Here are a few fond memories I have of Ted Harrison, that happy, jolly man.
My youngest brother Roland and I first saw a short man smiling as he came up the road to our mom and dad’s home in Beaver Creek. This was in August of 1972, when I was 26.
“Roland, do you know who that is?” I asked. “No,” he said, so we just sat still, holding our guitars.
Still smiling, he said, “Aye there, laddies, hot day, today.” He looked at me and asked, “Would you be Stan Peters the artist?”
“Yes I am, why? And who are you?”
“I’m Ted Harrison, me laddie, and I’ve come from Whitehorse. I work at the government’s vocational training and technical centre as the arts and crafts instructor. You see, I was told at the Yukon Native Brotherhood that I should go and look you up, to see if you can come and attend the arts and crafts class for 10 and a half months with me. I’ve already gone to other artists.”
I smiled at Ted and tried to put him down. I said matter-of-factly, “I bet you wouldn’t even be here, driving 284 miles one way, if the government didn’t pay for your mileage, meals and room, right?”
“Oh no,” he said. “No one’s paying me, not a penny. I came up here to see if you’d just give me a chance, to see if I might help you to learn more arts and crafts. No, Stan, I paid for everything out of my own pocket. You see, you were spoken about very highly, they thought the world of you and your art. That’s why I came all the way up here to talk with you.”
“Well, OK, Ted, let me think about what you’ve said. Then, when September comes and if you see me in your class, that means I’m here, as I’ve committed myself to attend your classes. But if you don’t see me, do not wait for me, because that means I’m not interested and am doing a job someplace, OK?”
And so with that, he says, “OK, me laddie, I’ll see you in class.” I thought, “So sure of yourself. We’ll see.”
I ended up attending his classes. They were very interesting and always full of fun and laughter and also seriousness.
My first small carving was a 15-foot totem pole. Later, Ted told me that as soon as they put it up for sale at Yukraft, it only sat there for 15 minutes before it was sold.
My pottery crafts also sold quickly, so I could never keep up. No matter the demand, it had to be perfect to me or I wouldn’t put it up for sale.
Then, just before Christmas of 1972, I met with Ted and a couple of Yukon government reps who said that Skookum Jim Friendship Centre wanted to know if we could come up with a totem pole carving for them. I went to see this huge, long spruce tree still with its bark and limbs, lying on some sawhorses. It was so huge and hard looking, I felt small and intimidated.
“This is what they want me to carve? The hardest wood in the Yukon? Look at it!” I thought.
Next morning I said, “Give me until 11 p.m. every day, including weekends. Tell your janitor not to bother me, and I will have the carving done by the last day of Sourdough Rendezvous.’”
Ted, bless his soul, said, “Oh, no, Stanley, it’ll be late spring at the earliest!” I said again the same words, but added at the end, “And I’ll have it done by 3 p.m., a half-hour before putting it up in Rotary Park.”
No one believed me, so when 1973’s Sourdough Rendezvous catalogue of events came out, everything was in there, except the raising of the totem pole. Half an hour before 3 p.m. I was putting the finishing touches on it, while about 40 students were waiting for me to say, “OK, I’m done, take it out!”
Well the Skookum Jim Friendship Totem Pole stands proudly in Rotary Peace Park ever since 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 28, 1973 – enjoy it.
I called it “the very first totem pole ever carved in the Yukon, since time began.” And that’s the truth. Thank you, Ted, for believing in me.
Stan Peters is an Athabaskan-Tlingit artist who lives in Whitehorse.