Exhibition Essay

Marking the Spot: Squire Broel’s Totemics

Within the broad subset of items that are considered totems, ultimately they are vessels of stories whose provenance speaks of time and place, and of course human experience. They are often created to foment the existence of a people’s legacy through the retelling of fantastic tales of exodus, victory, and wealth. These totems tell stories that are spurred by what the independent scholar, Ernesto Mercer, calls the “moving foot”[i]: a group of people, who for one reason or another, decide to leave one place, travel for months at a time until they get to the new place that will then be the place they inhabit, build community, and make a life.

Broel’s totems are of the earth as much as they are markers placed upon it. Constructed from organic materials found inside the earth – bronze and aluminum – and on top of it – wood and resin – these structures stand as tribute and recognition of human beings’ inextricable reliance on terra mater[ii]. We are capable of creating sustainable structures but also aesthetics pregnant with meaning and possibility.

The Bronze Age throughout the world lasted from approximately 3300-300 BC and it signaled the development of early urban civilization. Bronze featured heavily in trade and have technological advantage to civilizations using it to build structures, as it was significantly more durable than other available metals, thus allowing permanence. Aluminum like Bronze has played a crucial role in urbanization particularly in the postindustrial age. It is crucial to the transportation, building, and aerospace industries, thus facilitating exploration, travel, and the construction of shelter. Wood and resins are among the earliest organic materials discovered and used for a variety of functions: tools, weapons, furniture, and fuel to name just of few. Discussions around deforestation bring to bear the stories of wood, or the absence thereof, and tell the story of human interaction with the natural environment: where there was once plenty, there is now scarcity.

What then are the possible stories residing within Broel’s totems? What realities do they mark for us as we prepare to enter the third decade of the 21st century? Nestled amongst the shadows of breathtaking mountain ranges of the Pacific Northwest where Broel lives and works, there is opportunity to pause and consider what that land may have looked like before it was settled. Humans like progress but in the grand scheme of all that was accomplished, we should also consider all that has been lost. As Manifest Destiny moved westward, American settlers plowed their way westward across the Cascades and northward from California. English settlers came southward from what is now British Columbia. Both groups of settlers encountered Coast Salish peoples, took their lands and their resources, and decimated all who dared protest. Native American peoples that escaped death were forced onto reservations and in many cases, into near permanent states of indigence.

If there is any one notion to glean from reflection with Broel’s totems it is reflection. The aforementioned histories happened on the very land Broel calls home, and within the natural environment, that nourishes his practice. It is an abjectly beautiful but also, at times, unforgiving landscape. It is the precise opposite of the larger, louder, and technologically connected Seattle. If in Seattle we inhale and exhale the boons of the tech industry, in Walla Walla, imaginably, one breathes in the blaring stillness and at times, a deafening quiet.

Broel’s work is also a tribute to endurance and resilience. His totems are made to command attention and because they are portable, they offer to every new space they inhabit, fresh considerations for a more intentional way of life – a life closer to the bone.[iii] Broel’s preferred materials allowed countless civilizations to grow and flourish, the remnants of which endure to this day. Broel’s totems stand as clues to the inner and outer workings of humans of the early 21st century: our aesthetic preferences, habits, our adaptability, and our capabilities.

We have built so much for the sake of progress, and Broel’s work provides insights into what we may need going forward for the sake of our own survival. If the previous decades of the 21st century have revealed to us anything about ourselves, it is that progress still does not equate with health, joie de vivre, or rejuvenation. Totems stand heads and tails above all the rest and demand our attention. We attempt to read them as if a book. They demand our time, and spend it generously restoring to us our ability to see with all five senses engaged, and imagining potentialities, for a life closer to the bone.

By Negarra A. Kudumu


[i] Ernesto Mercer, Kongo Never Dies, Vol 1, Part 1, 2016.
[ii] Latin for mother earth.
[iii] Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations, Season 5 episode 4, 2008. Refers to the existence of a lifestyle connected to the land and one’s need to engage with the land.

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