Lummi carver Felix Solomon preserves history in his artwork
written and photographed by Lauren Kramer
The wood pellet stove was crackling inside Felix Solomon’s new carving studio on Bellingham’s Smokehouse Road, steps from Bellingham Bay. With his dog Daisy by his side, Solomon, 60, was deeply focused on carving a bear’s head from a 39-foot section of old-growth red cedar. Every now and then he looked up at a bear hide stretched over the log, copying its contours for accuracy. The visage of the bear is one of seven animals that will appear on this totem pole in six months’ time, when it’s delivered to a private client in Whatcom County. It’s the largest totem pole Solomon has ever carved—in fact, the Lummi carver built his studio specifically to accommodate this—and he was thrilled to have the freedom to create a design of his choice.
“It’s a really peaceful thing, to be carving,” he reflected. “You slip into a zone where you’re more grateful for your family, for life and for the gifts you’ve been given than anything else.”
Before becoming a full-time artist just ten years ago, he was a fisherman and later ran a food truck, Felix’s Fish & Stuff. In 1997, he began teaching himself the art of carving under the mentorship of Scott Jensen and Ralph Bennett. It quickly became a passion, and Jensen, seeing his student’s seriousness, took him under his wing.
Few carvers achieve success in a short time, but Solomon’s relatively brief carving career has far exceeded his wildest expectations. He carved canoes commissioned by the Stillaguamish Tribe in Arlington and the Sauk-Suiattle in Darrington and created a story pole called “Evolution of Gambling,” for Silver Reef Casino in Ferndale. He has another story pole, this one horizontal, on display at Bellingham International Airport, titled “It’s Mine.” The sculpture depicts two Coast Salish fishermen in a shovel-nosed canoe, pursuing a salmon with a gaff hook. At the other end of the story pole a serpent is pursuing the salmon, its mouth reaching for the fish.
Like all his story poles, this one is original and laden with symbolism. “The serpent represents everything tough about putting salmon on the table,” he explained. “Everything tough” means three things: overfishing; the over-fertilization of farmlands by farmers, resulting in fertilizer seeping into the water and creating new strains of algae that affect aquatic life; and logging operations that have clear-cut the mountains, eliminating shady spots where salmon spawn. “Everyone wants to point fingers about who is to blame for the state of the salmon,” he reflected, “but everyone is responsible for the species’ deterioration, anyone who had anything to do with salmon.”
Lummi carver Felix Solomon: Story pole tradition meets modern art
Not long after he completed that sculpture, corporations and art collectors began approaching Solomon and commissioning new pieces. He created six identity panels for a housing project on Lummi Island last summer and a 15-foot totem pole for San Juan Cable. Then a private collector walked into the studio and commissioned three massive totem poles that will easily keep him occupied through 2020. The first, underway through spring, honors Lummi carver Joseph Hillaire, and will feature at its peak an eagle with the moon in its talons. “This totem pole will describe the story of creation—but the way I see it, when the stories were told to me,” Solomon explained. It’s a massive task, the largest he’s ever undertaken, and Solomon is relieved to have the help of two apprentices, one of them the Haida carver Ralph Bennett.
He’s been honored for his canoe carvings at the National Museum of the Native American Indian in Washington, D.C., but Solomon seems genuinely surprised by the upward curve in his career and is humble about his talent. “I’m fortunate to have collectors that seek out my work and come to my studio,” he said.
There are days when he wishes he could sleep in and have the time to focus on smaller projects that don’t take six to eight months to complete. That would be a lot easier than hauling massive logs around, a requisite for creating totem poles. “I wouldn’t mind teaching some classes and keeping the projects smaller,” Solomon said. “But at the same time, it’s nice to have something this big on my résumé. It’s moving really quickly, my carving career, taking its own path, and it’s been quite a ride. I couldn’t have dreamed ten years ago of doing what I’m doing today.”