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Qwalsius - Shaun Peterson: The Embodiment of Culture in Art

From the first time we met him, Shaun Peterson already knew what he wanted to create for the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum.  Laurie Tucker and I, co-curators for an exhibit telling about Vashon’s first people, came with a mutual friend, Holly Taylor, to visit Shaun in Fife and discuss the project we hoped to fund with a grant from 4Culture. Shaun, whose native name is Qwalsius, told us he wanted to create the figure of an octopus. Wonderful, I thought, he probably admires their intelligence and the female’s fine parenting instincts.

More than a year later, after receiving the grant, after engaging in numerous email, phone and live conversations with Shaun, and after finally picking up the sculpture a week ago, Laurie and I now realize that Shaun has higher priority reasons to choose the octopus. Called devilfish by old-timers who hunted it for food but also feared its toxic bite and powerful eight arms, the octopus has traditional associations for the Puyallup people that make it especially meaningful in connection with Vashon. Vashon’s first people, the sHebabS (Swiftwater People), are part of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.  Shaun once heard Puyallup elder Ramona Bennett say that the octopus reaches its arms from the old Puyallup village sites of Commencement Bay and Point Defiance toward the village sites in Quartermaster Harbor and Gig Harbor, and beyond them to touch many nations. In Shaun’s image, the arms curling inward represent pulling the people together. As he began the project he posted a message on his blog stating, “This concept to use that image is to ask our people to come back to this place where they are no longer strangers in their own home.”

For the Puyallup people, whose presence in this place has been traced back over 6,000 years by archaeologists, this land and all its attributes and critters are so deeply familiar that they are inseparable from the culture and identities of the people. The animals, plants, and even mountains, boulders and winds have personalities and volition. Long long ago, all of us were people together, before the Changer came and made some of us into wind and others into humans or salmon. The traditional native person, looking at a Pacific giant octopus, might see not only the flesh and blood cephalopod who lives along our shorelines, but also the connotations from many contacts with real and storied octopuses, perhaps as a brother from the days before Changer came, who has unique gifts and powers, and whose story is entwined with one’s family’s story through centuries of oral tradition.

Shaun Peterson received the native name Qwalsius in 2005. It had belonged to his great grandfather, Lawrence Williams, and carries with it a responsibility to honor his family, community, and ancestors. Now recognized as an expert on south Coast Salish design, he began carving and painting immediately following high school, mentored by Steve Brown, Greg Colfax (Makah), George David (Nuu-chah-nulth), and Loren White.  His works are in public collections worldwide, including Japan, China, Ireland, and Germany, and his largest piece is a 24-foot tall Welcome Figure erected in 2010 in Tollefson Plaza, Tacoma. He is an Artist-in-Residence for Tacoma Art Museum, a teacher of Culture and Arts at Chief Leschi School, a public speaker at universities and colleges, a member of the Bill Holm Center advisory board, and recipient of the 2013 Foundation of Art Award for Greater Tacoma Community Foundation.

Shaun has said, “As a Native American artist working in contemporary materials and methods, I’ve tried to educate the public that Native art has worked to define the traditions we try to adhere to today. The new methods are coming out of new necessity and much needed exploration.” Sometimes criticized for utilizing not only wood and natural materials in his art, but also glass, steel, aluminum, and other new materials, Shaun notes that his people have always been resourceful, and are bringing 21st century resources into the service of ancient cultural tradition.  His statement on the Stonington Gallery website sums it up: “I believe that the art itself has been most responsible for preserving our stories through intrigue and curiosity. Though I work in a variety of media I keep in mind that it’s not the media that drives the works themselves but the story or feeling it is supposed to carry to the observer.”

Come and see his stunning octopus made of yellow cedar, metal, and glass mounted on red cedar, displayed at the Vashon Heritage Museum as a highlight of the new exhibit, “Vashon Island’s Native People: Navigating Seas of Change.” Shaun Peterson himself plans to attend the opening on First Friday, January 6, 6 to 9pm.  Many thanks are due to the exhibit sponsors, 4Culture, Puget Sound Energy, Dig, Beth de Groen, Rick’s Diagnostic & Repair Service, Inc., The Hardware Store, John L. Scott Real Estate, Northwest School of Animal Massage, and Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association.