In the Native American spirit board canoe ceremony, a shaman would gather wood panels into the shape of the watercraft and "navigate" into the land of the dead to retrieve the lost soul of an ill or troubled tribal...
IN THE NATIVE AMERICAN spirit board canoe ceremony, a shaman would gather wood panels into the shape of the watercraft and “navigate” into the land of the dead to retrieve the lost soul of an ill or troubled tribal member. In Marvin Oliver’s world, the tradition becomes a metaphor made of glass — thick and muscular, polished and vibrant.
His is splashed with colors, mainly a deep blue at the bottom before transforming into patches of green and red toward the top of its curled tip. It stands upright on a clear-glass cube of a pedestal, which holds a grainy black-and-white photograph of telephone poles and wires. They signify reaching out, transporting ideas and learning. It ties the past to the present and hints about the path ahead, a central theme in his art.
Images of ravens, green, red, yellow, black, are fused into the glass, as if frozen in flight on the four-foot sculpture, one of Oliver’s “Transporter” series. In one version, a bronze raven stands nearby with a salmonberry twig in its mouth. The creatures are ubiquitous in Native American lore and in his work. They’re guides into the unknown.
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“My voyage is one of the unknown,” he says with the same matter-of-fact tone he uses to describe the step-by-step mechanics of cutting and fusing glass. “Every time you do something, it is taking you somewhere. My vehicle is art. It takes me to the dark side, which is not the bad side. It’s just the unknown. I don’t know what’s out there yet, but I’ll find out.”
For Oliver, of Quinault and Isleta-Pueblo heritage, everything is a journey, and the journey is everything. Almost lost in the images of the glass spirit canoe is a faint figure. That’s his power spirit, also along for the ride. We all have one. It’s what enables us to accept and learn from the unknown, he says.
At 60, Oliver’s journey has led him to this: renowned nationally, an influential figure in contemporary Native American art and a trailblazer in both techniques and applications in glass — compelling pieces that merge audacious interpretation with homage to tradition. In fact, he has gotten bolder as he’s aged, experimenting with material, ideas and scale while producing a healthy body of public art.
His work has evolved from line-drawing and painting to silk-screening to wood-carving to totems, masks and helmets, and now to pieces of bronze and glass imagery. It gets as small as greeting cards and as monumental as the 30-foot bronze orca fin being cast for Seattle’s Italian sister city, Perugia — the first time a non-Italian has been commissioned for public art there.
On top of his art resume, he is a longtime University of Washington instructor of Northwest Native American art and carving, an associate curator at the university’s Burke Museum, and a gallery owner in Ketchikan.
“Marvin is energy personified; his brain works 24/7, and he has incredible curiosity,” says Rebecca Blanchard, co-owner of Seattle’s Stonington Gallery, which celebrated contemporary Coast Salish artists a few years ago in an expansive show. “So many people are hesitant to change. He loves it.”
That in-transit place, between the then and now, roots and modern life, the gravity of tradition and the emotion of contemporary art best defines who he is and what he is trying to say. He can’t keep doing the same thing, he says, because he’s too curious. And he is too ambitious to be kept in a category.
“Tradition is my foundation. I will never lose that,” he explains. “But I don’t see this as Native art. It is art that happens to have been made by a Native.”
AS HE SET OUT on his journey, he got bearings from his parents, Emmett and Georgia Oliver. Married some 60 years before Georgia’s death, both were professional educators. But each taught their son different lessons.
Inside Oliver’s Seattle home, amid his art and the debris of toys left strewn by his 1-year-old twins, is an enclosed case holding clay pots. They belonged to his mother, handed down from the pueblos of New Mexico. He pulls out a bean pot and rubs his hands across the fine grit of its surface. He smiles, feeling the blend of art, function and tradition. Georgia liked to take him and his brother and sister to watch those potters in their family.
Emmett, who lives along Hood Canal now, was a dynamo who dedicated much of his life to helping Native Americans get equal access and the tools to succeed within the larger culture. After a stint as an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, he turned to teaching and then education administration, eventually becoming this state’s first Supervisor of Indian Education. He did it all without turning his back on his Quinault roots. When he created “Paddle to Seattle” in 1989 as part of the state’s centennial celebration, he rekindled annual tribal canoe ceremonies that have taken place each year since.
The family moved from Shelton to the Bay Area when Marvin was in the third grade. He gravitated toward art and drafting early in high school, impressed more by hands-on lessons than theory, and eventually set his sights on becoming an architect.
