Marvin Oliver, a contemporary sculptor and printmaker who, as an artist and professor emeritus at the University of Washington, influenced the development and recognition of American Indian contemporary fine art, died early Wednesday morning (July 17) in Seattle. He was 73.
“He was a very happy, open, loving, creative, compassionate man, and a master of the art, in all mediums,” said Brigette Ellis, his wife of 32 years. Mr. Oliver died at their home in Wallingford, surrounded by family, including one of their five children and Oliver’s sister. He had pancreatic cancer.
Family and friends spent the hours after Mr. Oliver’s death praying, dancing, drumming and singing traditional Chinook songs, Ellis said. His eldest son and daughter were called home from the annual Intertribal Canoe Journey, started by Mr. Oliver’s father, Emmett Oliver.
“It’s been very comforting.”
Born in Shelton, Mr. Oliver’s family moved to the Bay Area when he was in the third grade. He started drawing in high school and, after a brief interest in architecture and reproducing frayed Bay Area billboards, he enrolled at the UW’s graduate school, where he took classes from Northwest Coast Native art expert Bill Holm and acclaimed African American artist Jacob Lawrence. He started teaching at the school in 1974.
Mr. Oliver’s creativity was steeped in his Quinault and Isleta-Pueblo heritage, but couldn’t be contained to one style — Northwest Coast, Salish — or one medium. “He was able to bridge all the arts to create his own style,” Ellis said.
From glass, Mr. Oliver created colorful Northwest Coast-style baskets and spirit boards, kachinas and fins, faces and disks. He carved and painted wood totem poles, cylinders and door panels. He cast towering bronze fins. His serigraphs of whales and birds were bright and joyful.
He was still working just weeks before his death. In May, he was blowing glass. In June, Mr. Oliver was making prints of his work — gifts for Native graduates of the UW who were celebrated at an annual “Raven’s Feast” community dinner.
Mr. Oliver started the event in honor of a group of Native students at San Francisco State University who, for 18 months starting in 1969, occupied Alcatraz Island, seeking to have the land turned over to them. Mr. Oliver briefly participated in the occupation of the former federal prison.
“I’m going to honor those students that sat on the rock, and I would do that by gifting a Native graduate,” Mr. Oliver said in video produced by UW in May, when he received its Charles E. Odegaard Award, given to “individuals whose leadership in the community exemplifies the former UW president’s work on behalf of diversity.”
“I don’t know where my diploma is, I don’t know where my degrees are, I have never hung them,” said Iisaaksiichaa Ross Braine, a UW graduate and tribal liaison who appeared in the same video. “But my prints are right next to each other, in succession. ‘Here’s my undergrad and here’s my master’s.’ “
The Odegaard Award citation noted Mr. Oliver’s influence on the “development and recognition of American Indian contemporary fine art, both locally and across the world.” Over 40 years, Mr. Oliver’s work has appeared at the UW, across the state of Washington and the United States, Canada, Japan and Italy.
In Perugia, Italy, Mr. Oliver’s soaring sculpture, “The Orca,” stands in Sister Orca Park. (He was the first non-Italian artist to be commissioned for a public art piece in Italy).
And the UW campus is wealthy with his work: “Raven’s Journey” dominates a wall in the Husky Union Building. “Soul Catcher” is prominently displayed at the School of Public Health.
At Seattle Children’s hospital, a pair of colorful glass orcas, together called “Mystical Journey” and weighing 12,000 pounds, are suspended in the air.
In addition to his teaching and installations at the UW, Mr. Oliver had a studio on Wallingford Avenue in Seattle and a gallery, Alaska Eagle Arts, in Ketchikan, Alaska.
He was also an associate curator at the university’s Burke Museum, where Polly Olsen is a tribal liaison.
“We have lost an amazing mentor and elder in our community and his legacy will live on,” Olsen said. “And those of us who understand his vision and mission to support the Native students and enhance the visibility of Native art and culture will make him and keep him proud and forge on with his legacy.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Oliver is survived by his sister, Marylin Bard; two sons, Brian and Owen; a daughter, Lisa; and twins Isadora and Sampson.
Outside the studio and the classroom, Mr. Oliver loved to spend time with his family; summer in Alaska; ride his Harley-Davidson and dine at El Gaucho.
“He loved his steaks,” his wife said.
The family is planning a celebration of Mr. Oliver’s life in October; and the establishment of an art scholarship in his name at the UW.
“He had no regrets,” Mr. Oliver’s wife said. “We did everything we wanted, saw a lot of the world and shared art with millions of people. We were blessed.”
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story.