Sunday, July 22, 2018

Squaxin Artist Joe Seymour: “Nothing’s Permanent”

Above: Joe Seymour, Jr., Squaxin Island and Pueblo of Acoma, of Olympia, stands near the mural he and three other artists painted in 2012, commemorating the Canoe Journey to Squaxin Island. The mural in downtown Olympia was demolished this week to make room for a new, three story, mixed-used building. Seymour has been commissioned to create art for the new building.

Olympia Mural, Downtown Warehouse Building Demolished

Seymour to Work on New Art for The Laurana and Views on Fifth

By Janine Gates
Little Hollywood

Very little was salvaged.

Not the spectacular wooden trusses, not the metal window frames, not the beloved mural painted in commemoration of the 2012 Canoe Journey to Squaxin Island. 

The mural was created by Coast Salish artist Joseph Seymour, Jr., Squaxin Island and Pueblo of Acoma, Ira Coyne, Vince Ryland, and Kevin Bouton-Scott.

In front of a handful of witnesses, the mural in downtown Olympia was demolished on Tuesday. 

It was a brutal sight as the contractors’ machine took efficient bites out of the concrete upon which the Pacific Northwest sun, Olympic Mountain range, Salish Sea, indigenous canoes, paddlers, and a welcoming pole were featured.

In short order, the brightly colored mural with so much personality was gone.

Above: Artist Joe Seymour Jr. stands in front of the mural he helped create in commemoration of the 2012 Canoe Journey to Squaxin Island. 

Above: Passersby witnessed the mural’s destruction on Tuesday.

Built in 1941, the warehouse building adjacent to Percival Landing on State and Columbia Street was most recently home to Les Schwab Tires. In cooperation with the store’s management, the mural was painted on its outer, west facing wall.

After Les Schwab Tires moved to its new location on Plum Street, Walker John and one of his companies, Urban Olympia V LLC, bought the building. The project is represented by Thomas Architecture Studios.

In the past couple of weeks, the building’s demolition was accomplished to make room for a new, three story building with a restaurant and 44 market rate housing units: 10 studios, 28 1-bedroom, and six two-bedroom units.

The new development will be called The Laurana, after Laurana Ware Percival, the wife of Captain Samuel Wing Percival, who constructed the Percival Dock and Lumber Companies.

Construction is slated to begin in August with occupancy in late summer or fall of 2019.

Interview with Artist Joe Seymour

Little Hollywood contacted Seymour and met with him last weekend on Percival Landing. We talked about the Canoe Journey mural, his art, and future projects.

The conversation was bittersweet, and jumped between the emotions of past, present, and future.

The name Joe Seymour does not appear on the marker near the mural. What does appear is Seymour’s Squaxin Island ancestral name, Wahalatsu?. His family gave him the name of his Squaxin Island great grandfather, Wahalatsu?, William Bagley, in 2003. 

Seymour said his ancestors inspire him to create his art. 

Downtown Olympia sits on land ceded by the Medicine Creek Treaty tribes which include the Squaxin Island Tribe, Nisqually Tribe of Indians and the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.

A heavy trading area for different people, the waters and lands upon which we stood are the traditional territory of the Steh-Chass people, people of the Squaxin Island Tribe. 

Prior to the Carylon fill of 1911, the area between Percival dock and Columbia Street was the water’s edge. Piers were initially used to extend Water Street north of State, called 3rd Street at the time, to provide buildable area for more industrial activity.

Seymour had just come from Thomas Architecture Studios and held in his hand rolled up building drawings. 

He was excited to see the drawings because the building’s owner, Walker John, has commissioned him and local artist Ira Coyne to create two new pieces of artwork for the new building.

We opened the rolls.

The building will feature a plaza facing west, toward the water, and have a raised sill height of 16.5 feet which is six feet above the elevation required for sea level rise. Deployable Kevlar skirts will be used at building entrances.

The building’s west façade will be set back from the existing one by approximately 65 feet. The city requires a 30 foot setback from the shoreline and Laurana’s west façade is over 100 feet from the shoreline.

But Seymour was most interested in the wall space he and Coyne will have to work with to create their artwork.

“We’re not going to recreate this mural but do something that honors the Canoe Journey. We’re going to look at pictures of the actual landing that day and see what we find. We have two walls: one, facing west, toward the water, will be 15 feet high and 50 feet wide. The other, facing northeast on Columbia Street, will be about 30 feet wide and as high as 30 feet. Both Ira and I are really grateful that the developer is working with us.”

“Nothing is permanent,” Seymour added, looking at the mural wistfully.

His perspective comes not only from his indigenous heritage, but his upbringing. 

Seymour, born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, grew up in New Mexico and California. His dad was in the Marine Corps. He now lives in Olympia’s eastside neighborhood.  