That dream ended in a way strange enough to reflect the late ’60s: While protecting a doughnut shop as a National Guardsman during the Berkeley, Calif., riots. He had joined the guard to avoid the Vietnam War draft and was hoping to get into architecture school at the University of California. But as he chatted with students in front of the shop, one told him architecture school demanded years of theory work before they let you build anything.
So Oliver enrolled in San Francisco State as an art major and studied painting, drawing and lithography under renowned realists. He painted replicas of weathering billboards.
In 1969, a year before graduation, his journey took the biggest detour of all. Emmett helped lead a Native American takeover of Alcatraz and the abandoned federal prison there to protest broken promises and demand equal opportunity. The group hunkered down on the island for 19 months. Marvin didn’t stay long, but it was long enough to get a feel for no electricity or running water.
“They asked me what I’m going to do for the cause. How about sweeping up?” he recalls. “I was caught off-guard. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t do anything. I said I’m out of here. I’m not going to sweep. They looked at me like I wasn’t interested. I told them, I want to go out there and do something more.”
But what could he do? For starters, reproducing frayed Bay Area billboards wasn’t holding his attention. He decided he wanted to keep Native American art alive by teaching it. His father arranged for him to meet an old friend, Bill Holm, an expert on Northwest Coast Native art who was teaching at the UW. Georgia said of Holm at the time, “He’s a white guy, but he’s more Indian than most Indians.”
With Holm’s help, Oliver designed his own master’s program, learning about Native American art from Holm and fine art from the acclaimed African-American artist Jacob Lawrence. Through seminars and ceremonies at Camp Nor’wester on Lopez Island, Holm opened Oliver’s eyes.
“I kind of resented that comment about him being ‘more Indian’ and told myself no white guy was going to teach me about Native art — until I met him,” Oliver recalls. “It was his undying sensitivity to Northwest Coast art and his respectful approach. I wanted to teach Northwest Native art like him because there were way too few people doing it.”
By 1973, Oliver had his master’s of fine art in Northwest Coast art and art history. The next year, he was teaching at the UW and community colleges around the area. He thought he should be an artist, like Holm, if he wanted to be a great teacher, too. So he promptly became an artist. Holm, a traditionalist known for his totem carvings, says Oliver started with the better-understood classic Northwest art style, but moved closer to his roots by honing in on the Coast Salish style.
Today, Oliver’s art has evolved into an amalgam of undefined tribal images and his own imagination for a feel that is Native but not exclusively so. In fact, his bright colors are more evocative of Southwest art.
There are some who feel Native Americans should stay traditional or at least more faithful to it, but Oliver says innovation is the tradition of his people and of their art.
That’s seconded by Seattle architect Johnpaul Jones, also a Native American, who met Oliver in the ’70s.
“The Indian people have had to adapt,” says Jones, “and he takes that approach to his art.”
IF OLIVER WERE a sculpture you might consider him unfinished. His wiry black and gray-fringed hair swoops from his hairline back to his shoulders. His shirttails dangle. His style is comfort, not presentation. He can strike you as a bit distracted, because he often is. He laughs easily and squints — cringes, actually — when he makes fun of himself or confesses a youthful transgression. It’s a façade that masks a confident, ambitious man who admits there is so much he doesn’t know, but not much he can’t figure out eventually.
Next time you go into the Whale Wing at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center, take a moment to regard the glass-and-steel orca suspended between the fourth and sixth floors. It melds six tons of glass and steel into a 26-foot-long, 18-foot-tall package of mother and child. It’s an impressive achievement that caused minor lore shortly after it was hung this year when a mute, autistic boy looked at it and uttered, “Whale.”
But it also was a hard project for engineers, builders and administrators charged with the details of managing a schedule and a budget, and ensuring that the hanging piece withstands an earthquake. Some who have worked with Oliver complain he can be so ambitious and consumed with possibilities that deadlines and limits can get obscured. Oliver replies that he, too, was hostage to schedules and details, and that the tension between artist and production is inevitable. Collaboration eventually won.
