Seattle Now & Then: Marvin Oliver poles, 1984

THEN1: In March 1984, artist Marvin Oliver is interviewed by a local TV news crew near the traditional pole he designed. To view a 2018 interview with Oliver discussing his life and art, please visit pauldorpat.com. (Victor Steinbrueck)
NOW1: Minutes before construction workers detached it from a support structure, Marylin Oliver poses in front of her brother’s traditionally designed pole.

Published in The Seattle Times online on June 8, 2023
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on June 11, 2023

Downed totem poles in Market’s Steinbrueck Park will rise again
By Jean Sherrard

There’s a temporary gap in Seattle’s smile. If you’ve visited the Pike Place Market recently and strolled its northern limits, you may know that something’s missing.

On a blustery Sunday in April, two 50-foot-tall totem poles that stood in Victor Steinbrueck Park for nearly 40 years were painstakingly detached from their steel and concrete supports. The weather-battered sentinels were lowered by crane to waiting truck beds on the new Elliott Way and hauled into city storage for the duration of the now-shuttered park’s reconstruction.

The history of these colorful and beloved works of art begins with one man’s passion.

Architect, designer and preservationist Victor Steinbrueck (1911-1985), credited with saving Pike Place Market from the wrecking ball, sought a work of art to crown a small park just north of the Market, co-designed with Gasworks Park creator Richard Haag. The goal “was to honor the people who have come before,” says daughter Lisa Steinbrueck, “on land formerly occupied by Coast Salish people.”

Hoisted by a crane, the Farmer’s Market pole features male and female figures intended to memorialize the Pike Place Market’s farmer/producers.

In 1982, Steinbrueck commissioned Quinault artist Marvin Oliver (1946-2019) to produce two contrasting totem poles. Then in his mid-30s, Oliver was a University of Washington professor, acclaimed for his innovative application of traditional forms.

In two years, Oliver and carver James Bender completed both poles. The first, topped by back-to-back male and female figures, honored founders of the Market’s Farmer’s Market. The second, of traditional design, arranged figures, from bottom upward, of bear, orca, human and a raven clutching a Coast Salish spindle.

Mayor Charles Royer dedicates the installed poles in then-Market Park in 1984. (Victor Steinbrueck)
The same view just before the poles were removed. Elliott Way opened for traffic days later.

Their installation in 1984 was marked by the entire city. Mayor Charles Royer spoke to an appreciative crowd in then-Market Park, covered widely on TV and radio and by both daily newspapers. Following Steinbrueck’s death in 1985, the park was renamed for him.

By contrast, the poles’ recent removal was unheralded, leaving onlookers perplexed. “I grew up with them,” said one Market regular. “Aren’t they city landmarks?” (They aren’t.)

Steinbrueck family members kept vigil, with Oliver’s sister Marylin. She monitored progress throughout the day, ensuring that the poles never touched dirt (if they had, by tradition, destruction must follow). She has embraced a mission —  that her brother’s faded artwork “be restored by other Native artists and carvers.”

Side by side, the poles fill a 50-foot-long truck bed. A 40-year perch above the waterfront have left them needing restoration.

Shannon Glass, Seattle Parks senior project manager, says the poles likely will be reinstalled with fanfare when Victor Steinbrueck Park reopens.

For Marylin Oliver, this cannot come too soon. “History cannot be taken away,” she says. “It can be renewed.” A return of the poles, she says, will “bring healing to the city.”

WEB EXTRAS

Lots of extra photos with details of the poles’ removal. And for those interested in hearing more from artist Marvin Oliver, click through to the following video, recorded by Jean Sherrard at the Pike Place Market in 2018.

2 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Marvin Oliver poles, 1984”

  1. Salish Sea forever and thank gawd for Vic back in those days when we stood for things.

    Dean Jackson

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