Pole Commission

In early summer of 2015 I was asked if I was interested in doing a totem pole for a location on the Ten Mile River just north of Fort Bragg CA.

Me and the Log

Me and the Log

The log is 25 feet long and about 24″ in diameter. This allows for 18 feet of carving and 7 feet to be buried in the ground.

The term “totem pole” is problematic for me. It calls to mind so strongly the poles carved by the First Nation people of the pacific North West. These poles are highly stylized and exist in a rich cultural context that gives them meaning and emotional content.

As a contemporary artist I don’t have available to me a style or cultural understanding that allows for anything like the complexity of the First Nations pole as a transmitter of information.

I start from the desires of the client as to visual content and emotional impact and use my understanding and emotional ties to my subjects to try to convey the requested content.

The request from the client stated “As I understand it, the totem poles invoked and grounded their relationships with various spirits of protection, abundance, guidance, etc. For me, the idea includes this as well along with the intention to create a visual/physical reminder of relationship, gratitude, dialogue and welcome for those spirits who are endemic to this place and for some of the other spirits with whom we feel closely connected. The local animal spirits include salmon and whale primarily, and also possibly beaver, owl, heron, sea lion, shark, raven (of course!) and perhaps others.

Location for the Pole Commission


A small diameter pipe is raised at the proposed location

With this outline of the intent of the pole, and after a visit to the site, I began working on identifying animals and how to arrange them visually on the pole.

First Sketch for the Pole Commission

First Sketch

The first of the clay sketches

As is usual for me I began working up some ideas in clay, or specifically plastilina, an oil based clay that does not dry or harden. This allows me to explore ideas in the round, doing quick sketches that are easily modified. The first complete model was 36” tall. After meeting with the client and hearing her thoughts a second model was executed. After further conversations and a few more changes we came to a comfortable agreement on the design.


Second Sketch for the Pole Commission

Second Sketch

Developing on the first sketch here I have added some details including a pair of snakes coiling up and down the pole.

Third Sketch for the Pole Commission

Third Sketch

This is the final sketch, done after I had the log and incorporating  the faults and actual size of the log. I have simplified the design, removing the snakes and adding the pair of nursing bear cubs.

Carving in wood is not like digital 3d printing. The wood has its say in the final result. Its cracks and twists cannot be ignored. It has hidden knots and scars that will not reveal themselves until the work is underway. As I carve my ideas change in dialogue with the wood and with the intense relationship to the images themselves that evolve in the many hours of carving. Much trust is needed; on my part a trust that the image is in the wood somewhere, and the trust of the client that as the carving varies from the approved design to fit the reality of my skills and the woods limitation, the result will be accord with the original intent.

This project is a challenge due to its scale. The pole is 18 high, and it started out as 2 feet in diameter. I would need to work on it lying on the ground.

The Log Arrives for the Pole Commission

The Log Arrives

The Redwood log is what is termed a “buckskin,” meaning it was cut at some time in the past and not considered worth hauling out to be milled.  It was located in an active logging site on the Ten Mile river and hauled up to a landing. From there it was picked up by a self loading log truck and delivered to my studio.

Mendocino Arts Magazine

War Memorial, sculpture by wood carver Paul Reiber

From “Paul Reiber: Mythmaker in Wood,” an article by Peggy Templer in Mendocino Arts Magazine

For nearly forty years Paul Reiber has been on a journey, evolving from student of Greek mythology to wood carver, fine furniture maker and wood sculptor. All along the way his work has revealed a continuous thread, incorporating and refining the ideas, designs and sensibilities he acquired early on.

Paul grew up in an “artistic/intellectual milieu” outside of Washington, D.C., where the wealth of museums and galleries, as well as trips to Europe, sparked his interest in art, particularly sculpture.

Paul attended Boston University and studied Greek and comparative mythology. In the early 1970s, he came to the Bay Area to attend Star King School for Religious Leadership. As part of his theological studies he enrolled in a class in Totems taught by a Jesuit trained in the European tradition of woodcarving. The teacher brough a large block of wood into the classroom and worked with the class to identify a group totem and realize it in wood. The challenge of translating his intellectual understanding of a theological concept into a physical form captivated Paul. By this time Paul had realized that religious leadership was “not his thing,” but the wood carving aspect of the Totems class definitely was. It played right into his lifelong desire to be working with his hands. This introduction to wood was a turning point in his development as an artist. Although he had been drawing and painting since childhood, until the he had not really understood the great power that lies in “Making.” ….

See the PDF of the whole article by Peggy Templer in Mendocino Arts Magazine here.

New Settler

White Goddess, furniture by wood carver Paul Reiber

From “Sitting in the Lap of the Goddess,” an interview of Paul Reiber in New Settler

PAUL REIBER: The first thing I want to say is I feel very chosen about what I do. “When did I decide that I was going to do what I was going to do?” would be a meaningless question to me because I am pretty much deciding what I am going to do every day that I go out and do it.

