A CARVER TRAINED BY THE NUU-CHAN-ULTH TRIBE FROM NITINAT
"Indian art is just a piece of wood and a knife and what you do with it." William Kuhnley
Bill Kuhnley was working on the docks in Seattle when art found him. Its arrival in his life was completely unexpected and unprecedented. It was the 60's and Kuhnley was in his 30's. He had never painted, never sketched and never carved. But, when he picked up a knife and began to carve totem poles, the art was there waiting!
Things changed suddenly for Bill. One evening, he came home from the docks and found his wife, Josie, and her uncle carving. The uncle was Wilson F. Williams, a Nuu-chan-ulth artist from Nitinat. Wilson told Bill he could show him how to carve the traditional designs in the family's distinctive style.
Kuhnley and Josie followed Wilson to Nitinat on the west coast of Vancouver Island, a world away from the dockyards and canneries of Seattle. He has never looked back!
An American of mixed ethnic roots, Bill had enlisted in the army and served in Vietnam before finding work in Seattle as a stevedore. In the years to follow, apologizing for his Cherokee heritage gave way to apologizing for his white blood.
"I can teach anyone to carve, even a dumb white man." That's what Wilson told Kuhnley in 1962!
As the only non-native in Nitinat, Bill struggled to gain acceptance with Josie's family, first as a husband and father, then as an artist.
Kuhnley would pile his family into a dugout canoe and travel to the head of Nitinat Lake. They left their car parked nearby in the bushes. That was the end of passable roads heading to the west coast. Usually, the car was still waiting for them, and they would bring BIll's carvings, always better, more deftly carved, more singularly beautiful, to the art galleries of Vancouver Island for sale.
From the beginning of his career, Bill's work was in great demand. Native art collectors and traders like Herman Krupp of Oceanic Trading Company purchased his work early in his career. The Queen of England has one of Kuhnley's famous talking sticks. His work has been shipped all over the world to meet the growing demand for authentic handcrafted Northwest designs. The first totem pole to be shipped to South Africa was a remarkable Kuhnley sentinel pole!
From the start, Kuhnley and his wife, Josie, were perfect partners. Josie was an extraordinary painter and would lend her husband's bold shapes true and graceful color. Arthritis has put an end to her career, but their daughter, Jenny, has her mother's gifted eye and hand with paint.
The second generation of Kuhnley's family is another testimony to the parent's partnership. All four children are gifted artists. Billy, the oldest, is finishing studying with the internationally acclaimed Robert Davidson. His mastery of the Haida style is already attracting attention from serious collectors.
These days, Kuhnley apologizes to no one! His work defines a class of its own and speaks eloquently for itself. Traditional Nuu-chan-ulth designs grace his totem poles and talking sticks. Inlaid abalone and pounded copper insets are the mark of Kuhnley's skill and art. It is a rare gift. Artists of great renown have learned the craft in Kuhnley's studio.
Bill Kuhnley's first totem, a miniature, sold for $2.50! These days, his work commands more than $1,000.00 a foot. Kuhnley still lives and works near Nitinat, British Columbia.