In Native American legend, before the earth was created, there was only water where all of the creatures lived and an island in the sky for the people. When one of the sky people fell through a hole one day and plummeted toward the water, they were saved by a turtle who offered to build a surface of land on his back. This creation story is the reason why many Native Americans call North America “Turtle Island” and is also the inspiration behind local artist Tom Huff’s sculpture featured in the Nashua International Sculpture Symposium in New Hampshire.
The theme at this year’s symposium was “origins,” featuring the turtle and how it can be interpreted in different ways based on the heritage of the artists creating it. Three artists, Huff, Michael Argouges and Hassan Kamel, were invited to carve their depiction of the subject out of a block of granite, using their diverse backgrounds as the inspiration guiding their work. Huff channeled his Seneca and Cayuga heritage for his creation of the sculpture “Turtle Island.”
Huff was recommended to Symposium by Laura Fragua of The Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., who was familiar with Huff’s appreciation of turtles. By comparison, “Turtle Island” was the most realistic out of the three sculptures, with the head and shell carved out as the most recognizable and distinct characteristics of the turtle.
“In its simplest form it is also the most powerful,” noted Huff, since the animal itself has such an impact on Native American culture there was no need to alter the appearance too much. For this artist, the most challenging part was not finding inspiration for the sculpture, but rather dealing with the hard granite material itself given to them at the symposium. “The thing about granite is that it’s a lot of machine work and I mainly do my work by hand,” Huff noted. “Working exclusively with machines, saws and grinders and stuff, sort of took the intimacy and personal side out of it.”
The other two artists went with a more abstract vision for their pieces. Argouges referred to the history of France and their war technique of covering their heads with shields that resembled a turtle shell. The name of his piece is “La Tortue,” French for the Caribbean island of Tortuga. For Egyptian Kamel, the turtle represents darkness, and for him evokes the underworld. This earthly feeling led him to sculpt “Ascending Egyptian Turtle,” which depicts a vertically posed turtle lifting toward the sky, the opposite of the underworld/reality.
Since 2008, artists have been invited to the International Sculpture Symposium for three weeks while preparing their outdoor public art displays for Nashua, thanks to generous community donations. Huff said he is honored to have been a part of such a rewarding celebration, and thanks Symposium director John Weidman, as well as everyone else he had the pleasure of working with.
All three of these sculptures are installed permanently in Bicentennial Park near the Main Street bridge for the city.