First Nations Artist from Victoria Carves His Mark in Germany


The eagle atop a totem pole carved by Canadian artist Carey Newman represents the patron who commissioned it, a restaurant owner named Stephan Holthoff-Pförtner. (Carey Newman photo)

Things you don’t expect to see on a hike in the German forest: a 12-metre totem pole carved by one of Canada’s most celebrated Indigenous artists.

What was a monument sacred to First Nations people doing in a clearing in the woods outside the city of Essen, facing a half-timbered, fachwerk-style restaurant?

The Jagdhaus Schellenberg restaurant manager explained the totem pole was the work of Canadian master carver Carey Newman. Surprise number two: Newman lives in my hometown of Victoria, where he is Impact Chair in Indigenous Art Practices at the University of Victoria.

The multi-disciplinary artist, filmmaker, and author was commissioned to make the Kwakwaka’wakw-style pole by Essen lawyer and entrepreneur Stephan Holthoff-Pförtner. Holthoff-Pförtner is an owner of Jagdhaus Schellenberg, a stylish hilltop dining room built from an early 19th-century hunting lodge. He had the pole placed in a manicured garden across from the restaurant entrance.

Newman, whose traditional name is Hayalthkin’geme, is perhaps best known as the creator of the powerful art installation The Witness Blanket. The large-scale work uses hundreds of collected items to tell stories of the atrocities of the Canadian residential school system through the experiences of survivors.


Carved from sacred red cedar, the totem pole created by master carver Carey Newman depicts family members of patron Stephan Holthoff-Pförtner. (Carey Newman photo)

He is Kwakwaka’wakw and Coast Salish through his father and English-Irish-Scottish settler through his mother.

The group I was travelling with stopped at Jagdhaus Schellenberg to admire the view of the Baldeneysee reservoir (Lake Baldeney) from the terraces and have lunch while hiking a small chunk of a 27-kilometre (16.8-mile) trail just outside of Essen. Leafy urban walking paths and cycling trails are evidence of the postwar transformation of the one-time coal mining and industrial centre in the Ruhr region of North Rhine-Westphalia.

A Ruhr City Builds a Canadian Connection

The changes earned Essen the title of European Green Capital for 2017 from the European Commission.

Newman met Holthoff-Pförtner several years ago at the Vancouver Island home of a German patron of his work, who also owns one of Newman’s totem poles.

When Holthoff-Pförtner decided to commission a totem pole from Newman, he asked to see the tree that was going to be used in its natural state. He’d like to be there when it was felled.

stefan Holthoff-Pförtne_carey newman_ vancouver island

Artist Carey Newman (front) and patron Stefan Holthoff-Pförtner honoured the red cedar tree that was taken down from a Vancouver Island forest to carve a totem pole that now stands in Germany. (Photo supplied by Carey Newman)

“I’ve never seen one of my poles still standing as a tree,” said Newman. “So, it was really intriguing.”

The old-growth western red cedar came from the forest near the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, about 70 km (43 miles) from Victoria. Newman and Holthoff-Pförtner were among those who witnessed the forest giant coming down.

Cedar is a sacred plant to west-coast Indigenous people. Called “the tree of life,” the roots, bark, trunk, and branches have myriad uses. It’s also used as medicine and for ceremony, as well as totem poles.

The animals on the pole represent the members of the Holthoff-Pförtner family. Newman was told about each person’s personality and character. He matched that to a west-coast animal — real and mythic — with similar traits, including a frog, bear, wolf, baby thunderbird, raven, and a swimming otter cradling a shiny copper sea urchin.

One family adult member told Newman he was thrilled to learn he’d be carved as a dolphin. “He had been dreaming of dolphins,” Newman said.

Holthoff-Pförtner is represented by the eagle at the top of the pole. The dynamic animal has outstretched wings made from compressed layers of cedar. Whether the powerful bird is landing or taking off is open to interpretation. It’s fitting for Holthoff-Pförtner, who is always on the move, Newman said.

