Marvin Oliver's gifts will inspire and inform artists for generations

Marvin Oliver with his installation Mystical Journey. (University of Washington photo)

Quinault/Isleta Pueblo artist Marvin Oliver dies; Took Native art to new levels in traditional and contemporary mediums

Sculptor and printmaker Marvin Oliver, Quinault/Isleta Pueblo, has passed away but his presence will continue to be felt through his art for generations to come – not just in the United States but in other parts of the world.

Oliver’s works in cedar, bronze, steel and glass are displayed in hospitals, museums, schools and public places in several states and four countries. His most prominent overseas work is a monumental 26-foot bronze sculpture of an orca dorsal fin, “Sister Orca,” installed in a public park in Perugia, Italy; and a colorful, 26-foot, suspended steel-and-glass depiction of two orcas, titled “Mystical Journey,” at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

“I love that Professor Oliver is out in the world and he is global,” Polly Olsen, Yakama, said in a video produced by the University of Washington when Oliver was announced as the university’s Charles E. Odegaard Award recipient for 2019. Olsen is tribal liaison at The Burke Museum.

“When we visit and do our work internationally and we enter these spaces and we see him, we feel his presence. And we also find voice to continue the stories and the advocacy that we do as Native people to make sure that we are still seen as a living culture and community.”

Oliver died July 17 in his Seattle home after battling pancreatic cancer. He was 73. His cousin, Duwamish Tribe Chairwoman Cecile Hansen, said a celebration of his life may take place in October. Survivors include his wife, Brigette Ellis, five children, and a sister.

Oliver earned a B.A. from San Francisco State University in 1970 and a MFA from the University of Washington in 1973. He joined the University of Washington faculty in 1974 as professor of American Indian Studies and Art. That same year he started Raven’s Feast in honor of Native American students from San Francisco State who had participated in the occupation of Alcatraz Island in an effort to get the U.S. to return the island to Native people in accordance with treaty language related to surplus federal lands. For nearly 45 years, Native American graduates have been honored at the Raven’s Feast dinner, in which each receives a Marvin Oliver silkscreen print.

“It’s a way to honor them, but it’s also a way to inspire those who are coming behind them to persist and graduate,” Rickey Hall, the university’s vice president for minority affairs and diversity, said in the Odegaard Award video.

“Many know Professor Oliver for his arts, but we at [Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity] know him best for his many contributions that he has made to American Indians on campus and in the community,” said Hall, UW’s vice president for minority affairs and diversity.

Iisaaksiichaa Ross Braine, Apsaalooke Nation, said in the video that he had dropped out of UW but attending a Raven’s Feast gave him the desire to come back.

“I don’t know where my diploma is, I don’t know where my degrees are,” he said. “I have never hung them, I don’t know where they are. But my prints are right next to each other in succession, like, ‘Here’s my undergrad and here’s my master’s.’”

Oliver’s works in traditional and contemporary mediums inspired emerging artists exploring new ways of expressing their culture in art. He wrote on his website, “My works are formulated by merging the spirit of past traditions with those of the present... to create new horizons for the future.”

Artist Preston Singletary, Tlingit, who works predominately with glass, wrote in an email from Sweden that Oliver was “an amazing and dynamic artist who pushed the limits of the tradition and forged new directions.”

Singletary wrote: “Marvin operated on a grand scale utilizing technology and different materials to create new styles. He made monumental things in different mediums, which is a hard thing to achieve. Each medium has its own challenges and Marvin attempted to master each medium with beautiful results. He traveled the world to install art in Italy as well as throughout the country and had projects brewing that were even newer concepts, such as virtual reality and huge interactive installations. So it’s disappointing that some of the newest ideas he had might never come to pass as he envisioned it.”

Singletary said he was living in Seattle and contemplating the integration of Northwest Coast Native designs in glass when he visited a gallery in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood.

“I spoke to the gallery rep and it led me directly to Marvin. I didn’t realize it then, but I was looking for a teacher or mentor to advise me on my next steps. Marvin invited me to his house and told me to bring some drawings. He quickly assessed my approach and gave me a quick tutorial. That tutorial has carried through to my entire career. Over the years we connected often and discussed projects and he always commented on my work. He watched my career vigilantly and reached out when he saw something that should be addressed.”

Singletary added, “I will always carry with me the spirit of Marvin’s creativity … We have lost a truly great artist, friend, teacher, father and family man.”

‘His art will live forever’

Hansen, the Duwamish chairwoman, told Indian Country Today her younger cousin was “a very caring kid” who grew up to be a “warm and giving man.”

She visited Perugia in 2018 at the invitation of that city’s leaders and spoke at the park where “Sister Orca” stands tall. “Sister Orca” was installed in 2008 to symbolize the sister city relationship between Perugia and Seattle, but it also has bolstered Perugia’s interest in American Indigenous cultures; the city has a Center for American Indian Studies. Perugia is located in what was once the homeland of the ancient Etruscans; many Perugians are descendants of the Etruscans and consider themselves to be Italy’s Indigenous people.

“They felt so enthusiastic about it,” Hansen said of the Perugians and “Sister Orca.” “It’s quite impressive. It’s 26 feet tall and I think they were so impressed. They are so moved by his doing that.”

Hansen added, “He’s going to continue to influence a lot of people. His art will live forever.”

Father founded the Canoe Journey

Marvin Oliver was the son of educator Emmett Oliver (1913-2016), who was instrumental in the occupation of Alcatraz from 1969-1971 and organized the Paddle to Seattle in 1989. The latter event, part of Washington state’s centennial celebration, gave birth to the Canoe Journey, the annual intertribal gathering that has grown to include more than 100 canoes and the participation of Indigenous peoples from around the Pacific Rim.

Oliver family members pull in the annual Canoe Journey in the Oliver family canoe.

The 2019 Canoe Journey is underway, and the 30th anniversary of the Paddle to Seattle will coincide with canoes’ arrival at Suquamish on July 20. Canoes will leave from there to points north en route to the final destination, the shores of the Lummi Nation near Bellingham.

Quinault President Fawn Sharp talked July 18 about the influence of the Olivers, father and son, while she was en route to Suquamish in a Quinault canoe.

The Canoe Journey sparked a cultural renaissance, bolstering languages and cultural traditions and restoring canoe travel upon ancestral waters. In one Quinault canoe, the average age of pullers is 11, Sharp said.

Of Marvin Oliver, she said “he honored his gift as an artist by sharing it.” It’s a gift that will continue to inspire and inform artists for generations.

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Richard Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a correspondent reporting from Anacortes, Washington. 

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