A totem of his respect

A totem of his respect

Canadian artist Bill Helin introduces his country's traditional culture


Bill Helin conducts a ceremony to call on the spirit of the two Tsimshian totem poles erected at Canadian International School of Hong Kong to protect and watch over the school.
Bill Helin conducts a ceremony to call on the spirit of the two Tsimshian totem poles erected at Canadian International School of Hong Kong to protect and watch over the school.
Photos: Nora Tam/SCMP
Until last week, a totem pole in Hong Kong would have been a rare sight. But now, our city is home to at least two of these traditional structures.

After two months of skilful carving, totem artist Bill Helin finally erected his two masterpieces last Wednesday at the Canadian International School. Helin has been at the school as an artist-in-residence since late January.

The Canadian national, born to an indigenous father, is delighted to share his Tsimshian heritage with people in Hong Kong.

The totem pole is an icon of First Nations - the collective term for Aboriginal Canadians - culture. While some regard them as cultural symbols, others think they are works of art. For Helin, they're both - he enjoys creating a beautiful work, while conveying important messages. When Helin carves his totem poles, firstly, he talks about the environment. "Sharing the importance of protecting endangered species is one of my primary goals," he says.

He uses western red cedar trees for his poles. The tree is scarce as a result of excessive logging. By turning them into totem poles, Helin hopes people will learn more about the environment and, eventually, take action to save it.

Next he incorporates the Tsimshian culture. This is to teach people how to respect traditions and pass them on with passion and love. "Today's culture is too focused on money and commerce," he says. "People often forget the importance of keeping traditions alive and sharing them with others. Traditions have to live on through many generations."

The third point on his list is story-telling. Helin's totem poles all have stories. "No matter what medium we choose, our story-telling speaks of who we are and what our legacy really stands for," he says

Helin's life is a story in itself. Even though he is half-Norwegian, his First Nation roots run deep. His father was a chief of the Tsimshian people, his grandfather a chief of the Gitlan tribe, and his grandmother a chieftainess of the Gitgeese tribe.

His passion for art began at an early age - in particular, he loved native art. He taught himself many different techniques, but had no opportunity to work as an artist, so became a commercial fisherman.

Then fate stepped in. Helin was accidentally electrocuted on his boat and had to stop fishing. But because of the injury, he had time to focus on his art. He began wood carving in the traditional Tsimshian style. From this he moved to graphic design, acrylic paintings, gem carving and jewellery making and has earned his living this way ever since.

Helin's list of achievements is a testament to the quality and creativity of his work. In 1994, he broke the world record for building the world's tallest totem pole, Spirit of Lekwammen (Land of the Winds), in Victoria, western Canada. The totem stands at an astounding 54.9 metres.

He has collaborated twice with the Canadian Space Agency and America's Nasa to create uniform patches for two space missions. And in 2010, he presented a talking stick to former US president Bill Clinton.

And yet he is humble. The father of four says his children are his inspiration, and the only thing he wants to do is to teach people about the traditions of the First Nations - the indigenous history of Canada. He is looking forward to doing this in Hong Kong.



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