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Henry Nolla’s Legacy In Tofino
The late Henry Nolla is seen working on this carving inside his carving shed on Chesterman Beach.
By Jacqueline Windh
Recently, a group of old-time Tofino locals gathered at Roy Henry Vickers’s gallery to honour someone who had affected them deeply and personally.
Henry Nolla – master carver, teacher and mentor, beloved father, and dear friend to so many – passed away in September 2004. In his time here, he touched so many of us.
But Henry Nolla’s sphere of influence is far greater than just the lucky few who knew him personally because Henry has touched almost everyone who has ever set foot in Tofino – whether they realize it or not.
Henry arrived here, with a long trailing beard, at the height of the hippy era, but he always insisted that he was not a hippy.
“I was too old to be a hippy,” he told me many years later. “I was already in my thirties.” When Henry first arrived here, he worked on repairing wooden boats at Wingen’s boat shop – now long gone.
During the ’70s he shared a house with some friends. Finally pushed to the limit by room-mates who refused to wash their dishes, one day Henry threw all of the plates into the forest and carved each person an individual bowl.
“You can wash your own bowl and hang it up, or you can just hang it up,” he told them. And thus, a carver was born.
Around 1980, First Nations artist Roy Vickers came to town in search of this carver whom he had heard so much about.
The two soon struck up a friendship and working partnership that would endure for decades.
Vickers’s Eagle Aerie Gallery became the first location, of many, that owes its splendour to Henry’s talents.
Henry and Roy worked together on the giant raven posts that support the longhouse’s interior beams, and Henry himself carved most of the facade of the building on his own. Henry’s first large work here is one of Tofino’s most recognized showpieces.
Following that, Henry was asked to design and carve Tofino’s “Welcome” sign. Unfortunately, his spelling in English was not so good.
Henry had grown up in Europe, to a Spanish father and Swedish mother, so English was his third language.
It was only after he had completed the “Wellcome” sign that someone pointed out his error – so he carved the whole sign over again.
How many thousands of visitors have paused for a photo here, at the sign which stands today in the Village Green at the corner of Campbell and Third?
Henry’s influence also hangs directly over us at the town’s central meeting place. Common Loaf Bakery owner Maureen Fraser was a longtime friend of Henry. In her old bakery, back in the 1980s, she had a well-loved wooden bowl that Henry had carved. When it came time to shift location, she asked him to carve the interior of the new building, and he hand-adzed the poles and beams at the new Common Loaf. Henry also helped the Tla-o-qui-aht Martin family carve the two totem poles that stand in Opitsaht village, across the harbour from Tofino – the first totem poles raised there in well over a century.
Back on north Chesterman's Beach, where Henry lived for nearly 30 years (first as a squatter and then as a caretaker for the McDiarmid family), Henry’s work gives the Wickaninnish Inn the trademark “rustic elegance” that has won it awards world-wide. Henry, working with assistants including his son Mark, adzed the massive red cedar posts and beams that dominate the entranceways, and carved the two yellow-cedar entrance doors, inlaid with abalone: the twin eagles at the original Pointe building, and the orca at the new Beach building.
All of these carvings, which are part of Henry Nolla’s physical legacy in this town, can be visited by anyone. But Henry’s legacy is far greater than just his carvings. Tiny Tofino boasts a large number of talented working wood-carvers – and few of them could say that they did not receive something from Henry. For some, it was those little things that made all the difference –a bit of advice, or borrowing some special tool. Others apprenticed with him for years. Henry was always there, for everyone, with both his door and his heart wide open. His magic will continue to live on in the future works of these artists.
Henry’s old carving shed is still an active working studio, kept up by the Wickaninnish Inn and open to visitors. The artwork that Roy Vickers unveiled to Henry’s friends last month is a silkscreen print of the view out to sea from this place that Henry knew and loved so much.
The Wick’s managing director Charles McDiarmid remembers Henry as a gentle soul. “He was a man who lived easy on the land, and on those who knew him. He had never a harsh word for anyone, and was always someone who looked for the good in every person he met on his journey through life.”
Sorely and always missed...but never, ever, to be forgotten.