Introducing American Art: The Stories We Carry at SAM

This week, SAM will enthusiastically reopen its American art galleries, revealing new perspectives on our collection, commissioned work from celebrated Northwest artists, and paintings restored by our conservation team. But the purpose of this update is much more significant than simply presenting a new array of must-see art.

This project, funded primarily by the Mellon Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art, has been an energizing, collaborative, and thoughtful exploration of what American art is today. To execute this examination, we assembled a paid advisory circle of 11 community leaders and artists to provide valuable feedback as we reinterpret our collection to meet the present moment and acknowledge the evolving definition of American art.

“With inclusivity as one of our values, we felt the urgency to take the collection and hold it accountable to that mission,” says Theresa Papanikolas, SAM’s Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art.

The new galleries, titled American Art: The Stories We Carry, will present the collection thematically and across time periods and feature works by nationally renowned local and national artists long overdue for closer examination within the American context. This includes moving objects from SAM’s Native American art collection into the American art galleries—previously dominated by the work of white artists—for the first time.

“We acknowledge that we must change all aspects of our practice as an institution of privilege and one that cares for the belongings of others,” says Barbara Brotherton, SAM’s Curator of Native American Art.

Also on view will be newly commissioned works by Native artists Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke) and Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Unangax̂), a themed gallery curated by Seattle artist Inye Wokoma, and a dedicated gallery for rotating series of temporary installations exploring fresh perspectives on American art. The first of these installations will feature 15 prints from Jacob Lawrence’s series The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Visit American Art: The Stories We Carry at SAM’s downtown location beginning October 20 and experience a more thorough representation of the past, present, and future of American art.

– Kat Bryant Flaherty, SAM Director of Marketing & Communications

This article first appeared in the July through September 2022 article of SAM Magazine and has been edited for our online readers. Become a SAM member today to receive our quarterly magazine delivered directly to your mailbox and other exclusive member perks.

Image: L. Fried.

Our Blue Planet: Five Quick Questions with Claude Zervas

Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water documents the stories and histories of water in our world. Pulling exclusively from local loans and works in SAM’s permanent collection, the expansive exhibition features paintings, sculptures, textiles, and multimedia works by over 70 artists from around the world. Over the next 10 weeks, we’ll be talking with some of the contemporary artists involved with the exhibition about their artwork and the importance of water in their lives.

Born in 1963, Claude Zervas is best known for his light and video installations focusing on the topography and topology of the Pacific Northwest. In the 1980s, Claude attended Western Washington University to pursue a degree in geology and moved to Paris, France following his graduation. Although he spent many years working as a software engineer, Claude eventually decided to return to Washington and fully commit to his art practice and art production. Discover the story behind Claude’s 2005 sculpture, Nooksack, now on view in Our Blue Planet at SAM below.

1. What is your name and where are you currently based?

My name is Claude Zervas and I am based just outside of Bellingham, Washington.

2. What is the title of your artwork and how does it fit in with the themes explored in Our Blue Planet?

The title of my work is Nooksack. It’s a part of SAM’s permanent collection and has previously been on view in a couple of exhibitions at the museum. When piecing Our Blue Planet together, I think the curators thought to include my work because of its connection to one of our local waters. After deciding to include my work, I worked a bit with SAM’s conservation team to give the sculpture new life. We had to replace all of the lamps which proved difficult because the tiny little fluorescent bulbs I used are now, more or less, obsolete technology. Back in the day, they were used in scanners and back light for video displays but they’re not used so much anymore and are getting harder to find. But, I really like the delicate and thin light that they put out—nothing else really puts out that kind of light.

3. What thoughts, ideas, and/or perspectives do you want visitors to take away from your artwork in Our Blue Planet?

Nooksack stems from this really personal relationship to the Nooksack River that I had as a kid growing up near the water. And for some reason, as an adult, I still feel a kinship to it. I’m not totally sure why, but it’s a beautiful river. And this piece is an ode to the river based on my memory of it and acts as a sort of ‘thank you’ to it. In seeing my work, I want visitors to consider the bodies of water which exist around us and thank them for all that they do for us.

4. What other artworks in the exhibition stood out to you?

All of the works in this exhibition are incredible, but what really stood out to me was a quote I saw on the floor of the exhibition by Abby Yates. I don’t know why her words so deeply affected me, but they did. Just to see a voice representing the Nooksack people and the river I care about so much was a beautiful experience.

5. How do art and activism intersect? Why do you think it’s important for museums like SAM to curate exhibitions around environmental and societal issues such as water?

