Still Alive, Not Petrified
By Michael Rios
In an era of rapid technological advancement, the art world is undergoing a profound transformation. Artists, once limited by traditional mediums, are now free to embrace modern tools and digital platforms to push the boundaries of their creative minds. Yet, there’s a new form of artistic mastery that creates modern-day masterpieces by using traditional tools that date back millennia.
Tulalip citizen James Madison is such a master. He embraces the challenge of adapting to an ever-evolving art market while being guided by his ancestors’ strength of culture and tradition to forge forward and demonstrate to the next generation of artists what’s possible — a mindset he inherited from his grandfather Frank Madison.
“I started learning how to carve at 5 years old,” shared the 49-year-old James, who is now widely regarded as a master of multiple art mediums.
“Some of my earliest carving memories are from when I’d be dropped off at my grandma Lois and grandpa Frank’s house every day during elementary. Basically, I’d receive my cultural teachings from them in the morning, before going to school at Whittier Elementary. Then continue the cultural teachings with them after school.”
James comes from an artistic family that spans multiple generations and includes both Tulalip and Tlingit forebearers who were deeply rooted in cultural traditions and storytelling. They used a variety of tools and elements that were at their disposal at the time to preserve their culture through art.
Today, as the world becomes increasingly interconnected and technology-driven, James and his Native American contemporaries are finding ways to evolve their craft by blending traditional techniques with new mediums. Welcome to the competitive art scene of 2023. Where true masters of the craft must push themselves to create exciting and innovative works of art to preserve their cultural heritage like generations of old.
“I always dreamt of being an artist like my grandpa and father before me,” admitted James.
“There was a Haida artist named Bill Reid, who I never actually met in person, but he had a profound impact on me through his books filled with Northwest coastal art and stunning sculptures that were 15- to 20-feet large. When I was young, his books were accessible to me, and I’d look through them constantly.”
As his portfolio grew, so too did his public commissions, to the point that his previous childlike visions of one day creating larger-than- life carvings and sculptures came to fruition. James has created stunning 10, 20 and even 25-foot installations that are visible all across Coast Salish territory. From his home reservation (at Tulalip Resort Casino, Hibulb and the Admin Building), to Mukilteo’s Lighthouse Park, Stanwood’s Kayak Point, Arlington’s Centennial Trail, and Everett’s Evergreen Arboretum.
Most recently, James held his first solo exhibition with Seattle’s iconic Stonington Gallery. His mastery of multiple mediums was on full display. His unique cultural expression filled the gallery space and gave onlookers a chance to explore complex themes while immersing themselves in awe-inspiring creations developed by a master at work.
‘We need to not just carve things out of the books, but look to create new things to show that we’re still evolving.
“I know it’ll sound kind of goofy, but I don’t look at myself as a Native artist. I look at myself as an artist,” reflected James. “My grandpa always told me, ‘We need to not just carve things out of the books, but look to create new things to show that we’re still evolving. We’re not petrified. We’re still alive.’ I’ve incorporated that mantra into my life by always striving to create something new. To show that we’re not petrified. We’re still alive and still evolving.”
Fittingly titled Still Alive, Not Petrified, his Stonington Gallery exhibition embodied what an artistic mind can achieve when experimenting with various techniques and cross-discipline collaboration, while still being steeped in traditional teachings that have been passed down since time immemorial.
“I’ve been so enthralled by not just the level of mastery James routinely exhibits, but the sheer diversity of his mediums as well. It was his carvings and public works that initially caught my eye,” explained Jewelia Rosenbaum, director of Stonington Gallery. “In my 24 years with Stonington, we’ve made it a mission to spearhead the connection between this region and Coast Salish art.”
“We are so honored to have featured a James Madison solo exhibition because he truly encapsulates contemporary Coast Salish art,” she added.
“From metal sculptures and glass woven panels, to intricately carved cedar masks and paddles, to even molded carbon fiber weaves that contrast beautifully with a carved cedar panel backdrop, he represents everything one might want when coming to the art form.”
As he continues to evolve his use of Coast Salish storytelling through new mediums and traditional tools, James is actively revitalizing the local art scene by injecting innovation, vibrancy, and relevance into the creative process. By leveraging technological advancements to preserve and showcase his culture, he’s also bridging the gap between generations and diverse backgrounds to create a collective understanding of what it means to be alive, not petrified.