Oliver, Marvin E. (1946-2019)

  • By Fred Poyner IV
  • Posted 9/04/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20855
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A multi-faceted artist, Marvin E. Oliver was an advocate and teacher who promoted Northwest Native American art and other artists of the Pacific Northwest. He worked in a wide range of media, including carvings and sculpture, printmaking, blown glass art, and large-scale public artwork installations. His advocacy for Native Americans ranged from support for public protests over land rights, to annual gifts of his own work to graduate art students from the University of Washington, where he served as a professor of American Indian Studies and Art from 1974 until 2019. Oliver's portfolio included representation by the Alaska Eagle Arts galley in Ketchikan, Alaska; installations of carvings and sculpture in local public libraries, hospitals, public parks, the University of Washington campus, and in international cities including Perugia, Italy. His knowledge of Northwest Coast, Coast Salish, and other Native American art styles, shared through his own art, enhanced his role as an associate curator of Contemporary Native American Art at the Burke Museum in Seattle. In 2019, Oliver received the Charles E. Odegaard Award from the University of Washington in recognition for his leadership in the community on behalf of diversity.

Northwest Roots and Early Art Career

Marvin Oliver was born in Shelton, Washington, on July 1, 1946, to Emmett S. Oliver (1913-2016) and Georgia Abeita (1914-1999). His heritage was Quinault, Isleta-Pueblo and Laguna-Pueblo. When he was in the third grade, the family moved to San Francisco, where his father worked as a teacher and served as chairman of the Bay Area Native American Committee. He had a brother, Arne, and a sister, Marylin.

Oliver's early interest in the arts focused on creating replicas of billboards in the Bay Area, with studies that earned him a Bachelor of Arts from San Francisco State University in 1970. A year before, Oliver showed his role as a vocal activist for Indian land rights by taking part in an occupation of Alcatraz Island that lasted 18 months.

Oliver moved back to the Pacific Northwest to continue his studies at the University of Washington, under Native American art expert Bill Holm (b. 1925), and also painter and fine arts professor Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000). His studies earned him an MFA from the University of Washington in 1973. A year after his graduation, he began teaching at the University, with an emphasis on American Indian Studies and Art. He recalled his father as an inspiration during this time:

"After I received my bachelor's degree my dad [who was also a founder of the 1989 Paddle to Seattle that inspired the ongoing annual tribal canoe journeys] said why don't you go up to the University of Washington and get your graduate work done with Bill Holm and study your own culture as an artist. In those days there weren't many Native students, not just at UW but in the whole country. After I graduated, the University of Washington called me within a year and asked me to be a teacher. They hired me right then and I've been there ever since" ("Marvin Oliver," Tacoma Art Museum).

Oliver was one of the first artists to benefit from the City of Seattle's "1 Percent for Art" program fund that was created in 1973. He carved a four-panel wall mural and painted it with designs invoking Northwest Coast motifs and figures. It was unveiled in 1975 at the new Broadview branch of The Seattle Public Libraries. The large-scale piece was one of his first public art commissions for the region, and one of the first by a Northwest Native American artist for the library.

A Versatile Artist, Willing to Work With Others

Oliver's own artwork has combined traditional styles and animal motifs from both Northwest Coast and Coast Salish tribal art. His studio on Wallingford Avenue in Seattle produced works done in blown glass with Native-inspired basket forms, spirit boards, panels, masks, and totem poles, with many of these finding their way into displays for public spaces.

In some cases, Oliver's public art projects have involved other artists and art advocates. A pair of totem poles added to Victor Steinbrueck Park (also called Native Park) at the Pike Place Market was emblematic of the artist's talent and vision, and his willingness to collaborate with those having a shared interest in community identity and sharing of Native culture. For the Steinbrueck Park poles, Oliver offered the original design concept and sourced the cedar logs used for both poles from the Skagit National Forest. He then roughed out both poles, using traditional carving techniques and tools.

