St.Stephen - Délegyháza, Hungary
The carved wooden heads stand anywhere from 20 to 50 feet tall, and represent Native Americans indigenous to each of the 50 States. They are composites of the Indian people Peter Toth consulted before undertaking each sculpture. And he donated each of them to the locality in tribute to the Indians.
Peter Toth was one of 11 children, born on a peach farm some 20 miles outside Budapest, in 1947. His family left the country after the crushing of the Revolution and Freedom Fight of 1956. Peter watched his father whittle toys for his siblings in the refugee camp in Yugoslavia. That memory would become his inspiration later.
The family emigrated to the United States when Peter was 11, and settled in Akron, Ohio. His interest in Native American culture and history evolved into a very strong empathy towards this people who, like the Hungarians, were victims of injustice, and became refugees in their own country.
After school, he began work at a machine shop, but in 1971, decided to explore the United States, and headed west in a modified Dodge van. He completed his first monumental sculpture in a sandstone cliff in La Jolla, California, in 1972. When he returned to Ohio, he carved an Indian head in a dead elm tree in an Akron park. After its dedication, he decided to create a sculpture of a Native American in every State, to raise “the nation’s awareness as to the plight of the Indian.” He accepted no money for his creations, donating them as gifts to his adopted country.
Wandering across the country, south in the winter and north in the summer, Toth would stop when local officials gave him permission, or perhaps even invite him, to do one of his carvings. Then he would consult with the Indians of the area, study their physical images, and learn their history, to be as accurate as possible, before carving a composite. He used mainly hammer and chisel, mallet and ax. He and his wife (he married in 1977) lived by selling smaller carvings, and the income from his autobiography “Indian Giver”, published in 1980, also helped. Sometimes the local city government, parks department, chamber of commerce or individuals offered support by covering living expenses or providing materials he needed.
Although Toth studied art briefly, he is basically self-taught. Between 1972 and 1988, he completed 58 statues, one in every State, while several States (California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Tennessee) have more than one. Since Hawaii has no Native Americans, his statue in that State represents a Polynesian. There are also two of his statues in Canada. In appreciation of his work, the Chippewa tribe of Wisconsin gave Peter Toth the name “Wolf”, which he proudly uses.
His series of monumental sculptures has been dubbed the “Trail of the Whispering Giants”. One explanation is that the mouth of each sculpture is slightly open, as if whispering. Another, and perhaps more likely reason, is that each is intended to convey a message. That is why Toth strenuously objects to calling his carvings “totem poles.” He gave many of the statues Indian names.
Peter Wolf Toth has been quoted in The Boston Globe as saying, “I wanted to help their (the Native Americans’) cause by using my God-given talents as an artist. Creating a statue in their likeness is my way of bringing awareness to the difficulties they have always faced.”
Many of Toth’s “Whispering Giants” have been the objects of GeoCaching, a new tech game that uses a global positioning satellite device to locate places, objects and “caches” of hidden objects to trade. People vie with each other to see who can visit and photograph the most.
Not all of his sculptures have endured the vicissitudes of time or the weather. For example, the Connecticut statue at Groton is in storage, as is the one in New Orleans, LA, waiting for donors to help in restoration. The one in Fort Wayne, IN, is gone, due to termite damage. The one in Osceola, IA, was damaged beyond repair, but it was replaced by Jesse Kuhs and dedicated in 1993. The one in St. Louis, MO is gone due to lightning damage. The one in Atlantic City, NJ is gone, as is the one in Texarkana, TX. The Aberdeen, SD sculpture has been moved indoors for repair, but may be viewed by appointment.
All this keeps Florida resident Peter Wolf Toth busy, carving new statues and repairing existing ones. And he has mentioned the possibility of statues in Mexico, China and Japan.
But he has not forgotten his Hungarian origins. In June 2008, he finished a head of St. Stephen of Hungary, for the town of Délegyháza, 20 miles from Budapest. It is his 73rd monumental sculpture, and his first on the European continent. He has also been quoted as considering a sculpture of St. László in the future.
Erika Papp Faber is a member of the Magyar News Online editorial board, and author of “Our Mother’s Tears: ten weeping Madonnas in historic Hungary”, as well as its Hungarian version: “Égi Édesanyánk könnyei: tizenkét könnyező Mária-kép a Kárpát-medencében”. Both are available through Magyar News Online, P.O. Box 110514, Trumbull, CT 06611.