A geoduck harvester and commercial diver, Seymour works with several artistic mediums, including wood, wool, etched glass, paint, and photography.

He started his artistic career by carving his first paddle for the 2003 Tribal Journey to Tulalip. Then he carved his first bentwood box. Then he learned how to stretch and make drums.

In 2005, after attending a life-changing artist-in-residency program at the Longhouse at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Seymour knew he wanted to devote his life to his art.

He has been a participating artist in several art shows facilitated through the Longhouse and the Washington State History Museum. The recipient of numerous grants, he has participated in several international gatherings of indigenous artists.

Seymours work can be seen at the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregon, the Squaxin Island Museum in Shelton, and the Hilo Art Museum in Hilo, Hawai’i.

The Canoe Journey Mural

Tribal Journeys began in 1989, intending to coincide with the centennial celebration for Washington State. Since 1993, Tribal Journeys or The Paddle have been held on an annual basis, with various tribes serving as the host tribe.

Seymour discussed the creation  of the mural to commemorate the 2012 Canoe Journey.

The project was commissioned by the Olympia Downtown Association. Ira and I submitted our designs and they were both really similar. We both had seven canoes on the water and we both had big sky, so they asked, Do you want to work together?

My first thought was, I don’t want to work with anybody,’ Seymour laughed. But then I saw the Rebecca Howard mural (painted by Coyne) and I was like, Holy shit, I wanna work with this guy.

A lot of my friends already knew Ira and they said, Yea, work with this guy. So, we got together, looked at our designs and within five minutes, said, Yea, let’s work together.  So, it was serendipitous. They gave us $3,000 and Benjamin Moore donated the paint.

Seymour was asked how he found out about the sale of the building and that the mural wouldn’t be saved.

We never really thought Les Schwab would move. We thought it would be here for, like, 20 to 25 years. Most downtown buildings stay where they are, but not anymore. I found out that the building was being sold when Ira called me about it. It turns out the developer was reaching out to the Squaxin Island Tribal Council, trying to figure out what to do. They called me about it and asked what would be the ideal. I said the ideal would be to preserve the whole wall or move it to the Tribe. But economically, that wasn’t feasible. I thought it could fall under historic preservation, but no….”

Pointing to one canoe named DZU-NIG-WUN-GIS, Seymour explained that the canoes featured are actual ones on the Journey.

“That is Chief Frank Nelson’s canoe, from Alert Bay, on Vancouver Island. He was one of the driving forces for the renewal of the Canoe Society. That’s one piece of wood. It’s heavy! He's passed on now,” said Seymour.

Pointing to a smaller canoe, Seymour said it was a traditional Squaxin dugout canoe.

Above: A close up of a traditional Squaxin dugout canoe.

Seymour said he painted the sun by freehand, using a yardstick and a couple of pencils to make a big compass.

He credited Kevin Boutin-Scott for painting the welcome pole. “It turned out amazing,” he said.

Future Plans for Views on Fifth

Seymour just graduated from The Evergreen State College and hopes Evergreen will receive the financing needed to begin a Masters in Fine Arts program so he can move forward with his education and later teach. For now, he is happy to create art.

He credits his faculty members, printmaker Lisa Sweet, and Alex Swiftwater McCartey, Makah, and their program, Studio Projects, for his exploration of printmaking with a Northwest Native art element.

“When working in the print studio, you’re working with Baltic birch for your blocks and because I have a carving background, that really came in handy,” he said.

The course explored dominant European-U.S. concepts and assumptions of art as well as the art of indigenous and ancient cultures, created to serve ritual and ceremony or to galvanize communities. Alternative forms and functions of art serve to act as change agents, questioning the status quo.

Above: The nine-story Views on Fifth under construction in downtown Olympia as seen from Rotary Park on West Bay Drive.

Turning south, Seymour looked toward the nine-story building under reconstruction as Views on Fifth and remarked that he is excited to be working with the building’s owner, Ken Brogan, to create massive Coast Salish art.

He envisions decorating the concrete towers with several salmon made of steel and welcoming poles made of wood.

Discussing the tortured history of the building and current efforts to stop its construction, Seymour says he thinks the new building will be beautiful.

“I don’t want to reveal too much, but I want to take the image of the welcoming pole figure from the mural and turn it into a 3-D sculpture. So, even though the mural is coming down, it will be recreated in a different form and then, maybe, in this new project, we can have something that celebrates regeneration and ties in with the Canoe Journey. I’m working with a carver who wants to teach me how to do it,” he said. 

The artwork, like the City of Olympia, will be created in stages.

Above: The mural is a featured landmark in the GPS game, Pokemon. Noses to their smartphones, several participants gathered at the mural for an impending raid. All in good fun, the game is played like Capture the Flag. One participant, Aryah Esposito, 20, of Olympia, wore a 2013 Paddle to Quinault t-shirt.