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Native American artist Marvin Oliver remembered for his ‘wild imagination’

Marvin Oliver has died at the age of 73. The Seattle-based artist was world-renowned and drew on his Native American roots to create his pieces. Oliver had been battling pancreatic cancer.

He was a sculptor, printmaker, teacher and mentor during his decadeslong career. Blown-glass artist Preston Singletary, one of his mentees, says the loss of such a creative mind is a huge hit to the arts community. 

"I know that in talking with him over the past year or so, he had so many ideas and projects that he wanted to accomplish," Singletary said. "It's a real shame that he wasn't able to follow through on some of these things."

One of the projects Oliver was working on would have incorporated virtual reality. Singletary says Oliver envisioned an idea that would allow him to be in the same room with the people viewing his art and describe the work to them. 

Marvin Oliver poses with artwork, titled "Orca," that's on display at Tacoma Art Museum.
Credit Faith Brower / TAM
Marvin Oliver poses with artwork, titled "Orca," that's on display at Tacoma Art Museum.

Singletary is now a much-loved and lauded blown-glass artist. But when he was first starting out in the '80s, he would rely on Oliver's creativity and the little ways he would push him to come up with new designs and ideas. Singletary says that spoke to Oliver's ambitious thinking, which he always admired. 

"I loved his enthusiasm," he said. "He always had a wild imagination. Always wanting to try out new techniques in glass, and how could he get images into the glass. How could he push the material in different ways."

Oliver spent his life creating art and teaching others how to make their own. He was a professor emeritus at the University of Washington, where he also earned his Master of Fine Arts. University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce released a statement July 18, talking about the impact Oliver's loss will have on the school. 

"Here at the UW, where he earned his M.F.A. in 1973, he will be best remembered as an inspiring teacher who connected deeply with students," she wrote. "He loved introducing students to the discipline and technique of his craft while also encouraging them to discover and celebrate their own identity. Early in his tenure, he began a tradition of an annual dinner, now known as Raven’s Feast, to celebrate the accomplishments of American Indian and Alaska Native graduates. In the years since he founded it, Raven’s Feast has grown into a cornerstone of the UW Native community."

Cauce also mentioned she had the honor of giving Oliver the 2019 Charles E. Odegaard Award for his achievements and leadership in the art world. At the time, Oliver was quoted by UW's The Daily as he was giving advice to students

"Be a risk-taker," Oliver said. "You’ll make mistakes along the way. If I didn’t make mistakes, I wouldn’t be where I am. It compels you to do better."

Many of Oliver's pieces are installed locally, including a glass sculpture called "Orca" that's on permanent display at the Tacoma Art Museum. There's a pair of colorful glass orcas called "Mystical Journey" suspended in air at Seattle Children's Hospital, but Oliver's art can be seen as far away as Japan and Italy. 

Ariel first entered a public radio newsroom in 2004 while in school at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. It was love at first sight. After graduating from Bradley, she went on to earn a Master's degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield. Ariel has lived in Indiana, Ohio and Alaska reporting on everything from salmon spawning to policy issues concerning education. She's been a host, a manager and now rides shotgun with Kirsten Kendrick as the Morning Edition producer at KNKX.