Pierre celebrates the Salish world in his paintings
PORTLAND, Ore. - The light from the overhead dining room fixture isn't
anything extra, but so far it's been enough. Bachelor and member of the
Lummi and Haida tribes, Bruce Pierre, is in his 40s and lives with his
sister and nieces. He used to fish Puget Sound for salmon and crab, and
halibut up in Alaska, but since the catches have been less certain and the
old purse seiner he and his brother used sank, he mainly works construction
- dry wall, heavy equipment, cement, whatever. Since 2002, though, when he
hasn't been trying to make a living, Pierre has turned to doing what he has
fallen in love with. Painting in a space cleared off at the kitchen table,
bringing the Salish world of North Coast Indians to life in his original
"I just see them all the time, envision them or I don't know, they just
come to me all the time," Pierre said. "Whatever I'm looking at, they come.
I can't put them down fast enough to keep from losing them." Losing his
ideas is not something those that have seen Pierre's work want him to do.
The first painting he ever did of a stylized salmon ran on the July 2004
cover of Indian Gaming magazine. Northwest Indian College also bought a
print of Pierre's healing circle painting of an eagle with two killer
whales for wings. The school used the design in an advertisement that it
ran in Native Peoples magazine.
Pierre did a "Native Vote Counts" healing circle design for the
presidential election as well. In addition to creating the image, he also
silk screened it onto hundreds of T-shirts that went out around the state.
The almost psychedelic world of Coast Salish art is mellowed by the watery
the Pacific, both its palette and the warm sweep of the Japanese current
that washes in off the ocean. So instead of the tropical hues and
intricate, almost hyperactive detail the Huitchol Indians of southern
Mexico work into their designs, Pierre dips his brush into an understated,
yet bold color-scheme of red, black, white, and dark, almost navy blues.
Letting the watery world of rolling waves in which he lives into his
imagination, he creates gentle, yet exacting patterns.
Pierre lives right on the water and grew up on Lummi with Coast Salish
designs all around. "Well I've always liked it ever since I was a kid and
wanted to do it. I always used to stare at them all the time because I
really liked the way they looked," he said. "There was this picture of a
whale on a mural painting on a wall up at our old gym. I was just always
amazed by it."
Kurt Russo, who has worked for the tribe since 1978 and currently serves in
the office of the tribal chairman, thinks Pierre has serious potential. "In
my capacity with the Lummi tribe, I helped worked on the 2004 election. One
of our challenges was how to get the young people involved," Russo said.
"Bruce came up with the idea of the T-shirts. It was more than an idea
really - it was a vision. He had this marvelous image for us to use, and he
put it all together on very short notice."
In Russo's capacity with the tribe, he is also working with the Northwest
Area Foundation to help alleviate poverty on the Lummi Reservation. The
philanthropic foundation was started in 1934 by Louis W. Hill, son of the
Great Northern Railway magnate, James J. Hill. In 2003 the foundation
granted awards totaling $6.8 million and ended with year with $367.6
million in assets.
"The Lummi Indian tribe has been very fortunate to be selected by the
Northwest Area Foundation to develop a poverty reduction plan, something we
are in the process to doing now. If our plan is accepted, then the Lummi
tribe is eligible to receive up to $1 million a year for up to three
years," explained Russo. "The Lummi were one of three tribes picked for
this opportunity, although I need to emphasize that in order for us to
receive even some of the support possible, our plan needs to be accepted by
"Obviously, we have met with a lot of people in the community in whole
tiers of meetings while putting together the NWAF plan. One in particular
that I attended was with the artists," Russo said. "I was struck, and I
think others were struck as well, by things Bruce had to say. He had great
charisma and the vibe we got was that he wasn't focused on himself as an
artist so much, but rather on the importance of art as a cultural
It's been over a century since the German philosopher Nietzsche penned his
thoughts on art and Europe is half way around the globe from the Pacific
Northwest. Still when Russo speaks about how Pierre speaks, some may recall
Nietzsche's thoughts. "Philosophy wants what art wants," wrote the renowned
philosopher, "to give life and action as much depth and meaning as
While Pierre didn't mention having read Nietzsche, to create the work he
does, he must feel the importance of philosophy. And why would he not, when
tribal ethos throughout Indian county has long focused on giving life and
action as much depth and meaning as possible.
"His Praying Wolf painting, for example, is so compelling, so radiant it's
almost three dimensional," said Russo. "I just could not stop looking at
it, it has such strength of character. They often say don't confuse the art
with the artist, but in Bruce's case, the artist and the art are one."
Bruce Pierre's recent paintings can be viewed and purchased at