sculptor & printmaker

Marvin Oliver

From the moment you set foot in Seattle, you can feel it: art is everywhere.

The thriving arts scene is a priority in this city—in fact, Seattle has been recognized for having more arts-related businesses and organizations per capita than any other metropolitan area in the U.S., according to Americans for the Arts. Sculptor and printmaker Marvin Oliver is one of the contributors to this creative city. Read on for a look at the city through his artistic lens.

Editor’s Note: Marvin Oliver passed away in July 2019 at the age of 73.  His legacy lives on in his artworks and all those he taught, and we honor his memory.

Q&A with Marvin Oliver

Can you tell us about your background?

My heritage is Quinault Indian on my father’s side— our reservation is on the west coast of Washington—and my mother is from the Isleta Pueblo. Both of my parents were educators: my mother taught fifth grade and my dad worked in administration in Olympia, and at UW in Native Education. I was raised in the realm of Native Education.

How did you get your start in public art?

I was in college when the city of Spokane asked if I’d do a piece of an eagle and killer whale for the vanishing species exhibit at the (1974) Spokane World’s Fair. The next commission was an open competition for the art for the new Daybreak Star. Daybreak Star is a cultural center that is really conducive to bringing native art from all over the region to Seattle. It’s a great place for people to come up and appreciate works that are from all over the country. It’s a wonderful place to visit, to tour the grounds and see the view.

Of all the public art you’ve done, do you have a favorite?

The whale (Mystical Journey) for Children’s Hospital. It was commissioned by the Gates Foundation. It weighs eight tons. It’s the largest fused glass sculpture in the United States. After it was installed, a woman came in with her child who was autistic and had never spoken, and he looked up and said, “Whale,” and that was his first word. I also just finished one in Ballard, welcoming all the salmon back to the Locks.

What are some of your favorite places to see art?

The Chihuly Museum is great for the sheer magnitude of the works—you get a real strong appreciation for what Chihuly is doing in terms of weight and stature and color. It’s breathtaking and worth seeing. You can also stroll through the Olympic Sculpture Park, which is great for kids. I have twins, and we do a lot of things outdoors, and the OSP is very kid-friendly. On First Thursdays you should go gallery hop around—that’s where you see a lot of art of such diversity. That’s one thing about Seattle: it’s so uniquely culturally enriching.

Where do you take out of town visitors?

Our big highlight is to take the ferry to Bainbridge. You can walk on, then walk right into Winslow, have coffee and maybe a little lunch, and go to a couple galleries. Then you catch the ferry back and you get to see the whole skyline. The other one is to drive over to Alki and have lunch at Salty’s. Or go to Shilshole— we bring the kids and let them run wild at Golden Gardens.

I take it for granted, but the UW Campus is beautiful. I’m an associate curator at the Burke Museum, too—don’t forget the Burke! It’s incredible for tourists. The dinosaur thing is really cool, that’s great for kids. And the cultural section covers the cultures of the Pacific Rim, and it’s quite nice. We like to go to the Arboretum, which is incredible. We also take people to the Pike Place Market because it’s very Northwest-oriented; everyone with a booth is local.

What’s something about Seattle history that surprised you?

That the native communities came from Alaska and paddled all the way down to Seattle. This was a huge port for native trade with canoes, and all the outlying tribes would come into Seattle. My father, Emmett Oliver, started the Canoe Journey. He’s still alive, he’s 99. In honor of the Washington Centennial, he decided he was going to revitalize canoe building. Now, every year a different village hosts the canoe journey. My father wanted to see 100 canoes before he died, and last year there were 104 canoes.

Ed note: Emmett Oliver passed away in 2016, at age 102.



2013 Interview by Jess Van Nostrand.

Photo taken at Daybreak Star Cultural Center.



Marvin Oliver talks about his work at Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market.



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