Oak Harbor artist lacks support for statue location

Oak Harbor artist Wayne Lewis puts some finishing touches on a bronze he is creating for downtown. Although he worked on the project for months he withdrew his proposal in the wake of tribal concerns.  - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor artist Wayne Lewis puts some finishing touches on a bronze he is creating for downtown. Although he worked on the project for months he withdrew his proposal in the wake of tribal concerns.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

An Oak Harbor artist who wants to donate a bronze for SE Pioneer Way has formally withdrawn his proposal.

At an Arts Commission meeting Nov. 14, Wayne Lewis voluntarily agreed to postpone his plans to see the three-foot tall figure installed on a pedestal at one of three proposed locations downtown. His decision was based largely on the recommendations of key city officials to put the piece elsewhere.

“My intention was to honor the first islanders but it seems the city thinks it’s too sensitive with the remains,” said Lewis, in an interview at his home Thursday, alluding to Native American bones found during the Pioneer Way construction project.

Lewis began work on the statue shortly after Native American remains were found on Pioneer Way this past June. He and Arts Commissioner Peggy Darst Townsdin had been talking for years about the need for art that would bring attention to the city’s early pioneers.

When the remains were unexpectedly unearthed it seemed the perfect opportunity to get started. However, Lewis’ sculpture, which depicts a man in a breechclout holding two salmon, has received a luke-warm reception.

It’s been criticized by some as historically inaccurate and others worry how it might be received  by Native Americans. City Administrator Paul Schmidt said installing the piece anywhere on Pioneer Way necessitates tribal input due to the proximity of the archaeological site.

Lewis says he has tried to reach Swinomish Indian Tribal Community officials, leaving phone messages, sending a letter, and with emails but has never received a response.

City officials are also unclear how the tribes feel and Schmidt agreed to follow up.

“I’ll ask what their intentions are but I won’t go any further than that,” said Schmidt, adding that he doesn’t want tribal leaders to feel pressured.

Thanks but no

When contacted by a Whidbey News-Times reporter, Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Tribal Senate, said Friday that he had not seen any letters or communication about Lewis or his piece.

He said he appreciated the gesture, saying Lewis appeared to be both sincere and heartfelt as the Oak Harbor artist is not only volunteering his time and expertise, but has agreed to fund the entire project. However, Cladoosby said he does not believe the Swinomish people would support the piece being installed near the ancient burial site.

“It would be like if we went to a cemetery where your ancestors are buried and set up a statue on their graves,” Cladoosby said.

But that doesn’t mean that an appropriate place can’t be found elsewhere in the city, he said.

He also clarified that his people wore clothing made of cedar and animal skin. They did not wear loincloths, he said.

Although Lewis originally wanted to put the bronze right in front of the archaeological site, he has since agreed on three alternate locations on Pioneer Way. They include two corners at the intersection of Hathaway Street and adjacent to Captured Moments photography studio near Dock Street.

No rush

He’s also agreed to fund the whole project. Initially he wanted the city to cover the $6,000 cost of casting the statue, but with the arts commission’s entire budget already tied up in three previously approved pieces for downtown, he agreed to pay for that, too.

He’s also willing to pick up the tab to build the concrete pedestal the figure would stand on. City planners estimate it could cost as much as $4,000 to build. Lewis plans to pay for the casting and pedestal with a fundraising effort.

At the time of the meeting, city officials still hadn’t spoken with the Swinomish about the project and recommended Lewis consider putting it elsewhere in the city. Lewis instead officially withdrew his proposal until a later date.

When told about Cladoosby’s comments,  Lewis said he had conducted his own research and found that Native American’s wore loincloths when fishing. While he wasn’t about to argue the matter with tribal officials, Lewis said he was not interested in covering the piece with clothing either.

Lewis also said he’s unwilling to have the piece go anywhere but Pioneer Way. It doesn’t have to be directly in front of the archaeological site, but it was created for downtown and he’s ready to wait it out until that vision can be fulfilled.

“There’s no big hurry,” Lewis said. “I mean I’m not getting paid at the end of the day.”


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