Rolf Hougen stands with Harreson Tanner beside the bust of Sam Steele that he commissioned Chuck Buchanan to sculpt as part of the centennial RCMP celebration in 1992

What do Jack London, Martha Black, Pierre Berton and Ted Harrison have in common? They’ve all been commissioned by Rolf Hougen to be sculpted by Harreson Tanner to populate Whitehorse’s Main Street. This summer, Edith Josie will join them. 

Hougen and Tanner’s partnership began with the creation of the bust of Jack London. “I was so nervous at the unveiling,” Tanner said. “Dick North unveiled the work and at that point he was already two years older than God and a Yukon legend—it was very intimidating. “At the time I thought this was going to be a one-time thing, but then, three months later, I had an email from Rolf Hougen that said ‘another statue. Pierre Berton. Do you want to do it?’”

Unfortunately the bust of Berton did not go smoothly. “I had such a hard time with Berton,” said Tanner. “I’d always found him to be a bit arrogant which made him harder for me to sculpt. I worked from thousands of photos during the creation process and I had a number of artists visit me in the studio to offer advice—something that I will never do again.”

Tanner sent the finished sculpture off to the foundry to be bronzed. Then he had an alarming realization when the final piece arrived in Whitehorse. “I opened the box from the foundry and realized that the finished bronze didn’t look like Berton. It was so humiliating. When the work was unveiled on Main Street it felt like it took a full five minutes before anyone clapped.” Tanner decided that he had to create a second sculpture of Berton to replace the first.

“I decided I had to make it right. It was an ethical issue for me. Both Rolf Hougen and I were much happier with the second version.” At the same time, Hougen had Tanner create a bust of Ted Harrison.

“I was really excited to sculpt Ted Harrison,” said Tanner. “He was such an important artist for the Yukon and such a clever wit—I really admired him.”

The Ted Harrison bust was installed first. Soon after, “Pierre Berton II” was installed, but the crew doing the install made a bit of a mistake. Instead of replacing the first Pierre Berton sculpture with the second, they replaced Ted Harrison. Suddenly there were two busts of Pierre Berton on Main Street, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the local team of reporters at CBC. Eventually the crew sorted out who was supposed to be where and everyone was satisfied.

A while later, Duncan Sinclair had a friend visiting him and he took her to see the Main Street busts. She enjoyed the experience, but wondered at the lack of women portrayed in the artworks. Word of this got back to Hougen and it led to another email to Tanner. “He really took it to heart,” said Tanner. “Soon after he asked me to sculpt Martha Black.” 
Martha garnered some local CBC coverage of her own when she disappeared.

“I was in San Miguel, Mexico when my phone rang,” recalls Tanner. “it was CBC in Whitehorse and they asked me ‘where’s Martha Black?’ I laughed and said, ‘at Fourth and Main’ and they said, ‘no, she’s not.’”

A short email exchanged turned up the answer—she was sitting on Rolf Hougen’s desk. One of Hougen’s employees had noticed out his office window that the bust was hanging off its pedestal after someone had obviously tried to pull it from its mount. Hougen had Martha Black’s bust rescued from its precarious position and remounted. The newest member of Hougen’s commissions will take up residence on Main Street later this summer, just across from Martha Black. Edith Josie was a long-time writer at The Whitehorse Star. Her column, “Here are the news,” detailed life in Old Crow. Her bust will be unveiled later this summer.

“Josie was an absolute delight to sculpt,” said Tanner. “My wife and I lived in Old Crow for a period of time and that connection to the community made this a really special piece to create. Josie’s grave in Old Crow is revered and joyful. It’s always full of flowers and you can tell just by looking at it how much she meant to the community.”

They’re doing something special with Josie’s bust. The foundry has created two bronzes instead of one. One will be installed on Main Street, while the second goes to the John Tizya Centre in Old Crow. Old Crow’s version will be unveiled first, by Josie’s son, William. Air North is flying the bust to the community for free and Hougen and a family member will travel North to witness the unveiling. The Whitehorse Star will also take part in the ceremony, to create a video of the event that will be shown during the Whitehorse unveiling. Josie’s grandson will have the honour of unveiling the bust in Whitehorse.

