Reaching for the Sky: The Art of Marvin Oliver

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"My works are formulated by merging the spirit of past traditions with those of the present...to create new horizons for the future."

--Marvin Oliver

He is considered one of the region's foremost sculptors and printmakers whose work has greatly influenced the direction of contemporary Northwest Coast art. His prints, masks, helmets, and wood panels--on display at his gallery in the Fremont district of Seattle--fuse ancient forms with modern aesthetics.

But it is a growing body of monumental works in cedar, bronze, cast glass, and enameled steel--especially his totem poles and towering, stylized whale fins--that have established UW professor Marvin E. Oliver as an internationally acclaimed contemporary sculptor. His works have been installed throughout the State of Washington and the U.S., in Canada, and in Japan.

Oliver is professor of American Indian Studies at the UW and serves as curator of contemporary Native American art at the Burke Museum on the UW campus. In addition, he holds a part-time post on the faculty of the University of Alaska, Ketchikan.

One of Oliver's recent works, a 23-foot tall, mixed media totem pole, entitled Tetons, was installed in the entry of the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming. The work is a departure from the traditional totem pole form, which typically is symmetrical and made only of wood. Tetons, however, is an asymmetrical pole, and it incorporates into the wooden sculpture elements of cast glass, etched copper, and cast bronze inlaid with abalone.

In Tetons, images of animals and their habitats rise up from the base of the pole, reaching at the very top a realistic depiction of the towering peaks of the Teton range. The effect is to draw the viewer upward, reaching from ground to mountains to sky and beyond, a theme encountered in other samples of Oliver's works--the face of a helmet gazing upward, for example, or the vertical design of a Pendleton wool blanket wall hanging. The blanket design begins, at the bottom, with salmon playing in the river; it traverses scenes in the middle depicting the animals of the land, and reaches, at the top, the mountains and the sky. A subsequent blanket design incorporates realistic raven images below and culminates in very stylized images of stars in the heavens. The structure can be seen as a metaphor for Oliver's concept of art: a dynamic and evolving process, grounded in ancient traditions, but continuing to evolve, taking those ancient forms to new heights.

A 26-foot tall orca whale fin sculpture, cast in bronze and installed in Remington Court Park in Seattle, rises above 18-inch tall "ripples" of rolling grass, meant to simulate waves in the ocean. On the sides of the fin are Native images of leaping salmon, representing the cyclical nature and endurance of life. A thunderbird above the salmon represents power, strength and survival. The two-ton sculpture was cast at a foundry in Walla Walla, Washington, one of the few foundries in the region that can work on such a large scale. The installation, entitled, Spirit of Our Youth, was done for the King County Arts Commission.

Oliver has been teaching Northwest coast art and graphics and wood design at the UW since 1974. Emphasizing traditional techniques, he is the only professor in the country teaching Northwest Coast graphics and wood design as a technical approach in studio courses. He also serves as acting director of the UW American Indian Studies Center, a program that offers some 20 different courses on such topics as Navajo language and Native American history, art, and culture. The mission of the center extends beyond classroom instruction and is closely tied to the university's goals of increasing diversity and community involvement, facilitating distance learning and evening degree studies, and supporting activities of the Burke Museum.

Oliver studied under Gunther and Holm (see Erna Gunther and the Ethnography of Western Washington and Bill Holm: Northwest Coast Indian Art, respectively) and feels obligated to share that knowledge and information with the younger students. But his devotion to teaching is more than a sense of obligation to pass on knowledge to younger generations. "It revitalizes me," says Oliver. "It takes me out of the studio to reflect, and to refresh my own perspective."

That studio is located just west of the University district, in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle. There, with the help of full-time technician Arthur Dunlap, imagination is cast into material form.

Oliver typically begins by making a scale drawing in freehand of a sculpture like the giant fin. He scans the image into the computer and prints it out full size, in "tiles" or squares, each covering just a section of the huge fin. Dunlap then carves the shapes into polyurethane foam, which Oliver notes is a convenient material for the purpose: "It comes in any density you like, it can be easily carved, and it can be recycled." The polyurethane carving is used to make a cast for the giant bronze sculpture.