As a maker of objects, I have a tremendous appreciation for objects that are made by hand instead of by mass production machinery. I was in the first class of James Krenov’s woodworking school. One of the great shocks for me in school was realizing I couldn’t make things for my peers—that I could not afford to make things for my peers. And this has always been an issue for me, and it’s not just for me, it is historically true that people that make fine objects are supported by well-t-do people. They are the only people who had the surplus wealth so they could afford it. People who are scraping along, like me—I can’t afford luxury.

And yet, I think that creating beauty in our world today is a very high calling. We live in a world that is being stripped of its beauty and beauty is rarely a criteria in choices, and it is an important criteria.

See the PDF of the whole article in New Settler here.

Woodworker West

Ancestor #2, sculpture by wood carver Paul Reiber

From “Profile: Paul Reiber,” an article in Woodworker West Magazine

Paul Reiber of Caspar, CA approaches woodworking from a spiritual perspective. Drawing upon his undergraduate studies in Greek and comparative mythology, the former seminary student uses his artistic peices to address issues of the human condition.

“As an adult living the rural life on the northern California coast, I have been part of the developing movement of environmental spiritualism, and my work as a sculptor and furnituremaker speaks of the need for the spiritual reunification of humanity and the natural world,” explains Paul. “In my choice of subject matter, I draw upon sacred images—from ancient and tribal origins to European traditions—and interpret them with a contemporary sensibility.

…From the start, his desire was to craft furniture embellished with carvings, and his early pieces were “naturalistic” in style, adorned with floral design done in high relief. Though his work has encompassed all types of furniture, his primary focus has been the chair form. “I was drawn to the design potential inherent in its curves, angles, and negative space. The visual and spatial complexity of chairs provides a canvas with room to play.”

…Today, Paul has moved from the functional to solely sculptural, working in both wood and stone. “I find this work has given me the freedom to follow my visions without any constraints of functionality.”…

See the PDF of the whole article in Woodworker West Magazine here.

Woodworker Magazine

Sun's Hands, furniture by wood carver Paul Reiber

From “Paul Reiber: The Art & Spirit of a Chairmaker,” an article by Tom McFadden in Woodworker Magazine

“The interest that I have in woodworking is image-oriented rather than process-oriented. What interest me is creating objects that have an emotional and spiritual content while working within the traditional craft concerns of function and beauty. People don’t buy my chairs because they need a chair; they buy my chairs because they need something else.

These are the words of Paul Reiber, an artist living near Mendocino California,. who draws on a background in mythology and comparative religion for inspiration for the designs he carves into his work. He is a tall man with bushy brown hair who speaks passionately about his work and his reasons for doing it. His words reveal a person rooted in spirituality and concerned about humans and the human condition, and courageous enough to follow his own vision and allow his work to evolve accordingly.

Although Paul has no formal art training beyond an art class in high school, he traces his interest clear back to his childhood. “I was always art-orineted. I have drawn all my life.” Extensive travels in Europe as a teenager allowed him to experience the art museums and galleries from another part of the world. He studied Greek in college, and in 1970 obtained his BA in Classical Studies from Boston University. He then prepared for the ministry, attending a Unitarian school, the Star King School for Religious Leadership. That was where he began woodcarving seriously. “I took a class on totems. It was taught by a Jesuit—a European-trained wood carver—who did sculpture in the round.” The totems that they carved there were “essentially religious objects.” It was this experience more than any other which turned his life in the direction of sculpture in wood….

See the PDF of the whole article by Tom McFadden in Woodworker Magazine here.

Log Home Design

Cherry Headboard, furniture by wood carver Paul Reiber

From “More Than Decor,” an article in Log Home Design Ideas Magazine, April 2004

Paul Reiber hopes his clients see his sculptures and hand-carved furniture as more than just decoration.

“I like creating objects that have a narrative content as opposed to just making something functional or pretty,” he says. “I enjoy making pieces that resonate with people so it’s something they want to have in their homes.”

As Paul sees it, his duty is to create objects of beauty that speak directly to each client.

“The feedback that means the most to me is when clients talk to me about a piece as if they have a relationship with it,” Paul says, “a relationship that gets deeper and grows each time they look at it.” He takes the collaborative process very seriously.

“Commissions are this wonderful dialogue where the artist has the opportunity to fulfill the client’s vision and make something they love,” Paul says. “That’s the blessing of custom furniture. The client gets exactly what they want.” And Paul gets something out of it too.

“It gives me the opportunity to do things I never would have thought to do,” he says. ‘But I also need to do my own thing once in a while. I like that balance.”

See the PDF of the whole article in Log Home Design Ideas Magazine here.