Shaun Peterson (Qwalsius) Artist Interview

Recently had the opportunity to speak with Shaun Peterson, a Native artist who has played an important role in the revival of Coast Salish Art Traditions. Here’s our conversation:

Hey Shaun, can you give me a quick background on how you became an artist?

In terms of artistic inspiration, I spent time with my grandfather who entertained me by sketching and I was always fascinated with how he drafted stuff. He was a hobbiest.

Even though I grew up in the native community around a lot of traditions and culture. I didn’t grow up doing Native art until after high school. I was doing more realism with graphite and that type of thing. Nothing too serious. After I graduated, I took up artist residency over at Chief Leschi School. I met a few artists and one of them introduced me to Steve Brown, a Native art curator at Seattle Art Museum. I started apprenticing under him. He does a lot of restoration–different sculptures, silversmithing and that type of work. So I learned about tools and technique, mainly toolmaking in the beginning.

I spent quite a bit of time over in Neah Bay, Washington learning Makah style work. And so throughout all that I was developing these skills–translating people’s different style and applying that to Coast Salish art. Our style hasn’t been done in a very long time, and there weren’t too many people I could really look to nearby.

When you say Coast Salish, you mean the Tribal Nation?

Yes, I’m from the Puyallup Tribe which is a part of the Coast Salish which encompases most of western Washington and parts of southern British Columbia and Vancouver.

Out of those groups there weren’t a whole lot of people doing this style of work. It wasn’t a big part of our culture before the 40s. Not to say we aren’t capable of doing that work, but culturally it was sort of taboo to make public figures outside of our ceremonial traditions. It changed dramatically in the 60s because so many artists from our [Salish Nation] tribes started adopting other styles. We completely started losing our cultural identity through the commercial market. I was really fortunate to be in that time when there was a reset. I was fortunate to meet the people that I did, largely art historians who are in that field of work. I started printmaking, painting, making drums, rattles, and things.

Can you explain the ‘reset’ a bit more?

The reset was a paradigm shift, where the elders saw the danger of our people losing our artistic and cultural knowledge because we had restrictions on what we could make for sale outside of ceremonial objects. As a result of not being able to express our culture, many artists took up and catered to the market place which largely sought Alaskan Native art pieces which are quite different than ours.

Tell me about your most recent public installation project?

Yeah that’s in Chehalis, Washington. That was a pretty big project. They got a group of elders together to tell their tribal history through five different stories. It all started with research, I was given different mythological stories, tapes, and written documents. I went through it over a couple months and developed the ideas going back and forth with the tribe elders, thinking about how to make the installation best represent their stories. The installation actually has an audio component too, you can press a button and a story will be retold in their language. It brought together a lot of art forms: carving, metal, LED lights, and audio.

Are public installations your favorite medium?

I didn’t used to like the 3D modeling idea and public installation, but I’ve become pretty versed in it. I use Google Sketchup and other programs to complete the projects.

I was overwhelmed when I was younger, but you grow into them with each project. Take all those experiences and build them up and they get bigger.

I read a few Native blogs (one of them being Beyond Buckskin) and its evident there is a transformation taking place in Native communities. From my “white boy” perspective (as some of my Native friends jokingly call me), it seems that there is a more urgent focus on cultural revitalization-language, art, fashion, cooking, etc. How do you see this cultural revitalization movement taking shape and where do you see it going?

I think [Native] people are helping to define our culture more and more. It’s definitely easier for us to broadcast our thoughts and artwork with today’s technologies. People like Matika (Wilbur) and I aren’t restricting ourselves with mediums we work in. The process of doing doing the 3D models have pushed me a lot further.

I had no interaction with computers back in 96 when I started. Up until 1999 I didn’t have a computer. I was apprenticing, I was forging steel and making my own tools and blacksmithing. When I’m hired to lecture, I tell people that this was my time in the mail-room. You learn to make your own stuff. My mentors were very hard on me because it made me better, and I’m glad they were.

Highlighting this cultural revitalization is one of my goals with NATIVE(X), have you seen the site recently?

I’ve seen it a little bit.

I’m looking for any constructive feedback you may have. From your perspective, how do you see the site?

Lets flip the interview around and why don’t you tell me a bit about why you started NATIVE(X) and where you plan to go.

Good question, and it’s one that comes up plenty. Right off the bat, I think some artists are sensitive to me not being of Native descent, and they want to know what I’m in it for. This is a completely valid question because at surface level it seems a bit random. Some people may think, why is this dude selling Native artist…Is he trying to commercialize our culture?

I grew up with my dad working at Pendleton Woolen Mill, where I became familiar with the Native aesthetic that Pendleton weaves into their blankets. I initially started playing with Pendleton’s Chief Joseph fabric making shorts and other apparel items, but even though they sold well and people loved the pattern, I didn’t feel like there was any connection to the Nez Perce tribe that inspired the Chief Joseph design. Something was missing. It took a while, but I eventually started working with Native artists because it felt right.

With Pendleton’s heritage working closely with tribes in the past and present (and also Pendleton’s complex relationship with Natives today)I’m excited to move forward with NATIVE(X) and make a difference. 

It’s all about helping expose the story that artists want to tell. That’s where my head is at. 

Well, I’m interested.

I know one of my missions is to let people know that we are changing with the world. We all have to. That doesn’t mean you have to abandon the culture. The culture is evolving.

The End

Take a look at Shaun’s website, you’ll like it: www.qwalsius.com

More work from Shaun:


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