Shandley Williams - Totem

Shandley Williams - Totem

Souvenir Series #1

I thought I’d begin the first blog post of the New Year by making it the first of my occasional ‘Souvenir Series’ too; and nothing makes more sense than to begin at the beginning – so here is the very first ‘souvenir’ I ever bought. That is to say, it’s the oldest art object / artefact which I purposefully collected and still own today. And, rather appropriately, it fits in well following on from my recent journeys along the north-west coast of the USA to Canada.

It’s a small wooden carving, 8 ½ inches or 21.5cms tall, painted in black, red, green and blue – perhaps carved from some sort of cedar wood. As you can see from the illustrations it depicts some kind of (mythical?) creature which stands on the back of what looks like a frog or toad while holding a fish. The back of the carving bears a signature in pencil: ‘Shandley Williams’, but no date.

I bought this piece – not in the USA or Canada – but in Cornwall, from a small bric-a-brac stall overlooking the sea whilst I was on my summer holidays in the late 1980s / early 1990s. How this item came to be on sale there I have no idea, but it’s now been in my possession for almost 25 years. I’ve just returned from a flying visit to Portland, Oregon and this, along with my recent travels in that part of the world last year, prompted me to finally try to find out a bit more about this little object.

I spoke first to a friend who lives in the region who showed a photo of the totem to a colleague of theirs who specialises in north-west coast art, and it seems like this figure is an unusual one. It doesn’t appear to represent a traditional motif and so seemed to suggest some kind of possibly European ‘hobby-craft’ origin, but – place of purchase isn’t always an indicator of true provenance – a check on the pencil signature would seem to suggest that there is some kind of connection to the NW Pacific coast. ‘Shandley Williams’ or ‘Leonard Shandley Williams’ seems possibly to have been a local artist working from around the late 1950s to the 1970s. Some of his work appears to have recently been sold or auctioned in the Seattle area as well as in Ontario, Canada too. Beyond that, I’ve not been able to trace any further information on the artist or his work. 

Consequently, any tips or further information would be very gratefully received! … Please do get in touch.

Other items which I’ve seen of his work on the web seem to include more traditional motifs, with the notched black-painted display base being a characteristic feature.

Working on various exhibitions over the years I’ve been lucky enough to have handled some genuine pieces of both ancient and more modern NW coast art – particularly pieces from the Haida, Tsimshian, and Nuu-chah-nulth peoples. Also, when I reached Vancouver at the end of my trip along the Cascades last year, I spent a morning wandering around the galleries of the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology – which has a truly fantastic collection of NW coast art, most famously including works by the Haida artist, Bill Reid (1920-1988), whose artworks are very well known in Canada and also feature on certain Canadian banknotes. It all brought back memories of undergraduate lectures on long houses, ‘sweat lodges,’ and the ‘potlatch' festival when I was doing my Anthropology BSc.

UPDATE: (June 25th 2014) Shandley Williams (1938-1986) was a NW Coast artist from a Ditidaht family, originating in Vancouver Island, B.C. Several generations of the Williams family were and still are to this day noted wood carvers. (See the comments below)

'The Carver's Life' - Seattle Met news article about John T. Williams, by Neal Thompson (April 22, 2011)

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