Artist’s statues honor Indians in all 50 states
Indian Country Today
Number 27: A 43-foot, hand-carved Native American piece is a museum landmark in Desert Hot Springs, Calif.
Number 57: An 18-foot monument makes its home off a road in Astoria, Ore.
Prefer something closer to home? Wolf’s 10th statue is in Punta Gorda, where an Indian brave and maiden emerge from a dead tree stump measuring more than 20 feet high.
There are 73 statues that honor indigenous people. Even at age 61, he continues to plan for more.
Considering himself a tool, just like his hammer and chisel, Toth doesn’t like to talk about himself. He lets the statues speak for themselves.
“I am just a person trying to honor maligned people,” said Toth, who talks slowly, almost laboriously as he describes his purpose, with eyes closed behind tinted spectacles.
Back at home in Edgewater, where a sampling of small statues and carvings beckon visitors to his U.S. 1 gallery, the father of two teenage daughters works on some of his “insignificant little pieces.”
A chaotic, open-air, personal museum is dotted with wizards, fish, dolphins, dragons and historical pieces made from the same wood as his massive statues. Sales of these items supplement his “real work,” which is found everywhere else but here.
Toth’s mission to honor Native Americans and oppressed people began in 1971, taking him beyond the U.S. to Canada, and most recently to his native Hungary, where he carved a Whispering Giant along the Danube River last summer.
“I’ve worked for people that have faced injustice and it was always my dream to utilize my God-given talent to specifically help the American Indians, who I feel have been victims of injustice,” Toth said. “But my work goes way beyond the Native Americans; it’s centrally for humanity.”
He considers the atrocities American Indians have faced, such as the Trail of Tears – the more than 1,000-mile journey that about 100,000 were forced to make in the 1830s when they were removed from their ancestral homelands in the Deep South and resettled on reservation land in Oklahoma.
Born behind the Iron Curtain, he was one of 11 children raised in a dirt-floor peasant home. His father, who taught him about wood carving, farmed a family property until the communists stole it. By 1956, the Toths and 200,000 other Hungarians fled the country following the violent anti-communist uprising against Russian Soviet military forces.
Traveling by bus and train, they later crossed an icy swamp on foot into Yugoslavia, where they stayed in refugee camps. They relocated to Akron, Ohio, in 1958 when he was 11.
Toth’s passion and plan for the Whispering Giants were inspired by John F. Kennedy’s famous quote: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Using a modified van, nicknamed the Ghost Ship, Toth traveled the country, partnering with cities, parks departments, chambers of commerce and private individuals to make arrangements to erect the giant sculptures – with some logs weighing as much as 40,000 pounds. He accepted no government grants or compensation, but was occasionally assisted with living expenses and supported himself by selling smaller carvings.
“I don’t take any money for them,” he said. “I donate them to America.”
Using a hammer and chisel of varying sizes, Toth chipped into massive logs and stumps to bring the local Indian lore and legends alive. The statues, often confused with totem poles of the Pacific Northwest, are not meant to replicate Indian culture.
“I study each of the giant logs until I can visualize the Indian within and then, what I try to do is intertwine the spirit of the tree with the spirit of the Indian,” he said.
They are meant to be an interpretation and blend of all the Indian culture in the state, Toth said.
By 1988 he carved a Polynesian sculpture in Hawaii, completing his goal of a statue in every state after 17 years. His work is far from over.
Last year, he carved his first statue in Europe, of St. Stephan, who introduced Christianity to Hungary’s Magyar people and became its first king. He keeps a “mini statue” made from the same wood at his studio for those who can’t travel to see it.
Toth continues maintenance on the statues, most recently touching up the Indian head at Cabot’s Pueblo Museum in Desert Hot Springs, which he carved from a sequoia log in 1977.
The California Museum, a former home for the late artist and Indian art collector Cabot Yerxa, invited him in February. Perched on four-story scaffolding, Toth worked more than 10 hours a day. He added a preservative to the wood and installed a metal rod to help it withstand earthquakes. He also created new wrinkles to the face and added features to a medallion to better represent the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.
Visitors would offer to play chess with him at a picnic table nearby, but the artist would not rest, said Barbara Maron, vice president of the museum’s board of directors.
“Peter would be up on the scaffolding with a pair of binoculars and he would call down his moves,” she said. “He didn’t come down off the scaffolding. I see it as a metaphor for his life.”
The month-long restoration attracted more than 1,000 visitors – a record for the museum. Many had seen him carve the statue 32 years ago.
The project also reunited old friends. Fellow Hungarian Zoltan Cser, 49, who learned about wood sculpting from Toth when he was 17, joined Toth to revive the statue they both worked on in 1977.
“It was one of the greatest summers I’ve ever had,” said Cser, who calls himself Toth’s protege. “I was telling my wife and my kids, I got to relive that summer again.” Hundreds attended the rededication ceremony, where Richard Milanovich, chairman of the Agua Caliente tribe, spoke about the statue.
“He said Peter’s gift is his understanding of his fellow man, and his empathy,” said museum historian Maron.
Toth, who urged local officials to dedicate a day to honor local Indians, rather than himself, said the statue has a potential of lasting 1,000 years in desert weather.
Accomplishing heavy duty maintenance now is important while his health is good.
“I have to do all the heavy work now because I make my rounds once every 30 years,” he said. “By the time I come back again they may have to put a wheelchair ramp up there because I’ll be pushing 90.”
And statuesque plans to honor more indigenous people continue. He hopes to stage an expedition someday into the Amazon to create a statue for South American Indians.