Marvin Oliver was a legendary figure in the Pacific Northwest, as a master carver, sculptor and printmaker, and as the first Indigenous instructor at the University of Washington, where he taught for over 40 years and was a mentor to generations of students. Oliver passed away in 2019, but his legacy lives on in the Seahawks logo (he created the original), through his students and in displays around the nation and the world, including two art pieces at Yelm High School.

Professional artist David Franklin was a student of Oliver’s and a key member of the restoration team. Photo courtesy: Yelm Community Schools

On January 27, Yelm Community Schools (YCS) hosted members of the Nisqually Tribal Council and the Washington State Arts Commission (WSAC) to celebrate the restoration of “Big Bird,” a 16-foot-long, 8-foot high cedar carving of an eagle originally installed in 1979. The project was memorable, according to WSAC conservator Claire Dean. “Working for the commission is always a pleasure, but this one is really special,” she says. “Typically, as conservators, we do little intervention. This was a blend of conservation and restoration, and we figured out a way to meet the current standards of practice for conservation while honoring the desire to have it repainted.”

The project was set in motion when YHS student Carmen Houk sent a letter to former principal John Johnson calling attention to the poor condition of the carving, which had become weather-beaten over the years. “She noticed that it was deteriorating to the point where it was almost unrecognizable,” says Johnson. He contacted the WSAC to ask what it would cost the school district to refurbish it. The answer was, “Nothing.” “That’s what they do,” he explains.

That’s because “Big Bird” is part of the state art collection, a set of nearly 5,000 pieces located in Washington colleges, universities, state agencies and public schools. The state reserves .5% of construction costs from building new schools for public art. “It’s not a museum collection,” says Janae Huber, WSAC Collections Manager. “It’s out in the public in the spaces where we work and study and live and we feel that art makes our public spaces better.”

Conservators Claire Dean says the ‘Big Bird’ project was special, as it combined aspects of both conservation and restoration by legendary Pacific Northwest artist Marvin Oliver. Photo courtesy: Yelm Community Schools

Community representatives select the state art collection, which is how “Big Bird” came to YHS.

Huber credits Johnson and YCS for their commitment to seeing the project through. “Even with changing staff and leadership during a stressful pandemic, they’ve made it a priority to pause and celebrate this wonderful artwork and its restoration,” she says. “I’m so grateful for this partnership. We’re also thrilled and honored that the Nisqually nation is helping us to rededicate this artwork, creating a bridge from its past to its future.”  “Big Bird” now hangs directly over the main entrance to the school building, overlooking the cafeteria: indoors and protected from the elements.

To revive the carving, the conservation and restoration team worked closely with Oliver’s widow Brigette Ellis and with David Franklin, a professional artist who was also a student and studio assistant of Oliver’s. It’s appropriate that “Big Bird” is in a high school, he believes. “Marvin was a friend of mine, and he got more joy out of young people’s accomplishments,” says Franklin. “When you have a piece like this in your school, it represents a huge educational and cultural legacy.”

Nisqually Tribal Council member Antonette Squally attended the dedication ceremony and notes   that things have changed since she attended YHS. “There used to be a lot of differences of opinion,” she says. “Today we’re changing that relationship. We’re working on training districts to bring in the Lushootseed language, and developing a curriculum for speaking, reading and writing.” Squally has been a Lushootseed language teacher for 13 years.

Members of the Nisqually Tribal Council attended the dedication ceremony and said a blessing in the Lushootseed language to close the event. Photo courtesy: Yelm Community Schools

YCS has formed a close working relationship with the Nisqually Tribe over time, according to Superintendent Brian Wharton. At the newly built Yelm Middle School, a wall at the main entrance displays a traditional Nisqually story about the connection between the mountain, river, cedar tree and prairie grass, which is echoed throughout the building. “There are multiple areas where you can go and learn a bit of the language and more about those themes,” says Wharton.

When Southworth Elementary School opens in September 2022, it will include a large map of the Salish Sea and a canoe journey theme that flows through the building. “There will be destinations that you can find to learn more,” Wharton explains. “It combines both history and education but also sensory education.” The building will also include an autism center with a sensory room to help autistic students calm and center themselves.

Meanwhile, restored to its former glory, “Big Bird” will be looking out for YHS students. In Lushootseed, the name for eagle is yəx̌ʷəlaʔ (pronounced “yaholah”), says Squally. “That’s what we call our brother who watches over us, takes care of us and provides that safety net for everybody on their pathways.”

A recording of the “Big Bird Rededication” is available on the Yelm Community Schools website.


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