Works of art, just outside Bellville and Butler


This is the front view of a totem pole that Jim Gatton said tells “his story.” Louise Swartzwalder | Bellville Star

This is the front view of a totem pole that Jim Gatton said tells “his story.” Louise Swartzwalder | Bellville Star

CLEAR FORK VALLEY — If you’re lazily driving along State Route 97, there’s going to be a certain point where what you see will make you want to stop and look around.

A few steps to the west of the Clear Fork school buildings, the side yard of a tan house supports several tall, colorful totem poles.

These are the creations of Jim Gatton.

The northwest Canadian Indian style totem poles, made of burled Frazier Fir wood, are protectors of a sort at Gatton’s property.

Inspired by guys using chain saws at a Paul Bunyan show, Gatton decided he’d try to his hand at the carving art.

He got books at the library, to study.

Gatton said it is a “good hobby” for his old age. Gatton is 87.

Carving, painting and assembling totem poles isn’t the first effort at making his own business for Gatton.

A company named Sunburst, which makes lights and other equipment for coon hunters, has been in business for 43 years.

Gatton, who appears to be a person who believes in acting with a purpose, said his effort means “out of it comes good things.”

The late Van Ross Wade was an aide in his totem pole efforts, said Gatton. He spoke to him about getting Frazier Firs. Wade said “Sure, whatever you’d like.”

Total poles would be made for Indian chiefs, and would tell the story of the chief. When he did one for himself, Gatton said he had to “figure out what my story would be.”

Totem poles usually have an eagle or a raven on top. Lower, there could be a bear, standing for strength. A beaver would be a sign of “hard work and tenacity,” Gatton said. An owl would mean intelligence.

His totem pole has an eagle on top, then a dove of peace. Below that is an apple, for his wife, a teacher for 25 years. To the left of the apple is a light bulb, standing for good ideas.

The date 1949 appears. That is their wedding date. There is a sun, because people “get all things from the sun.” There is a coon, and a little boy holding up a dog to get the coon.

Atop his totem pole, there is the figure of an Indian.

Gatton calls him Chief Red Cloud, named because Gatton saw a fire red sunset in the evening. Chief Red Cloud, a person Gatton invented, met a missionary and converted to Christianity. There is a cross on his chest and a big cross below him.

The Chief Red Cloud figure is “my testimony,” Gatton said. He said he is a Christian, and he hopes people get that connection by looking at the figure.

Gatton used other skills to make clothing for Chief Red Cloud. He said he has a “one crank” sewing machine, and he used that to take apart an old jacket, of Naugahyde, and convert that to a brown shirt for Chief Red Cloud.

He said the outfit is “water, rain and snow” proof.

He made a headdress by using feathers from a dead blue heron. He said he pulled the feathers off, painted the tips, then made a backing of mesh to go underneath. He said that headdress is made to withstand 10 inches of snow.

Completing that totem pole took him 10 months.

Gatton said when he started making totem poles his wife asked him what he would do with them. Gatton has made six.

He made one for his granddaughter, one for his grandson, and one for Van Ross Wade. There was also one made for the area Boy Scouts, but black ants got into it, followed by woodpeckers. Then “weather ruined it,” he said.

Gatton kept two of the totem poles.

He works in a heated workshop area, which is where people can also see the coon hunting lights apparatus. Gatton said he got several patents on that invention. Coon hunters didn’t object to paying the $400 for a set, he said.

The totem pole carvimg starts with a chain saw, but also uses carving knives and a dremel tool, with different bits. The poles, which show the burls in the fir, have had four coats of varnish.

His works have never been exhibited, Gatton said.

Certain pieces on the totem poles have to be added. Wings of an eagle, a beak and points on a sunburst design have to be done separately.

Gatton said this type of work teaches you something.

“You find out real quick, carving on a pole. If you make a mistake, it’s there,” said Gatton.

This is the front view of a totem pole that Jim Gatton said tells “his story.” Louise Swartzwalder | Bellville Star is the front view of a totem pole that Jim Gatton said tells “his story.” Louise Swartzwalder | Bellville Star