Although Oliver's work is firmly grounded in tradition, it reflects the modern processes that the artist uses to express his vision. He makes full use of all the modern technologies and tools to achieve his goals--tools such as sophisticated laser and water cutting processes, for instance. "We provide a computer disk and they can digitize it for the new cutting machines," he explains. "We can do precise and elaborate steel cuttings that you may not be able to do or afford to do in any other way."

While it is important for traditional arts and crafts to be taught and preserved, Oliver believes that his own art must merge tradition with new techniques in order for it to evolve as a dynamic, living form. Traditional Native art serves an important social and cultural role, he stresses. It helps to express and maintain cultural identity; it is an integral part of ceremonial and cultural events and practices. To serve that social role, it must be preserved in traditional form. But he sees his own artwork as building on the aesthetic principles learned as a youth, at home and in school, working with masters such as Holm, Gunther, and Lawrence (see Jacob Lawrence, Foremost American Painter), continuing in the path they laid down to develop the quality and integrity of those aesthetic principles, while continuing to evolve in new media and forms of expression.

"I was surrounded by Native American art growing up," he reflects. His mother was from the Isleta Pueblo near Albuquerque, New Mexico, and his father is Quinault. Oliver was raised in Shelton, Washington and then in the Bay Area of California, though the family continued to spend time at a summer home in the Northwest. He found himself surrounded by pottery, blankets--a host of objects that were artistic yet utilitarian. It was perhaps that combination of total immersion in art, and the more casual, utilitarian function of those objects that perhaps gave Oliver a sense of freedom to take artistic expression beyond the goal of preserving traditional forms.

In high school, Oliver gravitated toward art and drawing classes; in college, he thought he wanted to be an architect at first, but ended up taking more art classes. At San Francisco State University came a turning point in his career when he was able through the help of one of the faculty there to gain admission to the art program. He studied traditional painting and drawing, but still had his sights set on architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, until a serendipitous meeting changed his mind. Oliver's father arranged for him to meet Bill Holm (see Bill Holm: Northwest Coast Indian Art) at the UW in about 1970. They explored the idea of Oliver pursuing a specially tailored program of graduate studies in painting and drawing under UW art professor Jacob Lawrence (see Jacob Lawrence, Foremost American Painter) with a specialization in Northwest Coast Indian Art with Holm.

The more Oliver learned about Native art and cultures the more he wanted to share that knowledge with others. After obtaining his graduate degree, Oliver taught at colleges throughout the Puget Sound area: Edmonds, Seattle Central, in Bremerton, and later, at the UW. He was first invited to teach a social sciences class at the UW on urban issues relating to Native peoples. That initial position developed into a full time lecturer and then a tenure-track faculty position. Throughout this period, Oliver was making wood panels, masks and prints.

An invitation in 1977 to serve on the panel for intergovernmental affairs of the National Endowment for the Arts gave Oliver a broad perspective on developments in the arts nationwide and stimulated his thinking about large-scale projects. "I became more aware of my responsibility to produce public works," notes Oliver. From this period on, his activities in art and his long-standing interest in architecture found a new way to merge. This turning point marked the beginning of what was to become a long series of major public works in Western Washington and beyond. His first large-scale work was Big Eagle Panel, at the entrance to Fort Dent Park in Tukwila. That public work was followed by the Raven and The Moon Panel at the Peninsula Community College Library, Port Angeles, Washington, the Spawning Salmon work at Yelm High School, a Carved Panel at Stevens Middle School in Port Angeles, and others, such as Tetons and the large orca fins. The largest installations may take Oliver about two years to complete, he notes.

At the other end of the size spectrum are his prints. Creating these is important to Oliver because he likes to share Native art with others and the prints are accessible to a broader segment of the public. His prints and designs, which are widely collected and much beloved symbols of the Pacific Northwest, have become part of a tradition for Native students at the UW. Each year, he creates a special edition print that he signs, frames, and gives to each Native graduate of the UW at a ceremony and salmon feast, held at the Daybreak Star center at Discovery Park in Seattle. Oliver has hosted the event every year for the past 20 years.

In 1996, Oliver's many achievements and contributions to the community were recognized with the UW Distinguished Alumnus Award.

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