The first pole, completed in 1984, was known only as Untitled Totem Pole and had its final carvings done by James Bender (b. 1950) and other carvers based upon Oliver's design. Suquamish tribal elder and historian Barbara Lawrence (b. 1958) has referred to his work as significant to Seattle. The second pole, Farmers, was carved by Bender executing a design by Oliver and Victor Steinbrueck. In 2018, the pole carvings received new public scrutiny and controversy in that totem poles are not part of local Coast Salish art traditions. The height of the poles and the Haida tribal designs on the Untitled work are representative of Northwest Coast cultures in Canada and Alaska. As of 2019, the Seattle City Council had not decided whether to remove them from the park. Even proponents of their removal, however, were careful not to disparage Oliver's contribution: "When somebody commissions a piece of art from him and has it placed somewhere it has a meaning behind it and that's what I want to know before removing," said Lawrence (Kroman). Oliver himself stayed neutral on the controversy.

Other efforts by Oliver have offered direct support to the Native American community. As part of its Taholah Village Relocation and Master Plan Project, the Quinault Indian Tribe established its "WenɑsɡwəllɑʔɑW" (Generations Building) as a priority in 2007. According to the tribe's project description, the building "will house the Senior Program, Early Head Start, Head Start and Day Care programs to move the programs for the most vulnerable of our community to higher ground, above the tsunami. Other programs sharing the new space will include MIS, recreation, and education" ("Taholah Village ..."). Oliver worked with other Quinault artists on incorporating artwork into the building, which was still working through the permitting process in 2019.

Animal Imagery in Many Mediums

Many of Oliver's pieces incorporated animal forms or characters, into their visual narrative: Raven, Sea Bear, Orca, Wolf. His room-sized Raven's Journey is mounted on one wall of the Husky Union Building. Another steel and glass sculpture titled Mystical Journey adorns the ceiling of Seattle Children's Hospital, the design invoking a pod of orca whales swimming through the water. At 26 feet long, the piece is typical of Oliver's desire to create an artwork designed for a specific space, adapting to its size and other architectural constraints. The artist had a practical outlook: "I work in many mediums: glass, bronze, steel, and I've done a lot of public art. When doing my work, I would look at the project and see what materials fit that venue" ("Marvin Oliver," Tacoma Art Museum).

Over his career, Oliver's public art installations went beyond the borders of the Pacific Northwest. His animal motifs again found expression in bronze, with his Sister Orca sculpture of a giant orca fin for the Porta Nova, in Perugia, Italy. This display was the first ever for a non-Italian artist in the city, designated as one of Seattle's Sister Cities, and was unveiled to the public July 12, 2008. The 30-foot bronze sculpture (which took over a year to install) features a Thunderbird and Salmon, surrounded by water.

Oliver wrote an ode to his Sister Orca artwork the year it was installed, as both a tribute and a testimony to his inspiration. Its beginning sequence honors his ancestors and the land as a source of inspiration:

"To the far ends of the world that reach beyond the horizons of time ... Sister Orca and family venture north to seek her native village. A village where the mystic wind carries upon her breath the myths of yesterday. She gently whispers through the ancient forest of cedar and pine and dashes upon the elaborately carved poles ... Upon the sandy beach, some lay asleep ... weathered and decayed and covered with mossy blankets of teal green, pale blues and golden browns. They too will return home" (Oliver, Sister Orca's Mystical Journey).

Between 1975 and 2007, Oliver was awarded art commissions for 24 city, county, and school locations. Besides Perugia, his artworks are found in Kake, Fairbanks, and Craig, in Alaska; Seattle, Tacoma, Naches, Yelm, Duvall, Tumwater, Vancouver, Issaquah, Redmond, South Bend, and other municipalities throughout Washington. Of these, 14 were sponsored by the Washington State Arts Commission; two more (Spirit of Washington in 1991, and Moon Catcher and Sea Bear in 1997) awarded by the Seattle Arts Commission; and four supported by the Alaska Percent for Public Art program. His monolithic Totem sculpture done in cast bronze as an earthwork sculpture and titled Spirit of Our Youth, which appeared as a 26-foot-high, mammoth-sized Orca fin, was supported by the King County Arts Commission in 1996.

