue Square. Carter used only axes, adzes and a few large gouges to create his works. His favorite tool throughout his life was the double bit ax. He used no knives and no small tools. Yet his creations gave the impression of being highly detailed. He often made sketches or clay models for his monumental sculptures prior to taking ax to wood.
Dudley Carter was born in 1891 in New Westminister, BC, Canada. All through Carter’s youth, his father was a logging camp operator in various locations in British Columbia. Carter spent his young years among the totem pole carving Haida, Kwakiutl and Tlingit Indians learning their talents. However, it was not until 1930 at the age of 39 that Carter took up wood sculpture seriously.
Even with his exposure to the Tlingits and others, Carter’s carving style was uniquely his own. Although his art was clearly North Coast Indian in nature, it appeared to me to also have a touch of Aztec and Egyptian. Probably his carving of the greatest notoriety locally were the totems originally found in front of Northgate shopping Center. Regrettably, the Northgate totems were not maintained well and somewhere, not too many years ago, were painted with an awful colored paint that removed much of the detail and any indication that they were hand carved with an ax. Even with the paint, they were also allowed to rot. Northgate Management should be embarrassed. However in an act of redemption, the Mall donated the poles to the Suquamish Indian Tribe who paid for their removal and transportation to the Tribes reservation land. There, they completely restored them. They are now found at the Tribes Clearwater Casino.
Although, I was quite familiar with Carter, I did not meet him until his 90th year. He had just completed a large commission for the Clackamas Town Center located east of Portland. Carter’s approach was to carve his totems upright, not laying down as did the aboriginal totem carvers and do even modern totem carvers. In the case of the Clackamas poles, Carter began carving them as soon as the ground was cleared for the mall. He assembled scaffolding and worked the poles throughout most of the mall’s construction. The mall was literally built around his poles.
Above is the Northgate Pole refurbished by the Suquamish Tribe.
At age 90, Dudley Carter preferred to sleep outside under a canopy of his beautifully crafted home and studio. He was a strict vegetarian and had not visited a doctor in twenty-five years.
Another unique aspect of Dudley Carter’s sculptures was that many of them incorporated beasts and creatures that were not typical of Native American art. The photo below illustrates this point with the deer.
Sometime in the early 50′s a newsreel was made of Carter carving a huge cedar sculpture located near Granite Falls, Washington in a standing tree. Perhaps many of your remember those entertaining news reels of yesteryear. In the 80′s, Hollywood film maker Abby Sher made a one- hour documentary on Carter’s life and accomplishments. Carter was as much a “ham” as an accomplished carver. I was privileged to accompany Carter and Sher to the Granite Falls’ sculpture in 1982 for part of the filming. Unfortunately, lightening had all but obliterated the sculpture and little of it remained. Carter told us of his timber cruising days where he spent months in the wilderness measuring timber stands. He had only two changes of clothes which he alternated from day to day. He referred to them as a wet pair and a wetter pair. Sounds like fun to me.
In the last years before his death in 1991, Carter was King County’s Artist in Resident. Carter occupied a home located on the Sammamish Slough in Redmond where he could routinely be seen with his creations.
Dudley Carter literally swung an ax until his illness just before his death. Carter passed away just prior to his 101st birthday.
At Dudley’s 100th birthday party, an original composition was dedicated to him titled “Shey Manido.” It was performed by Dent Davison, Director of the St. Thomas Choir and musician Easter “little Dove” John.
Shey Manido, gentle spirit moving over waters
Hand of God: formless chaos takes form
Face of God: Image of all winging birds
Forest trees, wild beasts, water, life, breath of God
Windsong: your children awake from sleep of clay
Great Manido: we give you thanks, source of ll creation
Mighty Windsong: feed the flame of your wisdom within us
Keep Sharp and Happy Carving!
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