I’m not much of an activist but I think we can all agree on the importance of water on Earth. It’s hard to overstate considering we’re 90% water and without it we’d all be dead. It’s essential for us to continuously investigate and discuss the role it plays in our lives. Overall, I’m just pleased SAM thought it important to publicly acknowledge and highlight the various ways water impacts all of our lives—and I’m honored they decided to include my work in the exhibition.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Images: L. Fried & Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Sea Bear

At first glance, this might look like a typical trophy head found in a mountain lodge, but Sherry Markovitz has turned the conventional idea of a hunting trophy on its head in the creation of Sea Bear.

“I am after beauty, with an edge of uncertainty, vulnerability, and power,” she says of her artistic process. “I use animal metaphors to explore issues of intimacy, closeness, and separation.”1 Sea Bear’s tranquil and inquisitive stare is a powerful celebration of peace and gentleness, highlighting a species historically honored as a dynamic part of a balanced ecosystem.

As the subject matter of countless forms of creative expression, polar bears may have appeared in art as early as 17,000 years ago in the Paleolithic cave of Ekain in the Basque Country of Northern Spain. Below, two outlines resembling an adult and juvenile can be seen on the ceiling. Their elongated bodies look remarkably like polar bears. Perhaps they drifted south with pack ice off the coast of England during the icier years rounding out the Pleistocene.2 What we can be sure of is that they’ve been depicted in art and lore ever since.

Among the shared spiritual beliefs of the Inuit, polar bears are a living representation of resilience and determination, imbued with souls and regarded as brothers in a time when we did not take pre-eminence over other animals. Nanook, an almost man-like master of bears decided if hunters deserved success in their endeavors or punishment for violating taboos.3

This bear, crafted of wood, beads, shells, fabric, paint, and papier-mâché, is the culmination of intertwined memories and experiences the artist had with nature and her loved ones.

“Emotionally, Sea Bear is circular, all the stuff on it is traceable to significant walks. Walks with my mother in Florida, walks in Port Townsend with Peter (during which time her son Jake was conceived), walks alone to find the ‘root’ pieces at Discovery Park. Walking on the beach is such a drifting and wonderful activity.”4

From a distance, Sea Bear offers up the impression of a familiar creature. Its intricate and subtle beadwork appears at first to be deceptively monochromatic. A step closer, however, reveals an otherworldly figure clad in the ocean’s bounty emerges. The beads are revealed to be six or seven shades of color, like gentle eddies of ermine pebbles undulating over sand. The eye is drawn towards the shadows cast by exhibition lighting on the bear’s outstretched neck and jaw, flowing into the sinuous curves of its pelagic collar.

“I see the ‘collar’ as directional—the wood shape and the bear shape working in tandem was the key (formally) on this one. I think the large pearls pulled the shape back to the bear. It’s funny, as I get further away from a piece, it is, in fact, the abstract concerns that remain the most visible to me.”5

Seattle is treasured for the water which surrounds it. From Lake Washington, fed by so many vital creeks and rivers, to the misty solitude of salt-scoured beaches along the Olympic Peninsula. Water inexorably affects our physical and cultural landscapes, it sustains and determines our way of life, and shapes our histories slowly over time like glaciers carving mountains.  Sea Bear is an opportunity to reconnect to this life-giving force, to step outside of our immediate reality and transport us to the shores of our minds choosing where we can know the peace of our own walk along the water’s edge.

See this work on view now in Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water at our downtown location through May 30.

– Danelle Jay, SAM Curatorial Division Coordinator

1 Sherry Markovitz, quoted in 50 Northwest Artists: A critical  Selection of Painters and Sculptors Working in the Pacific Northwest, ed. Bruce Geunther, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1983, pages 80–81.

2 Digitized interior of Ekain, courtesy of the Society of Sciences Aranzadi.

3 C.R. Harrington, The Evolution of Arctic Marine Mammals, ed. A. Berta, Ecological Applications, Volume 18, Issue sp2, 2008, pages S23–S40.

4 Sherry Markovitz, Channel 7 News, Linda Farris Gallery, Seattle, 1992.

5 Sherry Markovitz, letter to Vicki Halper, August 14, 1991.

Image: Sea Bear, 1990, Sherry Markovitz, wood, beads, shells, fabric, paint, papier mâché, 25 x 17 x 29 in., Gift of Terry Hunziker, 90.3, © Sherry Markovitz.