In 2001, he again collaborated with Northwest artists on the Pilchuck Totem Pole Project, where he was invited to cast a glass inclusion for a wooden totem pole at Pilchuck Glass School. Another artwork -- Soul Catcher -- was installed at the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Services on the UW campus.

Oliver loved to utilize a vibrant palette of color in his designs, whether these were serigraph prints, carved totem poles and cylinders, doors or panels of wood, or works in bronze and blown glass. This diversity helped him to develop an extensive record of public exhibition and representation in collections throughout the Pacific Northwest and internationally.

Busy as the artist often was with multiple projects at the same time, he valued his family life outside of the studio. In 1987, he remarried, tying the knot with Brigette Ellis, a Ketchikan native and owner of the Alaska Eagle Arts Gallery. Over the next 32 years, the couple had three children, son Owen and twins Isadora and Sampson. Oliver also had two children with his first wife Patty Oliver, son Brian and daughter Lisa. 

An Artist and a Teacher

During the 1990s, Oliver was an active artist on the West Coast and across the United States, from the Columbia Art Gallery at Hood River, Oregon, to Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. His record of invitation exhibitions illustrated his range as an artist, from Borne of Myth & Fire at the Stonington Gallery, Seattle (2006) to Collaborative Works in Glass: Native America at the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, Seattle (2003). In addition to over two dozen solo and group exhibitions, he was represented in invitational exhibitions several years in succession, including: Fusing Traditions, Transformations in Glass by Native American Artists (2002-2005); the Heard Museum Indian Market, Heard Museum Guild, in Phoenix, Arizona (2001-2006); the Indian Market, in Santa Fe, New Mexico (2001-2006); and Changing Hands II, at Museum of Arts and Design, New York, and Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico (2005-2006).

Oliver maintained lifelong ties to Ketchikan, Alaska. His artwork was represented through the Alaska Eagle Arts gallery in that city, and he also held a teaching post at the University of Alaska campus there. His summer months were often spent in Alaska. In 2003, he exhibited in Carving: A Cultural Heritage, with other exhibitions at The Anchorage Museum of History and Art (2002) and the Anchorage Art Museum (1998).

Oliver's unique blend of Northwest Native American styles throughout different media made him a sought-after artist for collectors, both public and private. Yet he was also generous with gifts of his work, with a tradition of offering a gift of a signed print to every graduating Native American student from the University of Washington. Tessa Campbell, chief curator for the Hibulb Cultural Center and Nature Preserve at the Tulalip Tribes, recalled that her mother, who majored in Native American Studies, was among those who received a print from Oliver over the years he taught at the University. In 2019, the UW honored the professor emeritus with one of its highest awards: the Charles E. Odegaard Award (49th annual), given for individuals whose "leadership in the community exemplifies the former UW's president's work on behalf of diversity" (Brodeur, p. A-10).

Oliver served the University of Washington community as an Associate Curator of Contemporary Native American Art at the Burke Museum and its Bill Holm Center, dedicated to the continuing study of Northwest Native Art.

Among the Oliver artworks held in permanent collections are Spirit Board (2005) at the Mary Bridge Children's Hospital in Tacoma; Glass Paddle (2002) offered to the Duwamish Tribe at the First Annual Duwamish Canoe Race; Spirit of the Future (2001) at the Portland Art Museum; Canoe (1994), a glass cast purchased by the Hasbro Company; Tetons (1996) in the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming; and Box of Daylight (1992) in the collection of the Toyota Corporation in Tokushima, Japan. The Stonington Gallery of Seattle represented him commercially for many years, presenting regular offerings of serigraphs, cast-bronze sculptures, and cast- and sandblasted-glass sculptures.

