For 10 years, the Washington State History Museum has invited Native American and First People artists to merge traditional art and contemporary vision in its annual “In The Spirit” exhibit. This year’s show — though a little smaller, perhaps — has plenty of thought-provoking ideas woven with skilled craftsmanship.
This Saturday it’s free, combined with the contemporary Native American art market and festival outside on the museum’s plaza that brings storytelling, song and dance as well as featured artists from the show.
The lead work definitely ushers in the show’s vibe, though it’s not the best by a long shot: a “Transformation Thunderbird” made by staff at The Evergreen State College Longhouse (collaborators with the museum for the show). With a split bird mask over a carved human face and a button robe sporting various symbols (pipestone lightning bolts for vision, copper jangles for healing, red felt waves for the Pacific Coast), it’s clunky and unsubtle.
Luckily, the show gets much better around the corner. Alison Bremner (Tlingit) has a jab at Western art canon prejudices in “Wat’sa with a Pearl Earring,” the iconic Rembrandt portrait in giclée print with face replaced by a fiercely grinning land-otter mask. With sharp teeth and thick black curls, it thrusts the standard possessive viewer gaze right back again with a challenge. Jeffrey Veregge (S’Klallam), who’ll be one of the artists present at the festival, offers more of his Salish-styled superhero print work: an Avenger-type figure wielding a disc with coastal Northwest designs over his gray armor.
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But while there’s a lot of two-dimensional work in the show, it’s the sculpture merged with traditional craft that raises it to a higher level.
Loa Bilham’neex Ryan (Tsm’syen) has made a rarely-seen cedar Tsm’syen doulk (basket), its neat square base flaring out into a relaxed slouch at the lip. Vickie Era (Alutiiq) has woven an immaculately crafted hunting hat, inspired by similar Alutiiq artifacts in Russian collections. Painted powder blue/black/red by Jerry Laktonen, it’s textured with restrained beadwork and tufted on the sides with otter fur. Farther around the gallery, a duo of cedar skirt and hat by Jacinthe Two Bulls (Haida) pays homage to traditional techniques while respecting the line and kink of each individual fiber. Both weavers will be at the festival.
The few carvings in the show also take traditional styles to different artistic places. Peter Boome’s “Orca Rattle” sits squat and black, the tail curving under and the fin tipping in a rather Art Deco way, abalone shell singing from its eyes. Also by Boome (Upper Skagit) is a beautiful minimalist glass etching from the 2008 show, “Salmon Season,” where salmon flip and curl on a clear glass plate in a wooden frame, referencing both salmon-ladder windows and actual water.
Brandt Ellingburg, one of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe’s carvers demonstrating during the festival, makes a canoe model just 12 inches long but full of character in the rower’s upturned jaw and chunky limbs, and the questing prow. The exposed blond streaks of alder wood rush like ripples across the inside of the vessel.
Best in show, though, deservedly goes to Erin Genia (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate). Her “Open Pit Gold Mine Vessel” is a slow spiral of gray, raku-fired clay that descends like a hell-bent path down to an oozing black pool. Gold leaf drips like blood over the cracked edges — a Japanese technique of repairing broken pottery (kintsugi) that Genia discovered when her initial sculpture, inspired by open-cut mines, was damaged. The effect is precarious, gaping; a profound comment on the ecological and spiritual damage of such mines. Sadly, it shares a case with the less-profound “MANinFestation Destiny” of Linley Logan, an enormous coppery-gold blob meant to look like a bomb-turned-idol, unfortunately decorated with googly eyes and way too many horrified faces.
Just at the top of the museum’s stairs on the same floor is a small room showcasing the best of each year’s “In The Spirit,” the one work from each show purchased by the museum for its collection. Don’t miss “People of the Adze,” a fascinating display of work by the Shoalwater Bay carving program begun three years ago to protect a shrinking culture: house posts, adze handles, spoons, bowls, faces and canoe models, including more work by Brandt Ellingburg.
IF YOU GO
What: “In the Spirit” contemporary Native art market, festival and exhibit.
Where: Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.
When: Festival and market, noon-7 p.m. Saturday; exhibit 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (10 a.m.-8 p.m. Aug. 20) through Aug. 30.
Admission: Free during festival; other times, $11 adults; $8 seniors, students and military; free ages 5 and younger and third Thursdays.
At the free festival Saturday, the art is brought to life by visiting artists selling and demonstrating their work, as well as live performers. Here’s the schedule:
Noon: Welcome and blessing.
12:15 p.m.: Vince Redhouse, flute.
1 p.m.: Alaska Kuteeyaa Dancers.
2 p.m.: Rona Yellow Robe, flute.
3 p.m.: Gallery talks with artists and carving demonstrations.
4:15 p.m.: Awards announcements.
4:30 p.m.: Scatter Their Own rock band.
5:30 p.m.: Le-La-La Dancers.