Indigenous Artist Joe Seymour Honors Pacific Northwest Cultures and Ecosystems with Salmon at Views on Fifth

The four salmon on the Views at Fifth building are positioned to depict their seasonal journey upstream: The three at the top are making their way up the river, while the one at the bottom is circling and waiting its turn. Photo credit: Frank Hesketh

Olympia is rich with Indigenous history and beautiful natural sights. As life presses on, these core areas can sometimes be lost or forgotten. Local Indigenous artist Joe Seymour is deeply passionate about his Native heritage and the environment, and he has centered his art around the importance of maintaining culture and nature in our local area. His hope is that through his art, people will remember how precious the environment is and will take actions to protect it. This was the foundation of his piece for the new Views on Fifth building, which features four large metal salmon illuminated by colorful lights.

Joe has been a professional artist since 2006 and comes from a blended tribal background. He is Squaxin Island on his father’s side, and Pueblo Acoma, a tribe in New Mexico, on his mother’s side. Since childhood, Indigenous influences and art have been heavy in his life. The owners of the Views on Fifth, the Brogans, were looking for someone to create traditional Squaxin artwork for the building with the goal to honor Native cultures. Joe’s friend Susie knew the Brogans, and when she heard this, she knew Joe would be the perfect person for the job.

Joe had already done a few projects near Capitol Lake, and environmental issues were at the heart of his work. One project was a series of three utility boxes for Puget Sound Energy. “They contacted me about doing art wraps for the boxes, and they wanted to highlight sustainable energy,” Joe says. The first box focuses on solar energy, the second on wind turbines, and the third on habitat restoration. He also worked with the City of Olympia to create a large utility box that features a blue heron, with smaller boxes wrapped with reeds to complement the heron. Joe’s mission with these projects was to encourage the movement to restore Capitol Lake to a wetland. “We need to make the land habitable again for native species and animals to return,” Joe shares. “We need a more stable estuary.”

Joe has been a professional artist since 2006, but before that he worked as professional diver. It wasn’t until his time at The Evergreen State College that he realized his true calling was art. He has since been working on Indigenous pieces that express his Native heritage. Photo credit: Ajay Varma

When Joe began brainstorming for the Views on Fifth art, he knew he wanted to tie it into his other projects and into the estuary movement. He had developed some concepts of salmon during a study abroad he did in New Zealand through Longhouse Indigenous Arts Campus. He expanded the idea to depict four salmon swimming upstream as part of their seasonal ritual. “Many tribes in the area have a high honor for the salmon,” Joe says. “We always remember the sacrifice the salmon make and honor their environment so that they always have a home to return to.” This aligned with the vision the Brogans had for the piece, and after approval from an engineering team, Joe set to work on production.

Because of the size of the pieces, Joe had to find a place that was able to handle fabrication on a grand scale. He went to Pacific Sheet Metal & Fabrication in Seattle because they were able to take on large projects like this. “They don’t do a lot of art pieces, so they were over the moon to do this,” Joe shares. “They were such a professional company and working with them was amazing.”

After a series of meetings to get the dimensions right, the metal pieces were cut with a laser.  But they weren’t ready to go up just yet. The metal had to be prepped with powder coating, which seals it against corrosion. Joe took the pieces to Seattle Powder Coat to make sure they would be properly protected after being mounted. The company held onto the pieces while the LED lights were installed on the building, and once that was done, the metal salmon were ready to go up. Northwest Sign & Design put the pieces up in October 2020 on the front side of Views on Fifth, where they will continue to hang as a testament to the Indigenous cultures and environment of the Pacific Northwest.

Joe designed a great blue heron for a utility box for the City of Olympia, and has superimposed it over an old map of Olympia from 1890. The piece will be a statement about preserving current habitats and restoring Capital Lake to an estuary. Photo credit: Joseph Seymour

Now that this project is complete, Joe is hoping to return to his graduate degree in fine arts. In the meantime, he has a few personal projects in the works. “I found an old map of Olympia from 1890 at Sherburne Antiques & Fine Arts,” Joe says. Joe was drawn to the map because it showed Olympia before East Bay had been drudged out and before the downtown area had been filled in. He knew it would make a great statement for habitat restoration, so he is currently working on superimposing the blue heron from the utility box onto the image of the map.

He also came upon about 25 feet of maple, which he has cut up to carve into wooden bowls. He is fairly new at carving, but like many other art forms, he has found it to be very enjoyable and therapeutic. “When I chisel away at the wood, it turns aggression into creation,” Joe says. “I start thinking about who is going to have the bowl next and what they are going to put into it, and I think about what I can put into it that will bring them joy.” According to Joe, art is a very transformative process, and it has given him a way to express himself while promoting his values.

Joe’s art encompasses honoring local Native cultures and ecosystems all in one. It is through artists like Joe that progress happens because pieces like the salmon at Views on Fifth spark conversations that spark change. To see more of Joe’s amazing Coast Salish style art, check out the Joe Seymour art website and RedBubble page.

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