Among his contemporaries, Tony Johnson (b. ca. 1971), chairman of the Chinook Tribe and a former student of the artist, has described Oliver as "an amazing combination of a dreamer and a realist ... he is so much fun to be around and so inspiring because of his ability to dream so big. He can't help but compel you" (Sundermann). Sculptor Michael Jacobsen described how his experience with seeing Oliver's work firsthand inspired his own efforts to work in bronze as a medium: "I saw an exhibition of Native American work in which the artist, Marvin Oliver, did a beautiful, stylized sculpture of a killer whale. It had all the native symbolism on it, with strong curvilinear design elements. I was struck by the power of that singular image of the vertical killer whale fin" ("Artist Spotlight ..."). The artist's wife, Ellis, noted that his artistic achievements mirrored his values of both Native traditions and encouragement of diversity: "He was able to bridge all arts to create his own style" (Brodeur, p. A-10).

By his own account, Oliver summed up his lifelong pursuit as an artist as one inexorably tied to his identity: "My works are formulated by merging the spirit of past traditions with those of the present ... to create new horizons for the future" (Oliver biography).

Oliver died on July 17, 2019, at the age of 73.


Nicole Brodeur, "Renowned Native American artist Marvin Oliver, 73," The Seattle Times, July 18, 2019, pp. A-1, A-10; "Marvin E. Oliver Biography," MarvinOliver.com website accessed July 28, 2019 (http://www.marvinoliver.com/The Artist/Biography.html); David Kroman, "Local Native Leaders Want Pike Place Totem Poles Removed," September 27, 2018, Crosscut.com website accessed July 28, 2019 (https://crosscut.com/2018/09/local-native-leaders-want-pike-place-totem-poles-removed); Kelsey Moldenke, email to Fred Poyner IV, August 1, 2019, copy in possession of Fred Poyner IV, Issaquah, WA; "Taholah Village Relocation Master Plan Project / Generations Building," The Quinault Indian Tribe website accessed August 4, 2019 (http://www.quinaultindiannation.com/planning/generations.html); Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette F. Molin, The Extraordinary Book of Native American Lists (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2012); Marvin Oliver, Sister Orca's Mystical Journey, 2008, MarvinOliver.com website accessed August 4, 2019 (http://www.marvinoliver.com/images/news/Sister_Orca_Story.pdf); Tessa Campbell, email to Fred Poyner IV, July 31, 2019, in possession of Fred Poyner IV, Issaquah, WA; Hannelore Sundermann, "The Many Dimensions of Marvin Oliver," May 14, 2019, Columns -- The University of Washington Magazine website accessed August 4, 2019 (https://magazine.washington.edu/feature/the-many-dimensions-of-marvin-oliver/); Rebecca Blanchard and Nancy Davenport, ed., Contemporary Coast Salish Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005); Steven C. Brown, Native Visions -- Evolution in Northwest Coast Art from the Eighteenth through the Twentieth Century (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum and University of Washington Press, 1998); "Marvin Oliver," Stonington Gallery website accessed August 4, 2019 (https://stoningtongallery.com/artist/marvin-oliver/); "Marvin Oliver," undated, Tacoma Art Museum website accessed August 4, 2019 (https://www.tacomaartmuseum.org/voices/marvin-oliver/); "Artist Spotlight -- Michael Jacobsen," undated, NWSSA (Northwest Stone Sculptors Association) website accessed August 4, 2019 (http://www.nwssa.org/sculpture-northwest/artist-spotlight/625-artist-spotlight-michael-jacobsen); Tamara Childress, "Weekly Art Hit: 'Untitled Totem Pole' by James Bender and Marvin Oliver, 'Farmer's Pole' by James Bender and Victor Steinbrueck," Seattle.gov website accessed August 28, 2019 (https://artbeat.seattle.gov/2013/06/28/weekly-art-hit-untitled-totem-pole-by-james-bender-and-marvin-oliver-farmers-pole-by-james-bender-and-victor-steinbrueck). Note: This entry was corrected on June 3, 2023. 

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