Native traditions shape Marvin Oliver’s art

“I am not a painter or a sculptor or a glass artist. I am art.”

Anyone familiar with the work of American Indian Studies professor Marvin Oliver understands that this is not an egotistical statement, but a reflection of a vision that embraces an astonishing range of materials, styles and techniques. His aesthetic is nurtured by the Native American traditions he was exposed to as a child visiting relatives in the Southwest and during his tutelage as a graduate student under Bill Holm, Curator Emeritus of Northwest Coast Indian Art at the Burke Museum.

Oliver’s curiosity and thirst for innovation, though, have spurred him to create modern totem poles that include asymmetrical parts, along with bronze, glass and copper elements; or glass pieces adorned with photography. While his artistic vision may be singular, the act of creation is a deeply collaborative one; “nothing is ever done alone,” he explains. When Oliver, ’73, has an idea for an innovative glass piece, for instance, he enlists the world’s top blowers; when he started working on Mystical Journey, a six-ton, 26-foot long steel-and glass orca, he consulted with engineering experts about suspending the work from the ceiling of Seattle’s Children’s Hospital.

Just as the creation of his art is a communal act, he prefers public commissions so that the finished work is shared with as many as possible. Oliver’s work is displayed in various parks and schools throughout the region, and even in Perugia, Italy, Seattle’s sister city, where his 30-foot orca fin is the first piece of commissioned public art by a non-Italian artist.

This spirit of openness pervades his teaching too. “If you’re in my class, I’m there for you 24 hours a day,” he notes, adding that he’d prefer a late night phone call from a student in need than an email or text. Students in his coveted Wood Design and his Two-Dimensional Art of the Northwest Coast Indians courses learn concrete skills—and he beams when showing off some of his favorite prints, or an adze or intricate ladle crafted by former students. The majority of his students are not art majors, but it is more important for Oliver to expose them to the passion he has for his chosen field than any particular technique.

Since the mid-1970s, Oliver (Quinalt/Isleta Pueblo) has been giving a more tangible gift to students and the UW community in the form of the Raven’s Feast, a ceremony honoring graduating Native students at a salmon feast and ceremony during which he presents custom framed prints. At the first celebration, he gave five or six students a two-color print; today, hundreds attend the event—including family and friends who travel great distances for the feast—and several dozen students come away with a 15-color artwork.

Oliver’s teaching schedule has slowed to one quarter per year, but his version of retirement doesn’t include golf clubs and a recliner. He excitedly mentions the novel he is working on and a film project that he is in the early stages of producing. His eyes really glimmer, though, when he discusses the possibility of creating a groundbreaking blown-glass piece that incorporates video. “It can be done. There has to be a way!”