Creating a Cultural Revival

Andy Wilbur-Peterson helps reclaim Coast Salish art.

When you cruise through McCann Plaza to the bus loop on the Olympia campus, a weathered, 12-foot-tall cedar statue of a drumming woman greets you at the entrance of Red Square. This towering "Welcoming Woman" was a gift made to the college 25 years ago by the Native American Studies program.

welcome figure salish carving

Andy Wilbur-Peterson's work adorns several places on Evergreen's Olympia campus, including outside the "House of Welcome" Longhouse Education and Cultural Center, where this figure stands sentry.

Andy Wilbur-Peterson '87, then a student in the program, helped create the figure, along with Greg Colfax, a Makah carver and visiting faculty member. A member of the Skokomish (or Twana) Nation, Wilbur-Peterson had dabbled in arts and crafts from childhood, making deerskin drums, beading, decorating ceremonial regalia, drawing and weaving baskets. Surrounded by a supportive community growing up, he was encouraged in his various artistic experiments by his relatives, many of whom had creative inclinations themselves. His parents, he says, "were tolerant of my mistakes." At 18, roused by an exhibit of Native Northwest Coast art he saw at the State Capital Museum, he tried his hand at carving traditional bentwood boxes.

But the Evergreen project, he said, "gave me a big jump start in my career." It also introduced him to the use of different carving tools, such as adzes, which he now makes for himself to create his artwork. More significantly, his involvement nudged him to recover his cultural inheritance, which was nearly wiped out in the 20th century.

Near the end of the century, Wilbur-Peterson, who was growing more renowned as an artist, again collaborated with Colfax at Evergreen, first on the male welcoming figure outside the Longhouse Education and Cultural Center, then on the female figure, and finally on the giant thunderbird hovering over its front doors.

Colfax, it turns out, had given Wilbur-Peterson some valuable advice that launched him on a journey of discovery, eventually earning him a reputation as a leader in his field. "Greg said, ‘Hey partner, you need to research Salish art,'" says Wilbur-Peterson. "I said, ‘What's Salish?' He told me, ‘That's your region.'"

Salish art originates from the Native peoples who live around the Salish Sea—the ancestral name of the major waterways of the Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia. Following European contact in the late 18th century, much traditional Salish culture was suppressed and lost; its art was overshadowed by the totems and masks and differing styles of the tribes from the more remote northern reaches of the Pacific Northwest Coast, such as the Makahs, Tlingits and Haidas.

Determined to educate himself about his heritage, Wilbur-Peterson became a man on a mission. "I started digging into archives, books, museums, anything I could get my hands on," he says. "It was a struggle, but I learned a lot." He traveled to British Columbia and the University of Washington, studied artifacts and copies of old art and talked to elders to find out more. His research yielded many hidden treasures that had been made by his Coast Salish ancestors (there are also Interior Salish people, who live further east), including his great-grandfather, Henry Allen, also a carver and a major cultural informant for an ethnographic study of his people in the 1940s.

salish cedar mask carving

Whether he creates with cedar, silver, glass or anything else, Wilbur-Peterson both reflects and reinterprets traditional Coast Salish art, which he has been instrumental in reviving.

He integrated the traditional designs he discovered into his own work, using them as a springboard to develop his own unique interpretations, and spearheaded a revival that has inspired other contemporary Coast Salish artists, including his three children—all daughters—who have followed in his path. His oldest, Andrea Wilbur-Sigo, is an award-winning carver; middle child Malynn Foster is a sculptor, weaver and jeweler; and his youngest, Bunni BlueBird, is a master basket maker.

Wilbur-Peterson and his wife Ruth, a fellow artist, live on the Skokomish land where he was born, along the Hood Canal. Eight years ago, they opened the Peterson Gallery there, and together they work on a wide range of creative ventures in their studio, from beautifully carved objects like steam-bent cedar boxes, masks and paddles to limited edition serigraph prints, silverwork and etched glass pieces. Over the course of their 36-year marriage, says Wilbur-Peterson, "We evolved into an artist-team—the only one I know of."

Drawing inspiration from his family and heritage, from Coast Salish traditions and stories, and from nature, Wilbur-Peterson is versatile and prolific. His work can be found in private collections around the world and he has completed numerous public commissions. He mentors emerging artists, works with designers, corporate clients, architects and museum curators and has been represented by several regional galleries, including The Legacy in Seattle.

Andy Wilbur-Peterson

Inside his home studio, Wilbur-Peterson's vision of preserving his people's art flourishes.

Wilbur-Peterson frequently donates his artwork to organizations needing to raise money, including the South Puget Intertribal Planning Agency, which provides a host of services to local tribes. He has taught carving, graphics and painting to people of all ages and has exhibited his artwork from the Seattle Art Museum to the Santa Fe Indian Market and beyond. "We just wrapped up a show in France," he says. In May, his work appeared in a show entitled, "Paddles: A Timeless Journey," at the Seattle-based Steinbrueck Native Gallery, and in July, a glass hat he crafted will be displayed in "The Head Adorned," a group exhibition dedicated to Pacific Northwest Coast headgear at the Stonington Gallery in Pioneer Square.

The secret of his success, he says, "is the willingness not to give up. So many times I wanted to throw my hands up in the air and quit and get a custodial job. I didn't care where just as long as someone would hire me. It's so difficult to come against criticism. Some days, you don't have any creativity inside, but you still have to get the work done. You draw and erase, draw and erase, and come up with a blank board…but you have to overlook the roadblocks and be polite, be a good businessperson, and be able to say, 'I'm not quitting, no matter what.'"

As both a creator and a guardian of Coast Salish art, Wilbur-Peterson seeks to pass on the legacy of his work and his people's traditions to future generations. He and Ruth are grandparents now ("Nine grandchildren and two on the way," he says) and he wants them to enjoy the fruits of his continuing work to preserve and revitalize his people's art. "I would like to continue to bring forth work that I haven't brought to the public eye," he says, "and see my grandchildren take an interest in carrying it on."