October 27, 2005
The tradition of wood-sculpting that Aspenite John Doyle works in is loaded with cultural, even spiritual, significance. The bulk of his output has been totem poles, which, in the Northwest coastal tribes where they originated, have been symbols of status. Another favorite subject of Doyle’s has been Maori tattoos – huge-scale wood carvings of faces of New Zealand’s Maori people, painted with the tattoos that the tribesmen used toward sacred ends. A recent addition to his repertoire is the Buddha figure, accompanied by other symbols of Eastern philosophy: elephants, the knot of eternity.Doyle, however, did not come to such weighty images, or even wood-sculpting generally, through any spiritual concern. Instead, it was a paycheck (and a window to another occupational lifestyle) that brought Doyle to his craft.It was the offhand suggestion of a friend that first inspired Doyle to carve. In 1989, the friend had seen a photo Doyle had taken five years ago, during a trip to Alaska, of a totem pole. Doyle had been living in a cabin in Little Annie Basin, on the backside of Aspen Mountain, and the friend thought the totem an ideal match for the setting.”He said, ‘Dude, you should carve a totem for your cabin,'” said Doyle. Seeing as it was the spring offseason and the restaurants at which Doyle made a living as a waiter were closed, it struck him as a not half-bad idea. “So I went to the library, got books on Northwest coastal art, which is where totems came from, four flat Stanley chisels and a hammer. I sat down and carved my first totem, which was pretty primitive.”Doyle’s friend not only inspired him to make the totem, he also served as something of a marketing consultant. When the two signed up as part of a catering crew for a party at the home of a couple well-known for their art collection, the friend suggested that Doyle bring photos of the piece. Going for broke, Doyle set what he considered a high price. After the collectors visited with the totem and a brief haggle over the price, Doyle got his first paycheck as an artist – and a new career.
“I said, ‘OK, I’m done with waiting tables,'” recalled the 44-year-old. “I called up immediately. Everyone at the restaurants understood.”Doyle hadn’t come out of nowhere to make totem poles. His mother had been an artist, and all the Doyle children were involved with art as kids. At the University of Idaho, the Twin Falls native studied art and architecture, angling for a career as an architect.But after his junior year, having run out of money for tuition, Doyle headed to Aspen, where his mother, Dorothy, and younger sister Patty, had moved. Falling in love with the mountains and the life of a ski bum, he never finished college. Doyle skied by day, and waited tables – at the defunct Chinese restaurant Arthur’s, and the Pine Creek Cookhouse – at night. It was a trip outside the valley that would provide the link between Doyle and his present occupation. After six gloomy days in gloomy Anchorage, Alaska, fruitlessly trying to find work on a fishing boat, Doyle decided to look up Vern Seifert, a friend of his deceased father. (Doyle’s father, also John, had died when the Doyle junior was young.) It was a small step at the moment, but there were signs that it would eventually lead to big things.”On the seventh day, I woke up and it was cloudless, pretty, you could see the Chugach [mountain range],” said Doyle. “I looked at a map and found the address my mother had given me. Outside this cabin – a ramshackle place of salvaged lumber from the 1964 earthquake – were cages with falcons, busted-up airplanes. I knew he was still there.”As well as being a falconer and a pilot – interests he shared with the older Doyle – Seifert made totem poles. At the time, Doyle’s visit seemed most notable for the fact that Seifert quickly got him work on a fishing boat. But Seifert also showed Doyle his totems, and even took him to an art show, at which Seifert’s carving earned a prize. And, Doyle took that photo of Seifert’s work.One of Doyle’s totem poles stood in the courtyard of the Hotel Jerome from 1991 until this past spring, when the Jerome was sold and the totem was given to former hotel co-owner Dick Butera. The high-profile placement was a coup for the upstart artist, who says that, apart from a period after 9/11, his career has been “gangbusters.””That put me on the map,” he said. “It was my fourth totem. Having a piece of art like that at a world-class hotel is pretty awesome.”Probably as a consequence, the bulk of Doyle’s commissions has been for similar pieces. He has made some 35 to 40 totem poles, representing more than half of his output. The commissions have arrived in what has become a routine fashion: the mother of a family contacts him, asking that each family member be represented on the pole by an animal character. The commission would come with a request that Doyle make up a story to go with the totem. Doyle enjoyed the process earlier in his career, but less so now.Which is not to say that he is bored with wood-sculpting. Doyle is enthused about the more unique paths his art has taken. He has carved Northwestern tribal shamans, adding his own touch of copper breastplates to match the genuine article. A 7-foot dragonfly sits in his living room.
Most compelling to him are the Maori carvings which, like everything he does, is rendered on as large a scale as possible. A friend who is half-Maori loaned him a series of photographs, probably from the 19th century, of fully tattooed Maori faces. Some of Doyle’s best work – sculpture, painted to mimic the tattoos – has been inspired by the Maori images.”For some reason, I’ve been drawn to the Maori tattoos,” said Doyle, who has been working in the same rustic studio, in the Tyrol Apartments a block off Aspen’s Main Street, since 1989. “They’re so intricate. I could easily devote the rest of my career to just these faces.”
While Doyle denies any spiritual connection to his work, his subjects have fueled an intellectual curiosity. Doyle can tell you that, along with the tattoos, the Maoris also made wooden drinking implements – which were necessary, as the tattooing process swelled their faces to the point that solid food wasn’t an option. He has learned, to his surprise, that dragonflies can live up to five years.And of course, he knows more about totem poles than the average person. Despite getting somewhat burned out on totems, he likes the fact that the totems he makes are used for just the same purpose as they traditionally were.
“It’s a family crest of sorts – and that’s precisely what totem poles were in Northwest coastal tradition, family crests and status symbols,” he said. “The guy with the most totem poles in front of his house is the guy who is the best off. The whole reason Northwestern coastal Indians could carve totem poles is because food was relatively easy to gather. And when you have food, you are able to let some people spend time as artisans.”
There is a parallel in that for Doyle himself. Since that first paycheck, Doyle has happily traded serving food for carving wood. And that change in occupation has afforded him an elevated enjoyment of life. He works at his own pace, which follows the seasons: super-busy in the summer, more relaxed in the winter, when he skis about as much as possible. And if the work itself doesn’t necessarily reflect a spiritual content, the process does.”The beauty of it for me is, I work outside in the summer, and in one of the most beautiful places in the world, in Little Annie Basin,” he said. “I get to look around at the mountains. That’s about as spiritual as it can get.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org