Marvin Oliver and his wife, Brigette Ellis share a special bond in art.
Especially Marvin’s art.
The gallery started out in 1986 and Brigette developed it specifically to feature Oliver’s spectacular art, which includes everything from artful note cards, jewelry, and exclusively designed Pendleton Mill blankets to magnificent sculptures. Oliver’s art is sold world-wide, but some of his best work is featured at the gallery.
Oliver is of Quinault and Isleta-Pueblo descent and is also an emeritus professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington-Seattle. He also holds a part-time position at the University of Alaska in Ketchikan.
It was Northwest Coast art that brought Brigette and Marvin together, and that bond has remained strong throughout their 30 years of marriage.
Brigette Ellis was majoring in anthropology of Northwest Indians at UW-Seattle when she met Oliver in one of his wood design classes.
“The way I always approached my students was to have them all take turns introducing themselves,” Oliver said. “It was a small class, and Brigette said she was from Ketchikan. I said I’m a commercial fisherman in Ketchikan, a purse seiner, and back in those days, ‘74 or ’75, I was going back and forth between Seattle and Ketchikan doing commercial fishing. But I was coming back to Ketchikan to fish again so I said, ‘let’s get together.
“We met again in Ketchikan and she saw my greeting cards she wanted to market them. Now she manages me and I wouldn’t be doing half the stuff I do without her. She always lets me know what needs to be done because I’m very disorganized. But we’ve enjoyed being married for 30 years. We spend all of our days together.”
Brigette’s roots in Ketchikan are deep. She is a member of the Ellis family which founded what has become Alaska Airlines.
Brigette may have been his muse for Northwest Indian art, but his inspiration for building canoes — another highly important aspect of Oliver’s work — came from his father, Emmitt Oliver. Emmitt Oliver, who lived to be a healthy 102 years old, taught Marvin the importance of water to his culture.
“He was always attracted to the water,” Marvin said, “We’d go fishing and he would paddle the canoe and he would share in the music and the culture. He knew what a canoe means and its value to families and the tribe. It’s not just a vessel. It’s more than that.”
But as important as canoe building is to Marvin Oliver, his art is just as vital.
He says his art merges the spirit of past traditions with the present “to create new horizons for the future.”
“The whole point is that we want to share our art with people so they can share it with others,” he said. “We’re sharing that spiritual experience with people all around the world.”
Oliver specializes in stationery and cards, which recreate his original serigraphs, all focusing on Northwest Coast art. The cards are printed and embossed on 100 percent rag paper. He also makes glass art that features kachinas as well as blankets and jewelry such as eagle and salmon egg earrings.
While his sculptures run anywhere in price from $10,000 to $100,000, visitors to the gallery will also note cards for about $3 to bronze, wood, glass and mixed media art, all with a Northwest influence.
But it isn’t only Alaska Eagle Arts that keeps Oliver engaged in his art. In addition to the gallery and his canoes, Oliver, one of the Northwest Coast’s best-known artists and sculptors, has been commissioned to build a Northwest Coast exhibit at the Brussels Zoo. The exhibit includes totem poles and a recreated village.
Oliver doesn’t teach in Seattle during the summer, allowing him and Brigette to spend time in Ketchikan, their favorite place.
“We’ve always been really fond of Ketchikan,” he said. “It’s a beautiful part of Alaska, and you get the same weather as in Seattle. That’s why we’re in Ketchikan. Because we have family there and because, well, we just love it.”
In spite of his heavy workload in teaching, sculpting and creating his art, Oliver doesn’t see his role as teacher, artist and sculptor a burden.
“I don’t think I’ve ever worked a day in my life,” Marvin said. “What I do with my art is my passion. Sharing it is where I get my motivation.”