Newman is hoping to make a documentary about the making of the totem pole, which was the largest he’d ever carved and took more than three years to complete. The film will explore his conflicted thoughts between preserving Indigenous culture through creating totem poles and his responsibility to protect the old-growth forest for future generations.

A solution may come through a collaboration with a mechanical engineering team at Camosun College in Victoria, which is working with Newman on methods to shape and fix second-growth cedar pieces together to create a sturdy and seamless pole fit for carving.

With the eagle removed for the journey, the pole was packed into a 12-metre (39.4-foot) container and loaded on a ship. Newman wasn’t able to see the pole raising because of pandemic travel restrictions so it was blessed via a Zoom video call from Vancouver Island. He finally saw his work in place in October 2021.

“It felt pretty great actually. When you carve a pole, you spend all this time working on it, you become so intimately involved with it,” he said. “I’ve felt every part of that log. But you never see it in the way it’s intended to be seen until it’s standing.”

It’s not unusual for an Indigenous artist to have German commissions, Newman said. Many clients feel “a real connection with Indian people from North America” thanks to the hugely popular German-language fiction books set in the American west by 19th-century author Karl May.

“It’s not real. It’s not authentic. But it’s one of the few imagined versions of Indigenous people that paints us in a really positive light,” said Newman of the books, which May wrote despite never travelling to the American West.

Hiking on BaldeneySteig © Ralf Schultheiß

Hikers climb to the top of a viewpoint to see the landscape that surrounds Essen, including Lake Baldeney. (Ralf Schultheiss photo)

By connecting with German people through his art, Newman said he can undo some of the mythology and misconceptions around May’s depiction of Indigenous characters and culture.

While it was surprising to see a Canadian totem pole 8,000 km from where it was carved, it wasn’t the only unexpected thing about my time in Essen.

Rather than demolishing the remaining heavy industry buildings from its past, Essen chose to embrace and repurpose the cleaned-up sites to create spaces for art, gatherings, green spaces and museums.

“I have also toured those trails and discovered this approach to transforming industry into cultural space and natural space,” said Newman.

A good example of public art in unexpected places is Richard Serra’s industrial sculpture Slab for the Ruhr. It looks like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, rising more than 14 metres (46 feet) from the crest of the gentle hump of a former slag heap. I climbed more than 100 stairs to join other hikers in admiring the 360-degree views.


A former mining site, Zollverein, is now a United Nations landmark and an entertainment venue. (Jochen Tack photo)

The Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to various entertainment venues, a museum, dining, outdoor recreation, and gathering spaces. The rusty-red, A-shaped mine shaft with its winding house wheels is a symbol for the region, sometimes described as the Ruhr’s Eiffel Tower.

Meanwhile, Newman is working on another commission for a client in Essen. He and German contemporary artist Marcus Kiel are collaborating on an art piece for the non-profit Brost Foundation. Tentatively titled Steel and Wood, it will be placed at a former industrial site.


Visit Essen Website:
Germany Travel Website:
Getting There: Essen is about two-and-a-half hours by train from Frankfurt’s international airport and about 25 minutes by train from Dusseldorf’s airport. The city has a population of around 600,000 people and has an excellent U-Bahn (subway) system.
Where to Wtay: The Atlantic Congress Hotel has 248 rooms and is situated across from the 60-hectare Grugapark, which has botanical gardens, restaurants, and a good-sized mineral water spa with saunas, steam rooms, and pools. A bike path runs behind the hotel and there is a nearby U-Bahn stop.
What to Do: The Folkwang Museum has a fine collection of 19th- and 20th-century art. Admission is free.

Linda Barnard was a guest of GNTO and Visit Essen, which did not review this story.

Linda Barnard is a British Columbia-based travel writer who covers stories geared to energetic and experience-driven 45-plus travellers for