Written by Ashley Patterson
University of Virginia students are only one month into the semester, yet art professor Bill Bennett’s “Introduction to Sculpture” class already has something to show for its work.
The students collaborated with Torres Strait Islander artist David Bosun, the artist-in-residence at the Kluge-Ruhe Collection, to hand-carve a traditional ceremonial Torres Straight totem pole. Standing more than 8 feet tall and carved from a 250-year old pecan tree, the pole features faces, animals and even the students’ initials embedded into the designs.
On Tuesday, Kluge-Ruhe celebrated Bosun and U.Va. sculpture students for their collaborative work. The museum invited the University and Charlottesville community to join Bosun for a discussion on his art, culture and inspiration, culminating in the celebratory unveiling of the totem pole.
Bosun came to the University for a four-week stay as an artist-in-residence, thanks to a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts. He is the first of six Indigenous Australian artists who will take part in a U.Va. residency over the next three years.
Bosun arrived in Charlottesville ready to teach, learn and create, said Margo Smith, director and curator of Kluge-Ruhe.
After finding him hammering away at the sculpture for hours on one of his first days in the studio, Smith told him, “David, you don’t have to finish that today,” but Bosun just looked up and smiled.
Bosun has been “enthusiastic and excited, ready to hit the ground running and take advantage of every opportunity,” Smith said.
Among those opportunities was the chance to work with students. Bennett’s classes met weekly with Bosun, where they learned the skills and techniques as well as the patience it takes to hand-carve a totem pole. With countless hours spent carefully pounding their mallets into the wood, the result was true artwork.
The pole was carved from a 250-year old pecan tree that recently fell at the University. Bosun celebrated the life of the tree on such historical land, saying, “We are making history with history.”
The experience of working with Bosun resonated with the students who came into the class unfamiliar with many of the techniques taught by the artist. Third-year student Sandy Williams expected individual work and the slow learning process that typically accompanies introductory courses, and was surprised to be able to participate in the creation of this piece so early in the semester.
Bosun “instilled confidence that we couldn’t mess up,” Williams said. “He was a good mentor with art-making in general.”
Bosun’s work is heavily influenced by his spiritual beliefs. Traditional totem poles play a significant part in ceremonial ancestry traditions in the Torres Straight Islands. Bosun introduced to Bennett’s students the role of the totem pole and his inspirations, which include ancestry, environment, animals and spirits. He said the passion stirred within him while creating a piece is actually the passion of his ancestors, who are using his art as a medium to speak.
Bosun said he incorporated his ancestral beliefs in creating the totem pole with Bennett’s students.
“It’s a different idea,” Williams said. “It takes opened-mindedness.”
Graduate student Lindsay Hinz had a more difficult time connecting with Bosun’s spiritual inspiration, yet she said the experience taught her “there is something in everyone’s life they can connect to, even if it isn’t ancestry.”
The collaboration not only resonated with the students but also had an impact on Bosun as well. “I had a very good experience with all the students,” he said. “It was my first time teaching and my first time teaching wood-carving. The passion they showed was a good experience for me, because I’ve never had it with my own people since I have never taught before.”
The totem pole will join Bosun’s Ngau Gidthal (My Stories) exhibition at the Kluge-Ruhe Collection in mid-October. The exhibition will be on display through Dec. 29.