Peter Toth Has Heads-Up Works in Every State, So Canada Is Next
"The reason I've made these statues isn't to make anybody feel guilty," the artist is quick to explain. "I'm hoping they will be seen as my way of honoring people who have been dishonored too long. That's my goal."
His recently completed Hawaiian work was created where it stands, on the North Shore of Oahu. Working in subtropical heat every day for 55 days, Toth brought forth from a huge 16-ton Douglas fir log—donated by Weyerhaeuser and shipped from Oregon because no local tree of sufficient size was available—a 23-foot image representing the islands' natives. As he has for each of his statues, Toth carefully researched the facial characteristics of the indigenous people in order to create an accurate composite. He also required, as he always does, that a fitting and permanent pedestal be supplied locally and that the cost of maintaining and protecting the statue be assumed by the community.
The biggest contribution, of course, is Toth's labor, which is considerable. He worked for six months on a statue in Valdez, Alaska, in subzero cold in Delaware, and during a two-week heat wave in Lincoln, Nebr., where the temperature reached 105°F. He has no complaints. Whenever he is up on a scaffolding, Toth says, "I feel closer to nature and the Great Spirit."
Though his feat is impressive, Toth's work has received little critical attention. "My statues are not necessarily loved by everybody," he concedes. "But I don't recall anybody ever saying, 'I don't like it.' " His subjects definitely admire his work: The Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin gave him the name Wolf out of gratitude.
Toth learned wood carving as a boy while his family was living in Yugoslavia, in exile from their Hungarian homeland after the Soviets crushed the 1956 uprising there. "I watched my father carving toys for the family," says Toth. "He didn't regard himself as an artist, but I was inspired by his work." Later, even before the family immigrated to Akron, Ohio, in 1958, when Toth was 11, he began reading about the trials of the American Indians and was moved by the parallels with his personal history. "The Indians were made refugees in their own country," he says. "Because of my background, I know how they suffered."
At the age of 24, in 1971, Toth quit a hated full-time job in an Akron machine shop and set off to explore U.S. in a battered van. Over the next year the idea of a carved tribute to the Indians germinated. Finally, on a drive up the West Coast from La Jolla to San Francisco, he hit on the notion of a series of carvings. Toth immediately returned to Akron to make the first of his statues, chiseled into a dead elm tree in a local park. When it was dedicated, he knew he had found his calling and vowed to put at least one such memorial in each of the 50 states.
Along the way, Toth and his wife, Kathy, whom he wed in 1977, say they have scraped by on an income of about $10,000 a year, mostly from sales of some smaller wood carvings and Toth's semiautobiographical book, Indian Giver. "We're not like average people," boasts the artist. Still, living in a tiny trailer at the site of each of her spouse's works-in-progress has proved a little too atypical for Kathy, an ex-secretary who met Toth while he was carving a Whispering Giant In her home state of Illinois in 1975. Spending most of her time making arrangements for their next stopover, she has been an invaluable assistant, allowing her husband to concentrate fully on the head at hand. But the nomadic life was lonely for her and hard on their marriage. "Kathy needed stability and some quiet time," says Toth. "More than once over the years she told me she wanted to leave me, that this life was too tough." Having stuck out the completion of Toth's 50-state Trail, she looked forward to a bit of tranquillity. "Hawaii is over," she said last spring. "Now it's my turn." With that, the Toths headed back to Illinois, for a five-week stopover in a farmhouse owned by Kathy's family.
But Toth is by nature a wanderer, and he and Kathy—pregnant with their first child, due in January—have moved on again to North Bay, Ont., where Toth has begun work on a Canadian Trail. He has vague plans for a Mexican version around the year 2000. "I feel the Great Spirit is pushing me to make these sculptures," says Toth, explaining his messianic zeal. "I feel this is my niche in life, my destiny. I feel that in spirit, I am an Indian. I'm 40 now. I have to go on while the old body holds together. There's a good chance I'm going to be doing this for the rest of my life."