TOFINO, B.C. - Debris believed to be linked to last year's Japanese tsunami has allowed a Vancouver Island artist to put a new spin on an ageless cultural symbol.
For countless generations, totems have been carved from the old- and second-growth trees that dominate the province's rainforests.
Recently, though, Tofino, B.C., artist Peter Clarkson finished a nearly seven-metre tall pole with what he believes are tsunami-related Japanese floats, barrels and Styrofoam.
While yet to be raised, the totem links Japan, First Nations and non-First Nations cultures and raises awareness about the ongoing problem of ocean garbage, said Clarkson, a 53-year-old self-taught artist who works for Parks Canada.
"Living on the ocean and seeing these items wash ashore, it constantly reminds you that we all share the ocean, and it really makes a very real link between all the communities that live along the ocean," said Clarkson.
But Japan's deputy consul general in Vancouver, Kinji Shinoda, remains cautious about tying the debris to the tsunami, saying tonnes of debris has sunk, and Canadians and even some major media outlets have already misidentified the Chinese characters on some garbage as Japanese.
Building sculptures from the flotsam and jetsam that washes up on local shores is nothing new for Clarkson, who began making such art when he arrived on the West Coast of Vancouver Island in 1998.
His current project, though, began about five years ago when he found a piece of debris on a local beach that reminded him of a thunderbird's wings.
Slowly, Clarkson began to assemble pieces of the totem, including crab traps, surfing leashes, rope and even fishing floats.
Then the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck Japan, initiating a disaster and tsunami that killed at least 19,000 people and pushed millions of tonnes of debris into the ocean.
"When the tsunami event happened, it really served as a catalyst for me to get going and get motivated to finish the project," said Clarkson.
"As it happens, you know, the final couple pieces showed up on shore after the tsunami event here. Those were kind of the missing pieces I needed to finish the work."
Now complete but unnamed, the project sits in several pieces in Clarkson's backyard, waiting to be tied together by a galvanized piece of recycled fence rail which will serve as the totem's backbone.
Shinoda said based on reports from Japan's environment ministry, only about 1.5 million tonnes of the 20 million tonnes of debris that ended up in the ocean is still floating.
While some of that debris, like buoys and fishing boats, objects with a greater surface area above the water than under the water, began arriving on the coast in February, other debris is not expected to arrive until October, he said.
Still, debris with a small surface area above the ocean and mostly submerged is not expected to arrive until June 2013, he added.
"I really would like to know what kind of debris he or she collected," said Shinoda. "This is a very important thing not only for Japan but for other countries as well."
Shinoda said Japan is especially interested in personal belongings.
Clarkson said none of the debris he has found is personal, and he believes the objects are from Japan and are tied to the tsunami.
He said he's been beachcombing locally for years, and the material he is finding is different than what he has traditionally found.
"We're seeing a number of large floats, right now, large barrels, plastic barrels, and lots of big pieces of Styrofoam that have been coming ashore throughout the last few months, and a number of the items have writing on them and indicate they're from Japan," said Clarkson.
Other beachcombers he has contacted along the coast have found similar items, he added.
Some debris is clearly marked in Japanese, he added, noting he's even found something with the name and number of a fishing boat.
Regardless of the debris' origins, Joe Martin, a carver and member of the Tofino-area Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, said art has been an important force for humanity and Clarkson's project may serve as a mechanism for cross-cultural learning and dialogue.
"Perhaps people begin to learn more about West Coast native culture," said Martin, who helped carve a canoe for the Maa-nulth First Nations treaty.
Traditionally, totems have served as a constitution for members of the Nuu-chah-nulth nations on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, said Martin.
"Thy're teachings," he added.
Clarkson, too, said he's been inspired by First Nations culture and would like to expand the cross-cultural dialogue to Japan.
While he hasn't identified a home for the totem, he would like to get it out on public display so people can begin to talk about the tsunami and ocean garbage.
He'd also like to take the totem to Japan.
"One of the magical things about the ocean is the tides always deliver," he added.
-- By Keven Drews in Vancouver