“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.”
In a world so often scattered and divided, Marvin Oliver seemed to embrace it all.
His boundary-breaking body of work includes grand sculptures, vibrant prints and intricate glasswork. The textures and tones of his favored materials — cedar, bronze, steel, glass, ink and paper — all rendered into breathtaking works of art.
Oliver’s work helped redefine and elevate Northwest Coast and Native American Contemporary Fine Art around the world. It reflected his Quinault and Isleta-Pueblo heritage, his singular vision, artistic training and decades spent cultivating his craft. Many of his works have become treasured features of our region’s cultural landscape. They will continue to inspire audiences and influence artists long after his death Wednesday.
But Oliver also leaves a more personal legacy — an indelible imprint on our region and on the many lives he touched. Those who knew him describe a man wholly devoted to family and community. A man whose life was a model not only of artistic exploration but also of joyful generosity. As his wife, Brigette Ellis, described him to a reporter, a “very happy, open, loving, creative, compassionate man.”
“He had all these grand ideas,” said glass artist Preston Singletary, who counted Oliver as a mentor and friend. “He was amazing. He was so inclusive. He was a really confident artist.
“He was always just a joy to be around.”
Professor emeritus of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, his alma mater, Oliver seemed to relish helping students develop their skills and talents. He set a big table — figuratively and literally — honoring graduating American Indian and Alaska Native students and their supporters each year at Raven’s Feast. Although he presented each graduate with a print of his own creation, for Oliver the point was not the present, rather the celebration of the students’ accomplishments. As he once told a Seattle Times columnist: “I had this idea about giving something back.” That, he did.
Few can hope to achieve the artistic mastery for which the world will remember Oliver, but we all can take a lesson from the man. A life abundant with inspiration, connection and devotion — that is a life worth living. It is, in its own way, a work of art.