VICTOR – Totem poles tell a story, whether it’s the story of an indigenous people or, in more modern times, someone’s imagination. Either way, making them is a labor of love and true artistry.
In this week’s Montana Made feature, Justine Stewart takes us to the Bitterroot Valley where George Gulli is bringing people’s dreams to life.
This is the start of what will become an intricate, colorful and magnificent work of art.
Gulli is a second generation carver whose talent for hand carved wood creations has taken his business to new heights.
It started out humbly enough, learning the trade from his father who had been a woodcarver for years.
”When I was 26 I got to thinking… what a shame I never asked my father to really teach me at least to know how to do it or maybe it would work into something or maybe not,” said Gulli. “But, all this knowledge that he has… what if I just never learned it. I got to thinking this might be something I’d be good at and I was just open to learn. So, I finally went to him and I said, ‘Dad, I really want you to teach me.’”
And it’s a good thing he did.
Gulli’s work is so good it’s earned him an international reputation as a skilled carver.
“Eventually I started to get a specialized customer,” he said. “First, we were doing things that were reasonably affordable and then some special orders but it started to get that I was getting a list of clients that wanted something special so that kind of changed things around. Do I continue going into volume or do I specialize into something I really more would enjoy doing?”
As his focus changed, so did the product to totem poles, which are hard to miss if you’re driving on Highway 93 in Victor.
Hard at work in his studio, Gulli spends countless hours bringing his customers dreams to life.
“I have a connection with my customers and it’s both a memorable experience for me as them and we’ll be talking and really get to know them, what their interests are, what they really want,” Gulli said. “Things that they have in their imagination and they are looking for someone who can put this together and so, I’ll do that for them.”
Which takes some time as there is a waiting list which can be anywhere from six months to a year.
“Less customers but better work,” Gulli said.
Each piece is unique and you can’t rush perfection.
“There’s a lot of things to bring beauty to art and it’s not just getting the detail but it’s bringing a feeling and meaning to it,” he said.
Gulli said most of his work goes to resorts, upscale property owners, and businesses.
But not always. Some of it stays local.
“I’ll get people from the Bitterroot Valley and they will be, maybe, into their senior years and they go, ‘You know, I’ve been putting this money away and I’m getting at the end of my life and what am I going to do, wait until I’m 80 years old to spend it? We’ve always wanted one of your works of art or totem poles and they get a reasonably priced totem pole,’” said Gulli.
When asked if he had any favorite pieces, Gulli said it would be too hard to choose. He’s made so many and spent so much time on each piece that they are all special.
And what makes it even better is seeing his customers reaction to the finished product.
“I’m not just selling something to put in my pocket,” Gulli said. “I’m selling an experience and a moment of joy.”
Click here to visit the company’s website.
Reporting by Justine Stewart for MTN News