Wooden it be nice

March 26, 2002

Lolita Harper

Wood fragments the size of toothpicks lodge in Paul Grybow's hair as

the artist chisels, then steps back and studies, and then chips away

again at the checkered detail of a beaver's tail.

The Costa Mesa artist has invested about 40 hours in the totem pole,

modeled after one in Saxman Park in Ketchecan, Alaska. The original pole

depicts the lineage of the Nexadi clan, with four divisions symbolizing


various descendants.

Grybow, who owns a custom framing business on 17th Street, said he

works on the totem pole when he finds time outside his normal business

hours. In addition to custom framing, the 40-year-old said he carves

personalized baby cradles and other things out of teak. His reputation in

that industry garnered the attention of Scott Robinson of Santa Ana.

Robinson, who hired Grybow to build the totem pole, said he decided

one day that "it would be kind of cool to put a totem pole in the


The 16-foot Santa Ana version has only two divisions -- the Eagle Claw

house and the beaver -- and is considered art rather than ancestral


Robinson knew he wanted something from a tribe in the northwest region

but had no specific examples. Grybow did some research and presented the

Alaskan model. Because there was only 16 feet of tree to work with,

Robinson had to choose his two favorite symbols for his own totem pole.

Robinson wanted the eagle on top, he said.

"I don't know all the history, I just know what I like," Robinson


Grybow, on the other hand, has become an expert. It is his first totem

pole, and he wanted to stay as true to the process as possible. A nearly

impossible feat, considering the differences in era, location and work


"The design is very true," Grybow said, "but his process differs

greatly from the native Tlingits."

As Grybow whittled away at the Spanish oak tree -- still rooted in the

Santa Ana soil -- he rattled off the history of the ancient totem pole.

In Alaska, the carving of a totem pole is a ceremonial event. The

tribesmen would come together, choose a sculptor and begin the extensive

search for the perfect cedar tree.

For this pole, Robinson contacted Grybow through mutual friends after

a futile attempt to find a totem pole carver in the phone book. Grybow's

concentration and diligence appears ritual-like, but the work is rooted

in a practical client-artist relationship. Robinson said he realizes true

artistry cannot be rushed.

"He can take his time," Robinson said.

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