SVEN ORTQUIST — PASSING ENDS AN ERA
It is impossible to imagine the Samoan art world without Sven Ortquist in it. He was not only the major Samoan artist of his generation; he was also the closest thing to a saint that I have ever known. His company was always a pleasure, his dedication to his art an inspiration. But there was something more that he just emanated—a sweetness and light and energy and joy in life that was contagious. His passing ends an era, an era of transition and exuberant invention in Samoan art.
Of my twenty years of memories of Sven—thirteen of which we were neighbors in Leone—perhaps the place to start is in the mid-90s, in one of his three wood carving shops at the Fatu o Aiga Catholic Church compound in Tafuna. In the midst of finished and half-finished Sven-carved statutes, piles of virgin Samoan hard woods, and drifts of wood chips, Sven is working with a chisel and mallet on one of the deep-relief Stations of the Cross for the new Cathedral of the Holy Family. This is the Sven we all knew, the Sven furiously, happily at work at yet another project, another artistic mission.
The name Sven Ortquist is not exactly the name a novelist would choose for a Samoan artist, but Sven was definitely a tama Samoa. His mother was Muimui Vale from Vailima. His father Gustav Adolph Ortquist came to Apia from his native Sweden as a young man to work as an accountant. Sven and his brothers and sisters grew up in Apia. His older brother John started Sven off as a carver while he was still a schoolboy. “John was one of those people who could do anything with his hands,” Sven told me. “He used to whittle drift wood, and I tried to outdo him.”
As an adolescent Sven contracted Hansen’s disease (leprosy), a life-long affliction that he somehow transformed into a positive shaping force of his courageous character. While in treatment for the disease, an American nun, Sister Columba, sent him a Boy Scout knife with a gauge, and Sven was off on a career that would occupy the rest of his life. “I loved to make wooden birds, and carve hands of soap,” Sven remembered.
The Catholic Church played an essential role in Sven’s career as an artist. At sixteen, a church hospital in Fiji commissioned his first major project—to turn a three-inch high Italian picture of St. Joseph the Worker into a life-size statue. It was a success.
“Every time I do something I think Polynesian,” Sven admitted. “I put a Samoan adze in his hand.” He was the first to “Samoanize” Christ. In a carving of “Christ as an Orator” for Cardinal Pio, he had Jesus dressed in a lavalava and holding a fue and to’oto’o.
Sven’s art works already graced many Catholic churches and chapels in Samoa when Bishop Quinn Weitzel asked him to take on the task of “Samoanizing” the new cathedral. Sven was involved in the project since the initial stages of architectural design. He taught himself the new craft of creating the molds for 20 concrete-cast panels and the pediments for the cathedral’s interior. He designed the stained glass windows. He conceived and carved a dozen traditional upeti panels and created life-size statues of the Holy Family. Even the cathedral’s altar is a Sven creation.
But the fourteen Stations of the Cross may be Sven’s most personal artistic contribution to the edifice. Each of the 27 x 18 inch deep-relief carvings are Sven’s interpretation of the feelings of Christ at the separate stages of his passion and death. And many of the stations prominently feature hands. The boy who loved to carve hands out of soap now could use that skill to express spiritual emotion.
The scope of Sven’s work, however, far exceeded his ecclesiastical creations. In addition to being a master carver of all the traditional Samoan wooden implements and objects—tanoa, lali, upeti, paopao—Sven was an experienced boat builder and carver of decorative posts for fale talimalo. He also illustrated books and painted murals—like the one that graces the front of the museum in Fagatogo—in his own distinctive and influential style. But perhaps his most significant contribution to Samoa decorative art are his storyboards.
Sven started “translating cultural things into carving” (as he put it) before he learned about the storyboard traditions of Micronesia and Melanesia. As a young man, sitting every morning with the elders around an ava bowl at Togafuafua, the Catholic compound in Apia, Sven would purposefully turn the conversation to some piece of old legend he had heard. “The old guys would argue it out, telling their different versions.” Then Sven would carve his version of the story. The results became a “legend house” with twenty separate legends translated into wood.
These storyboards, depicting Samoan scenes and myths, became a major expressive outlet for Sven. Many of them now hang in museums and private collections. Through his decades of work as Master Carver at the Jean P. Haydon Museum, through his workshops and classes, Sven passed on his skills and his vision to many younger carvers and artists, preserving Samoan motifs and methods while opening the possibilities of contemporary expression.
Before Sven there was no representation of human figures in Samoan art. Before Sven there was no perspective in Samoan art. Before Sven there was no narrative in Samoan art. Before Sven all Samoan art was decorative, symbolic, and non-representational. Sven changed all that even as he celebrated his beloved Samoan-ness. Along the way he was awarded the Consortium for Pacific Arts and Cultures’ Heritage Award and the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, but what really mattered to Sven was the piece at hand, the next project, the smell of the wood beneath his adze as it acceded to his vision.
And by God Sven was good company, the two of us sitting on the bench outside his work shed with a couple of cold Vailimas as the sun sank down toward Leone Bay, a day’s work done. Those amazing gnarled hands of his, his reckless smile, a conversation as easy as the breeze off the sea. I called him a saint at the start. The Church requires miracles to establish sainthood. I give you his works of precision and genius, three of which I have here in my home, more treasured now, reliquary works of those amazing hands.
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