Arts & Culture

Marvin Oliver’s colorful Native Northwest screenprints on view at Handforth Gallery

If you’ve seen Marvin Oliver’s public work, you probably think of him as a sculptor: the monumental 26-foot-long steel and glass “Orca and Baby” at Seattle Children’s Hospital, the mixed media “Spirit Board” of etched photographs and bronze ravens at Tacoma’s Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital. He has fused glass in the Tacoma Art Museum collection, and his mixed media work is in schools and libraries around the Sound, as well as in Canada, Italy and Japan.

But the Quinault/Isleta Pueblo artist who’s been a professor of Indian Studies at the University of Washington and curator of contemporary Native art at the Burke Museum since the 1990s doesn’t just do sculpture. For more than 40 years, since he first began teaching at the UW, he has made screenprints to give graduating Native American students. And those screenprints — a joyful juxtaposition of traditional Salish lines, bold colors and embossed reflections — are moving into the Tacoma Public Library’s Handforth Gallery this weekend. Oliver will describe his artistic process at the opening.

Oliver talked with The News Tribune about his inspirations, his techniques and just why a large-scale sculptor likes printmaking.

Q: How did you get into art in the first place?

A: My mother was Isleta, and growing up in the 1950s, I would go with her to the pueblos. I was always fascinated by the geometric patterns on the pots they made. My parents were school teachers, and I always knew I would go into education, but when I finally got to college, art was a personal thing. It wasn’t a job — I was going to do architecture. But when we moved to San Francisco, I met some reservation Indians that had been relocated under the Assimilation Act — they were tough kids, from North and South Dakota. Meeting them, I learned what being Indian was all about, and when I went out to (the Alcatraz land protests) with my dad, it was an eye-opener for me. I knew my contribution to education would be through my Native background.

Then, when I was sent to the Berkley riots during my time in the National Guard, I happened to be guarding a donut shop and started talking to some architecture students. They told me I shouldn’t do architecture — at Berkeley then it was very theoretical. So I went to the UW to do art, studying painting with Jacob Lawrence and creating my own major studying Northwest Coastal art and different media: jewelry, carving.

Q: You started giving screenprints as graduation gifts to Native American graduates, which has turned into a huge tradition for them and their families. As a sculptor, what do you like about printmaking?

A: I like it because it’s personal. With big sculpture, you’re part of a team. Those Native students are what motivate me to do prints; it’s so important for them, you want it to be new and exciting. And because they’re affordable, they’re a little piece of me that they can get for $100 on the graduation party night (after that, the prices go up). It’s a way of sharing your work on that smaller scale.

Q: You use a lot of bold colors in your fairly traditional Coast Salish designs. Tell us why.

A: Traditional colors, for this Northwest art that’s based north of Vancouver, are turquoise, red and black. Just three colors didn’t work out to be aesthetically pleasing — I wanted to keep some sections different. So I substituted the traditional colors with others, like purple. There’s purple on the top of the raven wing here in “Raven’s Journey,” to open it out; there’s a purple eyebrow in this face and a purple top to the whale in “Sea Bear,” to balance things. And the yellow, that’s the color used in Chilkat blankets. Native peoples would trade for colors, they would innovate and use them for their own art. (Even now) we like to surprise our friends, say, “Look what I did!” It’s a game that brings about the best in you, that propels the art.

Q: As a teacher and curator, what directions do you see in upcoming generations of Northwest Native artists?

A: They’re still learning the fundamentals, doing it a very traditional way. They want to maintain that (tradition) at a younger age (than we did). The quality of their work is amazing, because they’re being mentored by the best. And they have newer, better technology than we did.

I also see them going into fashion, into clothing. They’re on a really good path.

Q: You’re known for learning and exploring new techniques and technologies, like the gold-foil embossed butterfly in “Golden Messenger.” Is there anything you still want to learn?

A: I want to keep pushing. I’m not done yet — I keep thinking of new ways of doing prints.