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CARVING TALL TALES.

Byline: Winston Ross The Register-Guard

FLORENCE - People ask Steve and Margaret Benson all the time: How'd you get into totem pole making?

The Bensons say it's simple: They started making totem poles 23 years ago because people asked them to do it. They haven't stopped making totem poles because people haven't stopped asking.

"It's a mystery to me," Margaret says, `how many people write us, call us (or show up at the front door, unannounced) and say `I've always wanted a totem pole; my mother always wanted a totem pole.' '

The ex-mayor of Boulder, Colo., wanted an elephant. He's a Republican, you see. Another lady wanted two heads on top, and horses, wolves and a bobcat peeking out from the sides. A hunter wanted to remember his African safari, so he requested a pole with each of the animals he had killed there. One couple asked for dozens of images, including his 1962 Chevy Impala station wagon, painted blue like the one they'd owned.

"I don't care what you put on the totem pole, I just want my dog Bobo on there," wrote a southerner, whose pole included a panel in the back for the mutt's ashes.

And that's how it happens. Drawing from the totem pole's traditional function as a visual storytelling element, people from Maine to Miami, San Diego to the North Pole pour their hearts out on paper and ask the Bensons to transform that into carved wood.

A reporter for the Chicago Tribune wrote a five-page letter about the 15 members of her family who had died of cancer. The Bensons punched a hole through the pole's center and carved 15 people around it, holding hands. Another woman had been trying for years to adopt a baby from China; the first two died before they could get to the United States. After the third arrived, the mother asked for a pole atop a weeping woman, but beneath a soaring eagle. This reflected the anguish and the triumph of her trial.

Though clearly inspired by the American Indian art form, the Bensons try to distance themselves from even the term "totem pole" these days, not wanting to present themselves as something they're not. They call the poles "story poles," and say the approach to carving them is unique. An Indian totem pole might feature the symbol of a bear, for example; the Bensons would carve an actual bear.

"Traditionally, natives did not put wings on their totem poles, but many people want wings on them," Margaret said.

Some requests the Benson's don't abide: the tacky, such as beer cans or naked women.

They've shipped about 250 poles across the United States over the years - the costs to send 800-pound boxes across oceans are prohibitive, they say.

One of the couple's biggest customers is a Florida-based builder of upscale student housing, who uses the poles as festive gateways to the buildings. The cost runs anywhere from $1,650 for a typical 6-foot pole to $15,000 for a 20-footer. The big ones take about six weeks to finish.

Steve does the carving, scouring lumberyards for good Western red cedar. When the couple lived in Alaska, where the business began, spruce was all he could find, although he prefers cedar.

He then cuts the log in half, to relieve pressure that could cause it to crack.

Steve then heads into a small room at the back of his shop, draws an image, places it on a projector and then sketches the larger version of it on tracing paper before applying it to the wood itself in order to get the dimensions right.

He has more tools than an airplane mechanic, from the die grinders to the Australian Arbortech; from the furrier (a tool made to clip the toenails of horses) to the sander made to grind finger holes into bowling balls.

Margaret handles the painting and application of Penofin oil, a waterproofer. She says the couple will keep working as long as they can.

"We'll probably be doing it until our fingers are gnarled," she said.

Winston Ross can be reached at (541) 902-9030 or rgcoast@oregonfast.net.

CAPTION(S):

Steve Benson carved this tiki head for a 20-foot cedar pole. Benson runs his business, The Wood Age, with his wife Margaret near Florence. The Bensons use red cedar to make images such as this parrot head.
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Title Annotation:Business; Couple makes unique totem poles telling personal, whimsical stories
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 10, 2006
Words:728
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