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An historic bronze statue of Billy Frank Jr. is being sculpted to recognize the Nisqually tribal leader and fishing rights advocate. Two identical sculptures will be cast. One will travel to Washington D.C. to the National Statuary Hall and the other will welcome people entering our state capitol building in Olympia. Artist Haiying Wu from Issaquah is working on the larger-than-life project in a high-ceiling space in the Kenneth J Minneart Center at South Puget Sound Community College. The college is hosting this collaboration with the Nisqually Indian Tribe and the Washington State Arts Commission. (ArtsWA).

Billy Frank Jr. Statue is Historic

“Billy is someone to celebrate,” says Michael Wallenfels with ArtsWA. He was a civil rights figure whose life work included fighting to hold the United States Government accountable to promises made in treaties with Washington State tribes. The statue captures Billy in a moment of joy – he’s smiling – as he sits on his favorite bench alongside the river with a salmon nearby.  “I come to work every day. The man is smiling,” notes Wu.

Ultimately, the Boldt Decision of 1974 affirmed the right of Washington treaty tribes to take up to half of the harvestable salmon in western Washington and established the tribes as co-managers of the salmon resource. “He would bring people to the table who didn’t even want to be in the same room,” adds Debbie Preston, director of the Nisqually Tribe Communications and Media Services.

The Billy Frank Jr. National Statuary Hall Selection Committee included members of Frank’s family, tribal members, lawmakers and archivists. They selected Chinese American artist Haiying Wu from a pool of talented applicants. They were taken with a true feeling of Frank’s essence within the proposal.

Dressed in his typical jeans and cowboy boots, the statue also details his bolo tie and medicine bag around his neck. “Billy did not usually wear regalia,” explains Debbie. Over his knee is a tribal blanket, received after a life of service. The 11-foot statue includes a 2-foot base of stone – type to be determined – from Washington. Frank’s famous phrase, “Tell your story,” will be engraved into the base in both English and Lushootseed along with his name.

Artist Haiying Wu applies clay to the Styrofoam model of Billy Frank Jr. a Nisqually Tribe elder, civil rights activist and fishing rights advocate. The project is under construction at South Puget Sound Community College. Photo credit: Mary Ellen Psaltis

Chinese American Artist Haiying Wu

Artist Haiying Wu creates figurative sculptures for public spaces. He was born in China and attended the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Some of his works are in Chengdu, China. Since emigrating to the United States and earning his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Washington, he has created well-known memorials around the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the U.S. People may be familiar with the Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. There are other sculptures around the state: Salmon Gate at the Carson Elementary School in Puyallup, The Spirit of the Sky at Hockinson High School in Brush Prairie, Garden of Meditation at Western State Hospital in Lakewood, and Migration at Moses Lake High School in Moses Lake.

table with sculpting tools and pictures of Billy Frank Jr.
Photos are one tool used by artist Haiying Wu in the sculpting of Billy Frank Jr. Photo credit: Mary Ellen Psaltis

The new statue of Billy Frank Jr. will replace Marcus Whitman a missionary and doctor whose is commemorated by Whitman College in Walla Walla. Those involved with the Frank statue explain that it was always about putting Frank in and not so much about taking Whitman out. With changing legislation, states have opted to make changes. The Frank statue speaks to a contemporary Washington moving forward from the ways of the 19th century.

Wu is now working on the full-scale Styrofoam model that is being covered with clay and adding in every detail. He works from a small-scale model that he holds in his hand sometimes as he sculpts. Wu previously built a maquette, a half-scale statue that explores finer details. The maquette will be traveling around the state for those who won’t be able to see the actual model in Olympia.

Artist Haiying Wu has captured a smiling Billy Frank Jr. for an historic statue commissioned by the Washington State Arts Commission. The statue can be seen during viewing times at South Puget Sound Community College this summer while it is being completed. Photo courtesy: Nisqually Tribe

See the Billy Frank Jr. Statue up Close at South Puget Sound Community COllege

The project is well along its journey. Wu will complete the full-scale clay model late 2024. Then it will be cast in bronze twice in a Washington State foundry. The completed statue is scheduled to arrive in Washington D.C. in 2025.

It will be the first piece from Washington to hold the name of a Native American. It will also be the first piece created by a Chinese American artist. It’s an amazing project, and you can see it taking shape. The public is invited to come in to see the artist at work on Thursday and Fridays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at South Puget Sound Community College.

The maquette of the statue will be on tour through the state at various times. You can access more information at the ArtsWA website.

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