“I never consider anything a failure, and I never use that word around my kids or students,” he says. “You learn from the things that don’t go just right. It’s the present, soon to be past, that helps your future. ‘Comfort’ is worse than ‘failure.’ “
Inside a display case at the Burke Museum, there is a photograph of a young, short-haired Oliver working on designs at a computer terminal. He is believed to be the first Northwest Native American artist to incorporate computer graphics into his art. He also was among the first of the contemporary Coast Salish artists to embrace glass. The contemporary Coast Salish art-glass scene thrives with artists using non-traditional materials to interpret their visions. Seattle’s Preston Singletary is one of the more accomplished. He sought out Oliver when he was beginning to research traditional forms and design techniques and sat in on some of his UW carving classes.
“Marvin has incredible energy,” Singletary says. “He’s prolific, and he’s always pushing the limits of scale. He’s very cutting-edge in terms of concept and use of materials.”
Oliver’s big ideas can be time-consuming, costly and, like the whale project, stressful. He employs top gaffers like Richard Royal and Eric Wahl and their crew to blow glass. He is the designer, but they are the artisans. Glass, especially the way Oliver does it, is a group process.
“I don’t know the limit yet, because they always say they can do it,” he says. “I once told Richard, ‘I got this idea, but you guys can’t do that,’ and he said, ‘I will tell you when we can’t do something.’ “
He recently had the men make thick, cylindrical pieces about three feet long. They were the cores for his “Cores of the Earth” series. Each contained sandblasted petroglyph images and an industrial frame he had manufactured to hold each illuminated piece. A raven, always with the answers, stood atop one. He imagined it as something pulled from the Columbia River and revealing stories from a different time. It spoke to one of his recurring themes: merging the past, present and future — that journey — but he didn’t think anyone else would get it. Whether they did or not, it won “Best of Sculpture” during the annual Indian Market in Santa Fe this past summer.
The Blue Mountain Fine Arts foundry in Eastern Oregon, meanwhile, is casting the Perugia-bound orca fin. The fin is scheduled to be unveiled at a June festival in the central Italian city. Oliver says the mayor told him the fin is the first non-Italian sculpture commission in the city’s history, and that Perugians consider themselves true native Italians. In that vein, Oliver hopes to bring other Native American artists with him and join in a salmon bake with Perugians.
Each monumental project contains surprises and headaches, and he expects the Perugia project to be no different. Still, he is ecstatic to know that one of his pieces, one that celebrates his people, will stand at the entrance to a city of classic architecture and history. In fact, he practically shouts, “You should see the spot they gave me!”
THERE IS ART to unpack from a trailer outside, and toys cluttering the front-porch steps. Oliver has to meet with a representative of the Seattle-Perugia Sister City Association as well as with an architect coming over to discuss a hotel he wants to build in Alaska. But he sips the last of his coffee and regards his spirit canoe sculpture, sitting on the edge of the dining-room table and dwarfing mom’s old bean pot.
It’s the power figure, fused in glass, he’s focused on. Everyone has a spirit guide. Some call it the self, and it accompanies you on the journey, which some call life. The power figure helps you take on challenges the future springs.
Each piece he makes is as personal as it is experimental, and it’s hard to imagine he could do it without his wife, Brigette. She not only takes the lead in caring for the twins and their precocious 7-year-old, Owen. She also manages his business, paying and collecting bills, writing grants, shopping his work. He marches to his own drummer, but she keeps the beat.
She took his UW carving class in 1987 and asked to wholesale his prints in Ketchikan, her hometown. He said yes and she said yes when he asked her to marry him soon after. They spend their summers there now to operate the gallery. She believes in him and his art to such a degree that she invariably gets teary when she tries to talk about it.
Each spring, the couple spends weeks preparing original framed prints for the June “Raven’s Feast” at Daybreak Star Cultural Center in Seattle’s Discovery Park. A bit of a potlatch — sharing good fortune with the community, giving those who worked hard a chance to shine, and thanking those who helped them — it’s a tradition he started about 20 years ago to honor Native American graduates of the UW. After his family, he considers it the most important thing in his life.
The first year, he produced a two-tone print for about 13 students. Now, he does 15 colors and the celebration draws about 500, including family and friends.
“It continues my journey,” he says, moving his right hand not on a line but in a slow circle on the table before him. “It reflects on my parents, my values, Alcatraz and all that I’ve learned and experienced in my life.
“When I got off Alcatraz I went back to school and graduated. There weren’t many of us Natives doing that at the time. Many were sacrificing their time on the rock. When I started teaching at the university we had a small number of Native American students, and I thought we needed to honor them. We need to find a way to honor those who stayed on the rock, too, but this is a way to celebrate the ones who picked up the broom.”
Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at email@example.com. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.