Tulalip artist creates totem for Tribes Cultural Museum

From left, apprentice Mitch Matta and artist James Madison work on a totem of an elder woman gathering clams, which will be sited at the Tulalip Tribes Cultural Museum. - Kirk Boxleitner
From left, apprentice Mitch Matta and artist James Madison work on a totem of an elder woman gathering clams, which will be sited at the Tulalip Tribes Cultural Museum.
— image credit: Kirk Boxleitner

MARYSVILLE — James Madison perched at the top of a portable set of stairs as he painted the totem.

Madison and his apprentice, Mitch Matta, have been working on the nine-foot tall wooden totem for the Tulalip Tribes Cultural Museum for close to half a year, and they're proud of the painstaking efforts they've made to represent their culture.

Matta has apprenticed under Madison for more than a year, working primarily with wood. A man of few words, Matta describes his current job as "the most fun I've had so far." As for Madison, he began woodworking at the age of 8, and has since worked in media as varied as sculptures, fabric, metal, bronze-casting, and both casting and blowing glass. Now 35, Madison estimated that he's been working an average of eight hours a day on the totem, his current project, although he noted that some of those days have stretched to 12 and 14 hours.

"We've been puttering along, making sure it looks really special," Madison said, as he continued working. "The museum property is near clam beds, and my ancestors dug up clams, so I thought it would be fitting for our area to have the totem be an elder woman gathering up clams."

The elder woman is wearing tribal regalia, complete with dress and scarf, and is carrying a clam basket.

"We're trying to keep it correct," Madison said, pointing to the design of the basket and the pattern of wolves and arrowheads at the hem of the woman's dress. "Those are a reference to the story of the five wolves. I could explain it to you, but it would fill up a whole issue of your newspaper by itself," he laughed.

As Matta worked on the wood near the base of the totem, Madison painted butterflies on the woman's scarf. Madison estimated that they have "a couple of weeks left" on the totem, which he hopes will serve as a welcoming figure for the museum. The completion of this project will not necessarily mean much rest for Madison, though, since he's contributing a number of other art pieces to the museum, for which he's also designed the glass work.

"I'm always doing a lot of things at once," Madison said. "I try not to think about it, because once you start to think about how much work you have, it slows you down. I don't miss deadlines, though. I'm very proud of that."

Madison thanked the Tulalip Tribes and the community as a whole for supporting such efforts to "keep our culture alive, the best we can," and he looks forward to seeing his pieces in the museum, since his schedule is so hectic that he often can't take the time to appreciate his own artwork. He also thanked his family for understanding his long hours on the job.

"It's hard when Daddy doesn't come home until late," Madison said. "I'm working to make our family proud of its culture, that will be passed on to them. I miss my wife and kids, and I love and appreciate them for their support. There's not a lot else to say."

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