“It’s been an interesting ride,” said Tanner of being sculptor to the Yukon stars. “People ask me how it happened and, to be honest, it was all a bit of a fluke. After all, who in this day and age has a patron? It has been a real honour as well though and a really delightful experience to sit with influential Yukoners and try and capture their spirit for others.”

Building a history

(by Danny Macdonald)

Rolf Hougen has spent his life preserving Yukon’s history. The passion to record the Yukon’s history has been a staple of Rolf Hougen’s whole life and has manifested itself in many ways. The old Hougen’s Building basement on Main Street now houses the Arts Underground and the Hougen’s Heritage Gallery, which displays special exhibits dedicated to the past. He’s recently bequeathed the Yukon Nuggets to MacBride Museum for posterity. (The Yukon Nuggets are short snippets of Yukon historical tales researched by Les McLaughlin and hosted on the Hougen’s Group of Companies website.)

Several years ago, he donated his entire collection of photographs to the Yukon Archives for safe-keeping. His collection includes over 40,000 images, including the original glass plates (negatives) from E.J. Hamacher, who lived to 1937 and photographed events from the Klondike Gold Rush until his death. (Hougen’s own collection started in his teens and covers events around the territory from 1945 onwards.)

But his patronage has provided Whitehorse with one iconic legacy, the beautiful hand-sculpted busts that remember some of the Yukon’s greats. These statues, which have become a marquee attraction for tourists and a mark of civic pride for residents, were not a new concept or idea for Hougen. In fact the whole collection has been decades in the making.

“It all started in my mind way back in 1955,” Hougen said during an interview. “Marg and I were on our honeymoon in Vienna, and I was so impressed with all these statues of musicians of the past. “They were all in a park, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to do something like this in the Yukon?’”

The inspiration rested for decades, until an opportunity presented itself in 1992, when the RCMP were celebrating their centennial year. Hougen approached the RCMP and commissioned Chuck Buchanan to sculpt the first bust, Sam Steele, for display on the RCMP grounds. According to Hougen, the next was Angela Sidney, one of the last Tagish-speaking people. That bust was originally located in the old Whiskey Flats, before being repatriated to near Main Street with the more recent ones.

Buchanan tragically passed away in 2013, having completed three busts. Hougen approached Harreson Tanner to take over the project for future installations and the rest is history. The subjects are selected by Hougen, from a criteria he has in the back of his mind, still there from the first kernel of his idea in 1955.

“What I have from the outset, with the exception of the first one of the RCMP, I’ve looked for writers, musicians and artists,” he said. “These are the most prominent, who are nationally and internationally known.”

Hougen notes there are others who have contributed enormously to the history of the territory with iconic books, or music, but he feels that those recognized for a bust need more than just one item. He’s recognizing artists with multiple contributions. Edith Josie’s bust is a special one, as it marks the first installed in Old Crow, which happened on Aug. 20.

“When we did Edith Josie, we thought we should maybe do something in Old Crow (in addition to one on Main Street),” he said. “We asked the people of Old Crow if they’d be excited to recognize her that way.” There was definitely support for that.

The Edith Josie bust was unveiled during a ceremony in Old Crow. Tammy Josie was shocked when the request was made to install Edith Josie’s bust in Old Crow.

“It took me by surprise,” she said. “I was speechless. Couldn’t be more thankful to Rolf Hougen.”

The bust honours Old Crow Gwich’in storyteller Edith Josie, who shared stories of everyday Gwich’in life in English, while retaining the stylings of her traditional language. Edith’s column in The Whitehorse Star, “Here are the News,” was syndicated and read around the world. The event was a special for residents Tammy noted.

“My auntie Jane gave the opening and closing prayers,” she said. “My dad, William, said words of thank you and so much gratitude.”

Tammy also said the connection with Old Crow extends to the sculpture artist himself. Harreson Tanner and his family lived in the community for a few years. Tammy said her family will travel to Whitehorse for the Main Street unveiling on Sept. 12.

“We’re coming down for the day,” Tammy said. “Might bring some caribou.”