Likely we will never know what happened to the winner of the 1958 UBC Provincial Competition for sculpture. The piece, named Madonna of the Cedars, for some years in the early to mid-1960’s welcomed visitors to International House on the University of British Columbia campus.
While an undergrad of UBC at that time I was told the statue was the work of a Bella Coola resident. Upon visiting the piece I was suspicious that an error had been made as I knew we had distinguished carvers in Bella Coola who carved totem poles. Little did I know that beyond my valley a new form of “modern” art was exploding and one of our “boys” was taking awards in this field.
Alfred Edgar Carlsen was the carver’s name. Additional information provided at the university states Carlsen was born in Bella Coola in 1910 (and died in Prince George in 1986.) He trained as an economist but learned sculpting from Jan Zack, a Czech artist resident in Victoria.
The connection of the Madonna of the Cedars at UBC and my research at our own Central Coast Archives in Bella Coola left me wanting. Personal enquiries at International House five years ago were met with blank stares. Nobody seemed to know of Madonna’s existence. She was listed on the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery web site as belonging to the university but as one of the “sculptures no longer on the campus”.
About a year ago I was at a public reception when a very familiar UBC photo of Madonna was circulated. She had been found in a residential area of Vancouver, discarded. The individual who found the sculpture realized there was a connection with Bella Coola and was attempting to return it. Eventually it was received here on the condition that it would be displayed where the Bella Coola residents would be able to view it.
The end of September, a month ago, Madonna was on display at the Bella Coola Gallery in Hagensborg. The next day she was returned to the Belkin Gallery at UBC. How long she has been away from the university could be 50 years or less, and who removed her, was it the young men wearing the red jackets that hung a VW beetle under the Lions Gate Bridge about this time 45 years ago? Do you know?
The connection to Bella Coola goes back to 1894, when the first group of Norwegian speaking settlers took up land grants offered to them by the BC Government. Christian Carlsen, a resident of Washington State, joined the larger group coming from Minnesota and surrounding states. He and his bride Ovidia Baarli were the first couple of this group to marry. Alfred was their fifth son.
The family originally lived in the Nusatsum area where they developed a farm at what is now 3220 Hwy 20. Early on, because of employment opportunities, a second property was bought in the Necleetsconnay valley and a second farm developed. Christian was a Provincial Constable, Deputy Mining Inspector, Tax Collector and Justice of the Peace. The school in the old Townsite at the mouth of the Necleetsconnay River was said to be filled with Carlsen, Christensen and Brynildsen boys, a challenge for any beginning teacher!