Sven Ortquist
Master Wood Carver

From the Los Angeles Times
Artist Carves Out Old Customs for Today's Samoans
By Nancy Wride
July 26, 2004

The calloused hands of the artist glide first over the pine ceremonial bowl, then the fishing canoes, in the Second Samoan Church yard. Sculptor Sven Ortquist pointed to the boys and girls chiseling wood and sweeping sawdust. "I only guide them," Ortquist, 66, said with a grin. "The church elders, the kids, everybody worked together like a village did in ancient times. Of course, they didn't have chain saws back then."

The artist in residence at American Samoa's largest college, Ortquist is spending the summer in downtown Long Beach with the 200-member congregation, sharing the ancient culture's traditions of boat carving, wood block printing and intricate tattoo designs that typically covered a Samoan of yesteryear from waist to knee.

The results of the daily carving and painting will be on display during the three-day Tafesilafa'i Festival of dance, food and culture starting Friday outside the Queen Mary in Long Beach (www. tafe

Long Beach and Carson have the largest Samoan populations among L.A. County's estimated 16,100 Samoan transplants, according to the U.S. Census -- a number considered by churches and academics to be an undercount, common among ethnic immigrant groups. California has the largest Samoan population, 37,500, of any state, including Hawaii.

The visit by an acclaimed artist such as Ortquist -- profiled in the 1996 documentary "The Samoan Heart" and widely known in American Samoa for his sculptures adorning churches and public buildings -- further grounds the Second Samoan Church as a center of cultural preservation.

Chief Muliagatele Mona Porotesano of Carson, among the traditional leaders of the community, teaches language Fridays at the church's Samoan School and is on the International Language Conference with the church's pastor.

"I wish every Samoan church was attempting what this one has," she said.

"Sven being here has been great," said the Rev. Misipouena Tagaloa, who did his doctoral dissertation on how Samoans learn communally and thus struggle in American classrooms, where students generally study more independently. "Teachers sitting on the floor surrounded by the children, that is how Samoans learn, in a group, in relation to one another," Tagaloa said. "Sven being here is an extension of what I've been trying to do for the last eight years, which is preserve Samoan language and culture and art. This is the first time we've tried to [focus on] the art."

Recently, on the blacktop behind the white Georgian-style church building at Cedar Avenue and 7th Street, Ortquist was surrounded by six to 10 congregation members, amid wood chips, saws and logs.

Three outrigger canoes have been completed in two months by more than 40 people -- ages 10 to 70 -- who spent hours every day on the vessels, plus intricately carved wooden paddles and patterned blocks intended this weekend to create fabric designs for traditional cloth wraps.

Chain saws first are used to break down logs into manageable pieces. "It would be kind of unreasonable not to use them, and they practice the ancient custom for the most part," said Ortquist.

Along with being a master woodcarver, Ortquist is also a storyteller of Samoan legend. He also tells his own story, but only when asked.

Born in what is now called Western Samoa to a Swedish coconut trader who married his Samoan mother, Ortquist was diagnosed at age 9 with Hansen's disease, or leprosy, and sent to a remote leper colony on Fiji. It was there that nuns gave him tools and wood and suggested he try carving St. Joseph and other Christian figures. Self-taught, Ortquist created the first of a career's worth of crucifixes that he later gave to a local church as thanks after being cured of the often-disfiguring disease. His Christ figures had Samoan features.

As a multicultural family, his dined on sauerkraut and pickled meats along with richer roasted foods of Samoa, but it was only as an adult that he learned of more ancient customs and culture of his Pacific Island ancestors.

Polynesians would not exist without the wooden canoe, which is how they arrived from Southeast Asia between 1100 and 1000 B.C. The last large community outrigger was built perhaps 100 years ago in Polynesia, said Ben Finney, an author and retired professor at the University of Hawaii's East-West Center, who for 50 years has researched canoes in the Pacific Island chain.

"This is an age of cultural revival in the Pacific," said Finney, "but for years that wasn't the case."

In 1966, a hurricane struck American Samoa, shutting down all plantations and work for weeks, Ortquist said. In his art studio, he filled a hand-carved kava bowl with a beverage made from dried worms. At first accidentally, later on purpose, he drew in local matais, or chiefs, who would share the beverage and tell him about old customs that were dying out as fishing boats first became aluminum and then gained outboard motors.

He started creating the traditional wooden bowls along with public art. The American Samoa Community College recruited him to train students in cultural arts that not even their parents always knew. He also worked with a United Nations program teaching and making inexpensive plywood fishing boats for the poor.

Karen Reside, executive director of the Second Samoan Church's nonprofit culture and fundraising arm, discovered Ortquist through the Internet. He arrived in May. Perched on crutches to relieve pressure where his left foot was amputated after an industrial accident, Ortquist often spends 12 hours a day guiding the congregation.

On a recent occasion, he was in a church classroom surrounded by about 20 youths who traced colored chalk patterns using wood blocks they had carved. The patterns would be transferred onto fabric, which would be sewn into the colorful lava-lava, which is worn like a sarong.

"Sven tells us a story about the designs that we carve," said Julius Save, 14, as Ortquist leaned over him to offer a tip about shading and colors.

"I would be playing football if I weren't doing this," said David Laloulu, 14, who, like most of the children with long names, automatically spells his out.

His mother, Penny, 41, watched from the pastor's kitchen overlooking the churchyard. She was 3 when the 1966 hurricane hit American Samoa. But she only learned of Ortquist and the old ways in urban Long Beach.

"We are all learning something here," she said.

More information about Sven Ortquist:

gene carl feldman ( (301) 286-9428