Cultural Contributions

A big unveiling at Riverwalk Park

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

On a drizzly Saturday last April, a rapt audience sheltered under tents and umbrellas on Mount Vernon’s new Riverwalk Park, where at last, flood-defense measures have been put into place and the community can enjoy farmers markets and other gatherings. 

Attorney Joe Bowen was one of the speakers. He told how his ancestors met their relatives and friends from other tribes here—at that time the site of a massive logjam in the Skagit River. The visitors sang and beat drums in their canoes, the locals greeted them with songs and a great picnic. And when the white men arrived, the tribe welcomed them, too, saying, “Thank you for bringing your finest gifts—yourselves.“

The occasion was the unveiling of a new sculpture to honor the native people. “Valley of Our Spirits,” a 20-foot iron tower containing rocks from the river, is adorned with images of fish and animals in stainless steel and colored glass, with an eagle on top looking downtown. Funded by the Mount Vernon Arts Commission, it’s the work of sculptor Milo White, glass artist Lynn McJunkin, and artist Jay Bowen (Joe’s brother) of the Upper Skagit Tribe.

For the Skagit people, it was at last an invitation to contribute to the culture of the community. It’s a “working piece of medicine,” Bowen said. “If you’re having a bad day, come down and stand next to it and be healed.”

Not that tulips aren’t healing. In 2015, the first sculpture to sprout on the Riverwalk was a cheerful bunch of 14-foot-tall metal tulips, the work of David Feri and Jennifer Corio, donated by the Blackburn family.

Esther McLatchy, who was in the audience, was smiling. She’s also done tulips on the largest artwork in the valley—towering just to the north is the 90-foot high Carnation Milk steam stack (the actual painting accomplished by Jose Cardona). And she and Jose were also enlisted to decorate the remaining Carnation tower (150 feet!), in Monroe.

Walking downhill from the new totem pole, you’ll come to the Jasper Gates memorial at Gates and First streets. Tracy Powell carved Gates, the first white settler in Mount Vernon, out of a seven-ton block of granite. He’s shown with his grandson, carrying flowers from their garden. You can keep your Botero statues—Powell is more than his equal, as anyone who has marveled at his “Maiden of Deception Pass” on Rosario Beach will agree.

Now look through the trees and hanging flower baskets behind Jasper Gates at a new mural, designed by Benjamin Swatez and painted by him and “200” helpers in July a year ago, showing Mount Vernon as a “little melting pot.” All the elements of Skagit land and culture are thrown together—ancient forest, railway, bald eagle, wisteria, cows in green pastures, Dutch windmill, harbor seal, heron, spirit fish ascending a river, tulip fields with actual farm workers, Einstein, orcas, the famous Skagit logjam, plus John and Yoko selling strawberries. 

“All of us, every ethnicity, make humanity and make the world beautiful,” is Swatez’s mantra. He’s a kind of wandering saint who has given children and women suffering the trauma of poverty in 20 countries the opportunity to express themselves through art.

As you reach the Skagit Station to catch a train headed north or south, don’t overlook the stunning stained glass in the lobby. “Locomotion,” by Jack Archibald of Camano Island, is an abstract symphony of color and iridescence, evoking movement and “an expectancy of journeys.”  If you’re not too anxious about your own journey, you can even make out the image of a charging locomotive.

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