Arts & Culture

Native art exhibit merges contemporary and traditional at Washington State History Museum’s annual “In the Spirit” festival

If Jackson Pollock had been Native American, he might have made the paint-spattered drum that’s the signature work for “In the Spirit,” the annual exhibit of Native art currently up at the Washington State History Museum. But he wasn’t, and didn’t — Tlingit artist Alison Bremmer created the joyous mesh of aqua and vermillion over a vaguely Om-like symbol in black in “Alaskan Pollock.” It’s a striking fusion of contemporary and traditional art and sets the tone for the museum’s ninth annual “In the Spirit” festival and market, free this Saturday along with the exhibit.

Selected by jurors Barbara Brotherton, Shaun Peterson and Lynette Miller, the works this year are a mix of subtle and predictable, innovative and stereotypical. But the balance swings to the new and interesting, with many works in various media that capture both Native art traditions and new ideas.

Opposite the Pollock drum is a self-described Salish geek starship: a flat acrylic by Jeffrey Veregge (S’Klallam) whose Star Trek fandom has generated this intriguing cross between a bird and a spaceship, between ’60s modernism and Native symbolism. Lillian Pitt (Warm Springs-Yakama) juxtaposes clay and wood in a thoughtful spirit: a deftly-textured clay bird looking sadly down at a scorched, gnarled wooden “earth.”

Also quietly subtle is Ramon Murillo’s “Sacred Space” (Shoshone-Bannock), an inked monotype of two arms-outstretched figures, layered with deep blue and white encaustic and set inside multiple frames of glass beads and whitened wood.

Not all the work is innovative. Some are highly figurative or narrative, making simplistic though worthy points (dams destroying ecosystems, oppressed women) or telling traditional stories. But the best are multi-layered: Kaila Farrell-Smith (Klamath) won Best in Show for her “M is for Mak’Lak’, W is for White: Authentic Indian Design,” a large oil and wax painting that turns colonial ideas of Indian symbolism literally on their sides (a large, blood-red M/W) and evokes, through a unique language of scratched and erased symbol, the tension between European impositions and Native knowledge.

And as always, there are some lovely works of skill in “In the Spirit.” Carvings from Earl Davis and Brandt Ellingburg (Shoalwater Bay) turn wood into near-living things; a fascinating walrus dance mask by Sean Gallagher (Inupiat) chisels cedar into a simple round animal face stuck with a copper pin mustache to reference both pain and modernity. Kathey Evin (Wyandotte), winner of the “Spirit of the Northwest” award, contrasts textures, weaves and materials in her richly woven conical hat and basket, an intense blue wave surging through each.

The exhibit is up through Sunday, but on Saturday the museum’s outdoor plaza will be filled with Native performing artists and vendors starting at 10 a.m. In the lineup are singer/storyteller Chenoa Egawa (10:15 a.m.), the Snagim Azasniikangin dancers (11 a.m.), flutist Vince Redhouse (noon), the Alaska Kuteeyaa dancers (1 p.m.), flutist Rona YellowRobe Walsh (2 p.m.) and the grand finale of A Little Big Band (4 p.m.), playing its signature mix of funk, jazz, rock and blues with poetry and spoken word. The band will also launch its debut CD.

The exhibit’s first- and second-place awards, as well as the People’s Choice, will be announced at 2 p.m., based on votes collected inside the show.