Natasha Brennan
McClatchy Northwest
nbrennan@mcclatchy.com

“There’s his hairline coming up. There’s his nose right there. There is his mouth right here. He’s smiling. His head’s kind of turned up a little bit that way and then his chin comes down,” said Charles W. Bloomfield as he discussed the deep blues and vibrant yellows in his piece “Night on the Salish Sea: Great Grandpa’s First Memory.”

Bloomfield, whose traditional name is PḰȺELWEȽTEN, is among the 22 Native American artists featured in the Washington State History Museum’s 16th annual exhibition “In the Spirit: Contemporary Native Arts” now on display through Aug. 29.

The Pyramid Lake Paiute, W̱SÁNEĆ (Saanich) and Lummi Nation artist has consulted with the museum as part of a Native advisory committee and has seen the exhibit and artists grow throughout his 14 years of participating in the show.

“I’ve seen the evolution from new artists who haven’t quite found their medium or style to now. Like there’s artist statements now and I think that really impacts the work for Native and non-Native audiences to better understand the artists, where they’re coming from and their unique cultural perspectives,” Bloomfield said.

The six-week-long exhibition is one of the largest and longest in the area, Bloomfield said, allowing for Native artists to be elevated in a prominent space.

“It’s really great for us to be able to offer space for contemporary Native artists because, especially 16 years ago, there really wasn’t a whole lot of that opportunity,” said Molly Wilmoth, lead program director at the museum. “Making that connection between contemporary Native work and history is important because I think a lot of people have the misconception that Indigenous people no longer exist. We want to show that Indigenous people are active members of our communities and are dynamic.”

The show highlights 37 pieces of art ranging from paintings, carvings, beadwork, basketry, digital art, multimedia and textiles work by artists from tribes all over the country.

“All art created by Native artists is Native art,” said Laura VerMeulen from the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska in her juror’s statement. “Personal aesthetic, cultural responsibility, wise teachers and family responsibility influence the works in this 2021 show. These are precious works of beauty, resilience, humor and generations of Indigenous pride.”

VerMeulen was part of the team that initially conceptualized the In the Spirit exhibition and accompanying arts market and festival as a celebration of the region’s diverse Native cultures. The exhibition began as a collaboration with The Longhouse Education and Cultural Center at Evergreen State College in Olympia.

“We want to be respectful of the fact that people from other tribes and other locations move to Washington state. We want to be inclusive of those folks that make Washington part of their story. And then also those individuals that move out of the state that still have connections to their tribe and ancestral lands,” Wilmoth said.

The museum puts out a call to Native artists to submit their work and a jury made up of Native artists and curators chooses the pieces. After the exhibition is installed, the jury decides and announces the Honoring the Ancestors, Honoring Innovation, Spirit of the Northwest and Best in Show awards. Artists are compensated for being a part of the exhibition and awards come with a cash prize. The awards were announced on opening day July 15.

Some of the pieces are more traditionally inspired with a modern twist, while others are commentaries on recent social issues like the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Black Lives Matter movements.

“Native culture is a living, evolving, breathing culture. It’s not something that’s just in the past. These artists are really doing innovative things by combining the influences of generations from their cultures with the influences of other contemporary artists and contemporary issues in the world today,” said the museum’s Marketing and Communications Director Julianna Verboort.

Last year, the exhibition and arts market went virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns. The team focused on bringing aspects to the virtual exhibition that it was unable to do before. Some artists discussed their work and creative process while in their studios, giving the audience an intimate look behind the scenes.This year, though the exhibition, arts market and festival will take place in-person, the event will be accompanied by an online arts market and virtual programming.

If you go

The free indoor/outdoor festival will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 7 in the Tacoma Museum District in collaboration with the Tacoma Art Museum and Museum of Glass. The event will include an artist vendor market, cultural music and dance, art-making opportunities and free access to museum exhibitions. For more information about the exhibit visit InTheSpiritArts.org.

The museum will host another Native art exhibition, “As Grandmother Taught: Women, Tradition, and Plateau Art,” celebrating the work of three contemporary Columbia River Plateau women alongside historic objects and images on loan from the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane, Wash. The exhibition will be open July 23, through Nov. 28.

The Washington State History Museum is located at 1911 Pacific Ave. in Tacoma and is now allowing 100 percent visitor capacity. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free for members and children 5 and under; adults $14; seniors (age 65-plus), students (age 6-17) and military (with ID) $11. For more information about the museum and admission, visit washingtonhistory.org.

Natasha Brennan covers Indigenous Affairs for Northwest McClatchy Newspapers. She’s a member of the Report for America corps.