Pioneer Square, once an important fishing site for Coast Salish tribes, will next year welcome a new mixed-use building including seven floors of affordable housing for Native Americans, and a towering welcome figure to be designed by Squaxin Island Tribe member Andrea Wilbur-Sigo.
The mixed-use development, ?al?al, will also have gallery space and a clinic, and art from Native artists throughout the country. Upon its completion, the space will house $850,000 in Native-made art.
Artist and carver Wilbur-Sigo’s welcome figure is currently in progress, as she makes design choices and sources materials. But her concept has been clear from the beginning.
“When I found out about the opportunity, and that I was going to be interviewed for it, of course, I immediately got excited and started thinking, and when I did find out I actually got the job to do it, all I could think about is a very large woman welcome figure,” she said.
How large? Twenty-five feet tall, said Wilbur-Sigo. The base will be about 4 feet across.
“And because she’s so large, she’s going to have a shoulder span of approximately 7 feet,” said the artist. “It’s huge. I mean, huge, huge … her shoulders and her arms will be actually put on separately, because there’s no way you can find a log that big.”
Wilbur-Sigo’s welcome figure will reflect the roots and stories of the Coast Salish people, “but at the same time, bring a new story to her.”
To source logs, the carver has been “on the phone nonstop with the mills since the minute they said it’s a go.” Another tribe is also helping her look.
Wilbur-Sigo anticipates joining four separate logs together. Though she initially hoped to use a single log for the project, it is challenging to source one large enough to fit the scale of the project. “These are the things that we have to deal with now that we once didn’t have to,” she said. “And so it only shows that we as people have adapted and are continuing to adapt to new ideas, new ways of doing things, and proof that we’re just a living culture that continues to grow.”
Once complete, it will be well worth it. “She’s going to be absolutely stunning,” the carver said.
Adaptation is something Wilbur-Sigo is used to when it comes to her work. “I always tell people, somebody documented somewhere along the line that women didn’t carve,” she said. “I come from very stubborn women. I know that somewhere along there, I had probably a grandma that was a carver. I may not be able to document it. But also, I know what’s in me. I watch my kids, I watch myself, I watch my family, and I’m like, nope, nope … our entire family thinks outside the box. That’s what we do.”
Wilbur-Sigo grew up in a family of artists, and is currently raising one of her own. She’s been able to trace her family’s carving lineage back nine generations. Both her grandfathers were carvers. Her father, she said, has been carving full time for about 40 years, and she recalled her mother’s projects as a seamstress when Wilbur-Sigo was a young child. “She designed puppets that went along with all of our legends,” said Wilbur-Sigo.
Then, when Wilbur-Sigo was about 14 years old, she said, her mother suffered an injury that would lead her to carving, too. “Us kids were cooking fry bread and it caught on fire,” said Wilbur-Sigo, “so she took the pan to go outside” and “they wanted to amputate her hand because the burn was so bad. And she said ‘I can’t, I’m an artist.’ And so she started carving, because you have to grip your knife … she’d already been carving prior to that but that’s when she actually started really carving and never has quit.”
Carving allowed Wilbur-Sigo’s mother to exercise her hand enough that she was able to keep it.
Wilbur-Sigo herself did beadwork as a child, starting from age 3, and was selling her work by age 8. She recalled exhibiting her work at The Evergreen State College. At 13, she did her first carving project with her father.
Welcome figures like the one she is constructing are often human forms with arms outstretched in welcome, “made to overlook, protect its surrounding areas,” said Wilbur-Sigo.
Welcome figures also shouldn’t be confused with story poles or totem poles, said Wilbur-Sigo. Though you may see totem poles around Seattle, they are a tradition of northern tribes in what is now Canada and Alaska — beautiful, said Wilbur-Sigo, but “it’s not from here.”
But, she said, art can help educate people about the provenance of these objects and ideas. “[W]hen I say educate, it’s just letting people know, this is who we are. This is what we do. And this is what represents us, not that totem that’s down in Pike Place or wherever,” she said. “This is who we are, and it’s so exciting to see it happen, because 20 years ago, the galleries were not ready for this … they told me, ‘Coast Salish art is … not sellable.’”
Wilbur-Sigo hopes that her work will fill in knowledge gaps about Washington’s Coast Salish people, and that it can be a unifying force.
“With everything going on, I hope that just brings people together,” she said. “You know, that’s what it’s meant to do.”
She also sees her work as a way of telling stories for future generations. Wilbur-Sigo notes that like her ancestors, her children are all artists, too.
“In just the last 12 months, look at all the change that we all went through,” she said. “Fifty years from now my grandkids are going to need to know a story of what happened today, and this is exactly what I’m trying to do, is tell the story of not only our past, not only our present, but then there’ll be future stories, too.”