Object of the Week: Yakima River at Thorp, WA, January 17, 1980

Unlike summer, with its durational heat and drought, winter in the Pacific Northwest brings with it water—and lots of it. We’re only two weeks into 2022 and we’ve seen over six inches of rain already, thanks to a deluge of atmospheric rivers.1

With water as its subject, this photograph by Johsel Namkung (1919–2013)—taken almost exactly 42 years ago on January 17, 1980—focuses on the swirling, glistening eddies of the Yakima River. One can feel the temperature of the waters—once snowmelt—merely by looking at the image. Rocks and sediment visible through the river’s crystal-clear waters are in rhythmic balance with translucent currents of refracted light and bubbles.

With a background in classical music, studying at the Tokyo Conservatory of Music and later the University of Washington School of Music, Namkung possessed a penchant for visual composition as well. However, his studies of nature are more than mere documentation, they express “the impression of sound, music, emotion or philosophy.”2 In a 1989 interview he described his attraction to the “beauty in the lowly humble clumps of, or groups of plants, and weeds, and things like that. I think that is the essence or a component of a great nature.”3

Namkung’s work will be on view in the upcoming special exhibition, Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water, opening March 18 at our downtown location. Showcasing a diverse range of artists and practices, the exhibition examines water’s pleasures and perils, as well as its changing role in our lives.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


1 Seattle Weather Blog, “2022 Rainfall,” https://www.seattleweatherblog.com/rain-stats/rainfall-2022/.

2 Delores Tarzan Ament, “Namkung, Johsel (1919-2013),” HistoryLink.org, March 3, 2003, https://www.historylink.org/File/5346.

3 Archives of American Art, “Oral history interview with Johsel Namkung, 1989 Oct. 5-1991 Feb. 25,” https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-johsel-namkung-12201#transcript.

Image: Yakima River at Thorp, WA, January 17, 1980, 1980, Johsel Namkung, Chromogenic digital laser print, 40 × 50 in., Gift of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2006.114 © Johsel Namkung.

Object of the Week: Blanket Stories

Every blanket tells a story. From their weaving structure, hems, threads, and wear, one can uncover the many unspoken stories of both the blanket and its owners, past and present.

Marie Watt is an Indigenous artist from the Seneca Nation whose practice deliberates the intricacies of history, community, and storytelling. For Blanket Stories: Three Sisters, Four Pelts, Sky Woman, Cousin Rose, and All My Relations, Watt collected blankets through an open call to the public, with some blankets coming from donations from her community. Some of the blankets have visible tags that state the owner’s name and story. These blankets hold the memories and stories of those who donated them, while simultaneously sharing personal connections, community history, and Iroquois creation stories. In the words of the artist:

“As I fold and stack blankets, they begin to form columns that, to me, hold many references: linen closets, architectural braces, memorials (e.g. the Trajan Column), sculpture (e.g. Brancusi), the great totem poles of the Northwest, and the giant conifers among which I grew up. In Native communities, blankets are given away to honor people for witnessing important life events, births, and comings-of-age, graduations and marriages, namings, and honorings. Among Native people it is as much of a privilege to give a blanket away as to receive one.”

– Marie Watt

Raised by her Seneca mother in the Pacific Northwest, Watt was taught the importance of the continuation and celebration of Indigenous culture. In Blanket Stories, she credits the Iroquois story of The Three Sisters, as one of the many sources of inspiration for this piece. The Three Sisters discusses the themes of home, community, and sharing. The three sisters, Corn, Beans, and Squash, spent their days in a field when, one day, they were visited by a young native boy. Curious about the boy, the sisters followed him home, one after the other. Discovering the warmth and comfort of the boy’s home—and because it was getting colder by the day—the sisters decided to stay and keep the dinner pot full for the boy and his family. The stack of blankets represents how the sisters rely on each other throughout the season to feed our people, highlighting the importance of food, family, and oral history within Indigenous heritage.

Living and working in the Northwest, Watt has stacked blankets so that they rise from floor to ceiling, reminiscent of the totems, or welcome figures, seen in this area of the United States. By visually and thematically connecting two vibrant Indigenous cultures from opposite coasts, Watt welcomes viewers and tells of how we are all connected through the stories that we share. Indigenous people look to the past for guidance from our ancestors, while also thinking towards future generations. These blanket stacks illustrate the histories that they hold, while also demonstrating the comfort and security that they have left to offer.

Every blanket has a story. What is yours?

– Kari Karsten, Emerging Museum Professional Curatorial Intern

Image: Blanket Stories: Three Sisters, Four Pelts, Sky Woman, Cousin Rose, and All My Relations, 2007, Marie Watt, Wool blankets, satin binding, with salvaged industrial yellow cedar timber base, 150 x 40 x 40 in., General Acquisition Fund, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.41 © Marie Watt.

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